Discouraging News About Homelessness

Nels Johnson

Last week Multnomah County and Street Roots released their second annual report on homeless deaths in Multnomah County. The report found that 56 Portlanders died last year while experiencing homelessness. 2012 yielded nine more deaths than the 47 reported deaths from 2011. The causes of death were numerous, drug overdoses, beatings, suicides, freezing to death, and cardiac heart failure just to name a few. The evidence points to greater hardships on those experiencing homelessness and greater challenges than in years past; the news isn’t good, especially for a progressive city that prides itself on its ability to care for the most vulnerable.

One of the most troubling things about the report is how little we know about the people who died. We don’t know who their families were, what they were like, what their stories were, or what their struggles where. In most cases, we barely even know their names and ages; the dead are reduced to abstract numbers and statistics staring back at us from a bland white page. It’s like they aren’t even human.

How did we get here?

In his famous work on how ordinary people become capable of carrying out horrendous acts of evil, Dr. James Waller argues in “Becoming Evil,” that the first step of committing evil is turning a group of people into the “other,” and drawing distinctions between yourself and other people groups, viewing them as less than equal, not even human sometimes. When we view people as “other” or different than us, it becomes much easier to marginalize them, treat them differently or inferior, and even in some cases, commit heinous acts of evil against them. Viewing someone as “other” dehumanizes them, taking away their dignity. Waller’s point is that we often label different groups of people consciously and sometimes unconsciously. Rather than seeing Portlanders, we see people as poor, illegal, homeless, or “different.” In doing so it becomes easier for us to passively and actively marginalize people and support public policies that also marginalize them.

I confess I unintentionally contribute to the dehumanization of the homeless among us all the time. When I see someone with a sign or asking for money on the street I pretend I don’t see them, or can’t hear them. By failing to acknowledge their existence I contribute to their dehumanization. When I do give them money, I do so as quickly and as impersonally as possible, less I’m actually forced to interact and see and feel their humanness and discover it’s no different than my own.

I suspect I’m not alone.

The other night I took a moment to talk with Steve, the local Street Roots vendor where I do my grocery shopping. We talked for 45 minutes about a wide range of topics. Steve started by walking me through the stories in that week’s edition of Street Roots (totally worth the $1 sticker price). The more we talked, the more I realized how much we had in common. We liked the same sports teams, the same places in Portland and had similar upbringings. I also learned more about what it was like to be homeless; how it’s hard to interview for a job because you have to find a hiding place to leave your stuff during the day so it won’t get stolen. I learned tricks to stay dry at night when it’s pouring rain.

Steve talked about how being homeless carries with it a certain stigma, one that allows people to ignore him; homelessness is dehumanizing. I also learned that premature deaths on the street are completely preventable, and that we all have the ability to do something about it.

We talked for a long time and after a while, Steve stopped becoming someone who was “other” to me and became just another person trying to do right in life and get by – just like me, just like a lot of us. The more I heard his story the more I realized we’re all a major crisis or two away from housing insecurity; we aren’t that different after all.

I don’t pretend to have all of the answers for the problem of homelessness. Homelessness is an enormously complicated problem with many moving parts and subtleties. But I do know that when we refuse to reduce homelessness to numbers and statistics and instead seek to learn the names and stories behind those whom homelessness effects, our public policy and political discourse are better for it.

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