Imagine your house, your family, and all of your possessions. Then, in one instant, imagine watching it all tumble down, dominoes one after another, until there’s nothing left but a broken unrecognizable space. Everything you have ever known wiped away by an inexplicable, unforeseeable disaster. Now, imagine navigating the streets of busy New York City trying to get to your construction job, one that barely pays the rent. As you cross the street, a distracted driver fails to look up from their phone and in one second takes away your job, your income, your home in one disabling second. Now imagine being wrongly labeled, suppressed, and discouraged by sickeningly generalizing stereotypes barricading you from building back your life. These worldwide phenomenons of loss and suppression lead back to a set of one hundred million people and one term: the homeless. On any given day, you can find a news article blaming homeless people for drug related problems. Just recently, there was an article blaming the homeless for dirty HIV needles in Santa Monica. Consequently, the media creates and propels illogical sweeping generalizations that the homeless are drug addicted slobs. Influenced by the media, employers and landlords begin to discriminate against the homeless as they do not trust nor want “irresponsible drug addicts” working for them or living in their apartments. As stereotypes propagate through different media channels, the “conventional wisdom” held that homeless people are lazy, drug addicts creates a erroneous worldwide perception perpetuating homelessness.
Out of false conclusions comes the debilitating stereotype that homeless people are lazy. According to a study conducted by Megan Corning, a graduate student of psychology at the University of Connecticut, Boston homeless reported being able to sleep an average of 6.3 hours a night with a minimum of 3.5 hours a night (10). Finding a good night’s sleep for many homeless individuals is a privilege they must live without. As night falls, homeless people must choose between a paranoia-filled public outdoor space, or a bed bug infested shelter. If the homeless choose the former, they risk their safety with the high vulnerability of sleeping in a public space, hypothermia, and being arrested: “out of 234 American cities, 40 percent make it illegal to sleep in public spaces” (“Homeless Persons’ Access”). However, if they choose the latter, according to a study by Dr. Stephen Hwang, approximately thirty percent of homeless shelters reported bed bug infestations. In addition, according to Kevin Barbarieux, a man who alternated between transitional housing and homelessness, in the shelters, “you will be in a room with [up to] 150 other homeless people… talking, laughing or yelling, getting into fights… the mentally ill will be trying to wind down from their constant hallucinations… You’ll be awakened, sometimes rudely, at 5 a.m. at most shelters” (Olsen). With the incessant noise, bed bugs, and few hours of sleep allotted, the people in the shelter cannot achieve the sleep they need to survive. Therefore, the homeless begin to sleep in public places during the day to make up for the lost nights. Those who see the homeless sleeping falsely conclude that the homeless are lazy people who spend their day in a luxurious, unnecessary sleep. Ergo, the perception found from seeing homeless people sleeping during the day has translated into the belief that homeless people have a poor work ethic.
Another stereotype detrimentally generalizing all homeless is the incorrect assumption that the homeless are drug addicts. In recent news, according to Theresa Walker, a staff writer at the Orange County Register, 14,000 HIV needles were found near the river of a homeless encampment in Santa Ana. With these incidents, society points its finger at the homeless encampments prompting people to believe that the homeless are regular drug abusers, which is only partially true. According to the National Coalition for The Homeless, 38% of the homeless in America regularly abuse alcohol and 26% are addicted to drugs (1). Although there are drug users among the homeless population, more than half do not abuse drugs. In America alone, there are a variety of reasons, unrelated to drugs, why people are homeless.
