When I lived in Washington, DC, I volunteered at a shelter for homeless women. One evening an attractive, well-dressed, middle-aged woman came in. She was made-up, wore silver bracelets, and sported a handsome chenille scarf. I asked if she was a board member. "No," she said. "I live here right now."
The assumptions I made about the other women who showed up there the obviously poor, disheveled, usually women-of-color who came in nightly for safety, a shower, and a place to sleep, were equally erroneous.
We make these kinds of assumptions all the time. There is something in our human nature that makes us quickly jump to conclusions, especially when we are judging "the others" among us the sick, the poor, the elderly, the disabled, the disheartened. But the fact is none of these groups are monolithic. For better or worse, we cannot assume homogeneity, because like all the rest of us, every person's nature and narrative is unique, just like our own.
There was the woman in Washington who had a Ph.D. in Philosophy and had fallen on hard times, like so many other displaced homemakers. There are the veterans who find themselves homeless after years of service to their country. There is the man who lives in a tent not far from where I am writing this. "You wouldn't know, standing next to me, that I'm homeless," he told a local reporter. "I'm just like other people. I just don't have a home." And yes, there are the mentally ill, the substance abusers, the formerly incarcerated. That shouldn't inevitably make them scary folks.
Why do we have so much fear around homelessness? Why do we equate it with crime in the same way that we wrongly equate homosexuality with pedophilia? Why do we turn our backs on people on the street asking for a handout? What makes us want to avoid their eyes, even as we feel ashamed of our reluctance to do so?
I've been thinking about these questions since a shelter opened in my own town to more resistance than I would have expected from this usually kind and cohesive community. Some local business owners, known for their activism in other areas, expressed uncharacteristic concerns about shoplifting and loitering. Others said they feared an influx of undesirables. One merchant worried that elderly women would be afraid to be out on the street at night. Where does all that angst come from?
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