Homelessness is a serious and pervasive issue in the United States, but one that is often overlooked. It’s not an unknown issue — everyone has seen and probably interacted with a homeless person before on the streets. But it is an issue that is largely ignored by society because people are both uninformed and fearful of it. The homeless are “the other.”
Here are some facts: According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, over 600,000 people are experiencing homelessness on any given night in America. Minorities are disproportionally represented in the American homeless population, as are veterans, and homeless youth are a large portion as well. In fact, approximately a quarter (23%) of all homeless people are under 18, and another 10% of all homeless people are between the ages of 18 and 24.
This fact, most of all, is astounding. People my age (and younger!) are living in the streets. I sit here in the library of my top-rate liberal arts college and I write this article and I cannot begin to imagine my life as being any different. We all sit here in our snug and sumptuous dorm rooms and don’t think about people our exact age suffering on the streets right outside. Not being involved and giving back to your community, even in some small way, is simply selfish.
Don’t misunderstand me; I’m not saying I’m a saint, or I’m better than anyone else. I will never single-handedly fixed what needs to be fixed; I will never move mountains. The point is that no one can do any of that — at least not by himself. But if each individual tries, even a little bit, to address a social justice issue (i.e., homelessness), things could change. If people educate themselves, try to lend a hand, or try to understand others and give back to them just a tiny bit — that’s when things turn around. If each person gives an inch, eventually we will move miles.
I choose to help the homeless specifically because it puts me out of my comfort zone. I’ve done tons of volunteer work before, mostly with kids — I’ve tutored kids, traveled to foreign countries to interact with kids, and had an internship last summer where I worked with underprivileged kids from impoverished, inner-city schools. I love kids and could volunteer to help them for the rest of my life. It’s fun and it’s easy and it is certainly important. But community service isn’t necessarily supposed to be easy or fun. In fact, I would argue that it is supposed to challenge you, and put you out of your comfort zone — even scare you. Don’t get me wrong, helping kids is great and is very important, and I will continue to do it in my spare time and applaud all who do. But I personally do not choose to do it at my school because I choose instead to reach past this level of comfort in order to commit to something I consider more important and more challenging — the issue of homelessness in America.
It is more important and more challenging because there is a stigma that comes with the homeless. They are looked down upon by most members of society or stereotyped as being dirty, mentally ill, addicted to drugs and/or alcohol, criminals, or too lazy to work. Some of these identifiers may be true, but it is wrong to generalize and put all of the homeless in the same category, it is wrong to judge based on putative characteristics, and it is even more wrong to let these prevalent stereotypes keep you from reaching out to help. We are afraid to talk about it because we don’t understand it, and thus, we dismiss it altogether, leaving those who are homeless alone to suffer on the streets. We must fight back against this stigma. They are not lesser human beings just because more has been taken from them; recognize their dignity.
Giving change to the homeless man begging on the street is great; donating cans of food to shelter is great. These things are wonderful, and they help, but in my opinion, the most meaningful way to help is to sit down and have a conversation with a homeless person – at least that is what I have learned from doing it weekly at the local homeless shelter. Because to truly understand someone and their situation, or at least listen and try to understand, is the most selfless and helpful thing you can do — not only for your community, and for that person, but for yourself. I would go so far as to say that a few of these conversations have been the most important and interesting conversations of my life. Doing something like this will change you — and let it. Let it change your life, let it change your view of the homeless and transcend stereotypes, and let it push you to do even bigger things to give back.
To understand, however, does not come without an auxiliary. If you sympathize and understand, that is a great leap forward. But surpassing the stigmatization is only the first step. You must engage as well.
Homelessness is affected by extensive US policy problems – increasing housing expenses and lack of affordable housing, lack of proper mental-health institutions, cutting vital social services, and much more. The list goes on. There is much to be done in terms of re-working this system go prevent future homelessness, and there is also much to be done in terms of providing the already-homeless with the care they need — job-training, mental health services, shelters and food banks, and cheap, safe, and adequate (if temporary) housing. America must start reforming our policy and must start allocating a larger amount of money towards helping our homeless citizens. We cannot “outlaw” or criminalize homelessness (as we have done in the past) if we do not have a viable solution or feasible ideas to fix it. Educate yourself on these issues. Learn about the problems with public policy and affordable housing and food stamps and social programs. Then take action. After humanization, that is the second step.
Everyone in this country deserves the right to make a decent living, to support their families, and to have a roof over their head; they deserve the everyday right to eat, to have security, to have health insurance and support from their community; and they deserve the right to live a happy and healthy life without the immense shame society heaps upon them every day.
Giving change and donating food will only help to a certain degree; it is not until you sit down with these people and treat them like humans that the true change will occur. When we as Americans surpass the stigmatization, we will be able to open our eyes to the public policy flaws and injustice towards the homeless community, and we will reach our arms out towards change. That is when true progress can and will be made.