Many of America’s homeless, misunderstood due to harsh stereotypes filled with drugs and laziness, owe their living situation to forces outside of their control such as their mental health. According to Dr. E. Fuller Torrey, a research psychiatrist, several decades ago, when President Reagan took office he immediately repealed “the Mental Health Systems Act, which had proposed to continue the federal community mental health centers program”. With policies taking away federal financial support from the state mental hospitals, many institutes were forced to shut down discarding numerous mentally ill patients onto the streets. Additionally, the Lanterman Petris Act abolished involuntary hospitalization, “making it very difficult for them to get back into a hospital if they relapsed or needed additional care” (Torrey). The mentally ill were not motivated or required to get the help they needed; thus, the state left them to their own devices, wandering around town and increasing the homeless population. According to the organization, Students in Mental Health, at Harvard University, as of 2017, approximately 25% of the homeless suffer from mental illness. A large portion of America’s homeless can be attributed to the shortcomings of mental institution policies from the 1980s. Additionally, the difficult task of maintaining a job and rebuilding a life becomes exponentially harder with a mind that struggles to function, thus many become homeless. Similar results occur for those with physical disabilities.
Inhibited by physical handicaps, a significant portion of the disabled find themselves homeless. In a study conducted by Mathematical Poly Research, Matthew Kehn, a researcher, surveys showed that among homeless individuals with mobility impairments, such as those requiring a wheelchair or a cane, “nearly half of the participants reported limitations in seven of the 10 daily living activities [including] travelling outside the shelter”. With tasks such as leaving the shelter quoted as difficult, maintaining a job would require skills and transportation that the physically impaired do not possess. In order for these individuals to work, they would need physical therapy to overcome the physical handicaps. However, the homeless, cited in the study by Kehn, were “unable to reach the facility due to inadequate transportation… [and] transportation costs”. Consequently, they remain homeless. Physical disability, in addition to mental illness, is a substantial contributing factor to homelessness in every country, including America where stereotypes paint the homeless as drug abusers or lazy street people.
In addition to physical and mental disabilities, there are even more reasons for homelessness in developing nations. In these economically struggling countries, due to less industry, there are less job opportunities and higher unemployment, thus many turn to farming. However, according the Washington Times, “poverty is worst in the rural areas, the question of landlessness is very closely tied to homelessness and people not having a resource base”. As land runs out in these developing nations, people cannot sustain themselves financially by farming in the rural areas. Developing nations also face detrimental issues with their education systems. Indonesia, a nation notorious for having over three million people homeless, struggles with the rural land issue as well as the education system issue. Andrew Rosser, of the Lowy Institute asserts that the current educational system faces financial issues and hires poorly trained, often absent, teachers, resulting in “42% of Indonesian [teenagers] failing to meet minimum standards in all three areas covered by the test: reading, mathematics, and science”. According to the Rochester Business Journal, “the root cause of poverty is lack of education. If you can’t read or do basic math, if you can’t apply yourself, you will not have a job” (Hickman). With a failing education system, Indonesia sets up the perfect climate for poverty. Despite significant efforts to find work, many people in these nations are still unemployed due to the few number of jobs, little available land, and the third-rate education received; thus, they involuntarily become homeless. In many developing nations, the state of homelessness is a commonality not plagued by negative stereotypes but rather is a normal part of society that is economically disadvantaged. In addition to these factors that normalize and contribute to homelessness, there are others, more instantaneous, shocking, and devastating in foreign countries.
Although sudden natural disasters can result in an exorbitant increase in the homeless population, if the nation affected acknowledges that those who are left homeless are not at fault, it is better equipped to resolve their homeless issue. As hurricanes, typhoons, and earthquakes wreak havoc throughout the world, millions of people lose their homes and their savings. According to Richard Pallardy, news editor for Encyclopedia Britannica, “over one million were left homeless in the immediate aftermath [of the Haiti earthquake of 2010]”. Due to the magnitude of the earthquake in Haiti, about a ninth of the population’s homes were obliterated. (Pallardy). With “6 million of Haiti’s population of 10.4 million living below the national poverty line of US$2.41 per day”, the majority of citizens of Haiti live their life day to day spending all they make just to sustain their existence (“The World Bank in Haiti”). Ergo, a natural disaster can grow a substantial homeless population as many people do not have any savings. The term homeless became normalized in Haiti, as the country recognized that the homeless were not to blame for their plight. According to Reginald DesRoches, Mary Comerio, and several other professors, “one year after the earthquake, there are hopeful signs of coordination between the Haitian government, NGOs, and religious organizations and progress is being made”(18). Due to the Haitian government’s recognition of the homeless issue and the fact that their state was not caused by laziness or drug abuse, the government was able raise funds and bring the number of homeless down from one million to half a million after one year (Pallardy). Haiti’s success suggests that the lack of stereotypes allows a government to mitigate the issue of homelessness. Thus, with external factors causing homelessness especially in third-world countries, America’s stereotype claiming that the homeless are lazy drug addicts not only provides a false representation of the world’s homeless, but also may potentially inhibit America from addressing its homeless issue.
