Humanizing homelessness

As odd as it may seem, society tends to blame residents who experience homelessness.

Many people characterize them as lazy, uneducated or lacking ambition. Society assumes people struggling with homelessness did something that created problems in their lives.

That attitude shows a lack of understanding and awareness.

According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, 950,497 people nationwide used an emergency shelter or transitional housing program between Oct. 1, 2016, and Sept. 30, 2017.

There are several causes of homelessness – many of them are beyond a person’s control. 

Low-paying jobs, lack of affordable housing, abusive relationships, mental illness, or costly medical emergencies can rob someone of his or her security in a matter of days or weeks.

Another common myth exists. Some bystanders believe people without homes prefer to live in cars, hotels or on the streets. They assume they like a more independent lifestyle.

If society is going to deal with homelessness in a meaningful way, communities need to confront the stigmas associated with being homeless.

First, we shouldn’t use the word “homeless” to identify or define people.  Instead, they are individuals struggling with homelessness.

Also, we need to understand the many root causes of homelessness.  For example, many Americans live a paycheck away from losing their homes.

NPR reported in December 2020, that up to one-third of Americans have trouble paying their bills. Living paycheck-to-paycheck has long been an issue as the cost of living continues to outpace the rise in wages.

Harry Pedigo, executive director of St. Benedict’s Shelter for Men, talks often about the need to destigmatize homelessness.

Pedigo advocates for humanizing the issue. He asks everyone to consider “the dignity and worth of the person” instead of associating people with their situation.

“Framing homelessness as an experience vs. a problem helps,” Pedigo adds. “It’s important that we, as a community, remember that anyone can experience homelessness and most have if they have ever had an extended stay at a hotel, friend’s couch, returned home to live with parents, slept in a car or whatever.”

Removing the stigma requires us to understand that homelessness is a byproduct of underlying issues, such as societal or economical drivers.

“Once we remove the stigma, then we can see the person and understand where they are and begin to find a healthy solution based on restoring self-sufficiency,” Pedigo said. “We should do this through solution-focused giving, resources, service delivery, engagement, compassion, and empathy.”

Learn more at the National Alliance to End Homelessness.