Creating an equality imbalance with the homeless, America’s false perceptions prove America’s ignorance of other nations as well as of itself. As evidenced, there are a plethora of reasons, unrelated to drugs or laziness, causing homelessness and blatant inequality promotion. Yet, America remains addicted to its stereotypes. In a poll conducted by the Washington Post, approximately thirty percent believed that the homeless’ lack of wealth can be attributed to their lack of effort (Miere). As suggested by the poll, many Americans believe that the homeless do not require aid from the government, they require motivation and effort. On the political policy side of the homeless, politicians, such as Mayor Garcetti, the Mayor of Los Angeles, California, fight for the homeless; however, Mayor Garcetti, similar to others, continuously receives hate for his homeless initiatives which aim to provide aid to the homeless and build temporary homes in Venice. Residents in Venice are angered as they believe Garcetti is moving a multitude of “lazy, drug addicts”, near their homes with these proposed homeless shelter (“Residents Tell Garcetti”). The lack of support for the homeless continues with Trump’s proposals regarding the disassembly of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homeless. These polls and political proposals transparentize America’s ongoing lack of support for the homeless and misunderstanding of its own homeless population as well as the homeless in other nations. With the propagation of the stereotype, an equality imbalance is formed as Americans begin to view all homeless as less than. For a society rooted in equality, this discrimination should not be tolerated as it causes a less cohesive, unjust nation and world that generalizes the homeless in America as well as in other nations without knowledge of their external homeless-causing factors.
As America’s false assumptions surrounding homelessness continues, they not only, demonstrate their ignorance of other nations, but also allow their homeless problem to persist and actually increase. With the “conventional wisdom” that the homeless are drug addled deadbeats, the stigma reaches employers and landlords, people who could be the key to bringing the homeless out of their impoverished seemingly-inescapable hole. As the homeless attempt to acquire a job or an apartment, several employers and landlords turn them away. Imagine searching for work or a residence without a cell phone, access to a shower and a change of clothes; as difficult as that is, multiply it by an overgeneralizing stereotype of laziness and substance abuse. With approximately a third of America in devout belief that homelessness results directly from laziness, the media blaming the homeless for drug issues, and politicians receiving hate for their save-the-homeless initiatives, America seems incapable of moving forward to resolve the homeless issue. In fact, in California, “the number of people who are homeless continues to rise… [increasing] one percent from last year” (Medina). Foreign nations such as Haiti, a country wrecked by a disastrous hurricane leaving a million homeless, are able to resolve the issue by recognizing that the homeless are not to blame for their condition; in Haiti, the number of homeless was decreased by half after one year (Pallardy). Tom Knecht of the University of Denver, conducted a study determining whether exposure to homeless would erode stereotypes: “Our analysis shows volunteering has a strong effect on respondents’ perceptions of the homeless…respondents were more comfortable around the homeless and less likely to see them as irresponsible, substance abusers”. By “humanizing” the homeless, they become a normalized part of society in comparison to the “irresponsible drug users” (Knecht). America, a country labeled as one of the most prosperous, is the poorest in knowledge and incapable of fixing the homeless issue compared to many developing nations. In order to even attempt to mend the broken system of homelessness, America should look to these developing nations and learn from their understanding and recognition of the potential of those in poverty.
Katherine Wong is a freshman studying Computer Engineering from Northern California. Passionate about technology, Katherine is an active member of Engineers Without Borders, HackSC, and the Society of Women Engineers. She is interested in working in artificial intelligence and robotics in the future. In her free time, she enjoys playing tennis and going to concerts with friends.