Editorial: The Homeless?

The Homeless. What do you know about the homeless? What I’d like to know is who are “the homeless”? Continually I hear people on all sides referring to some group of people called “the homeless”. Sometimes the comment is “we are trying to help the homeless” or “the homeless should just help themselves” or “the homeless cause problems in our neighborhood” or even “the homeless have such a hard time.”

I continually hear explanations for what “the homeless” are doing, having done to them or for them. “The homeless” are described as some sort of sub-culture or a certain group of people.

The first truth one needs to realize in order to understand who “the homeless” are is to understand that “the homeless” don’t exist. “The homeless” is a blanket pronoun that ignores the problem of homelessness and instead intentionally or unintentionally places people in a little box that makes it easier for the rest of us to do what we want. “The homeless” is a broad label; labels have a tendency to be negative.

Labels ignore the humanity of the person. A person currently experiencing homelessness is experiencing the consequence of a greedy society and is without housing. This person or family should not be defined as “homeless.” To replace one’s name or replace a pronoun like “person” with a label is the same as stating that that one label fully describes the person. Other examples include “gays,” “addicts,” “criminals,” “professionals,” “blacks,” “whites,” “educated,” “lower class,” “middle-class,” “upper-class.”

Of course we all are guilty of this to a certain extent- lumping humans into one group or another and putting a term before a name. What is worse about the phrase “the homeless” and some of these other examples is that the description implies that a certain group of people have always been and will always be not only homeless (or criminal for example) but will always be “the homeless”- that this defined group does not change.

The truth is that many different people with a variety of backgrounds are forced to experience homelessness. No one group of people suddenly “became homeless” years ago and is still “homeless” today. In fact, most people do not experience homelessness for very long (though one day is too long).

In Hamilton County, most people in shelter successfully exit after just two months. Despite this fact almost immediately after one bed is emptied, it is filled. People are forced to experience homelessness; people work hard, receive assistance, stop experiencing homelessness and then right away another person takes their place and this process continues.

Clearly what we are doing as a society is not sustainable. In an ideal society no one would ever experience homelessness. In a less ideal society, but more ideal than now, with the high success rates of people and shelters the number of people experiencing homelessness would significantly decrease: this is not currently happening.

When people who are housed refer to “the homeless” not only is a blanket description placed on many different individuals and families, but the speaker gets to define the description. One body of people gets to make decisions for other people. Often when one refers to “the homeless” he or she either implies a chosen criminality that must be hidden or implies that that “the homeless” must be saved.

The other implication may be that “the homeless” have been afflicted or infected with the disease of homelessness and must be cared for as they suffer through this illness and perhaps should be saved from the illness. This is why most discussions about homelessness don’t include people who currently don’t have housing. There is an assumption that such a person would not understand the situation or simply put, that “homelessness” defines them and therefore they don’t possess the capacity to discuss multiple layers of a situation — all they are is “homeless” one dimensional.

Even if in many cases this is not intended, it becomes implied.

Furthermore, referring to “the homeless” allows the speaker (and perhaps the listener) to get off the hook of true and often difficult responsibility. If in the past there was a group of people known as “the homeless” and now too there is a group of people known as “the homeless” it is then easy to assume that “the homeless will always exist.” If “the homeless” will always exist then it is easier for other people to either assume that nothing needs to be done or this group should just choose to stop being “the homeless.”

It is also easier when referring to “the homeless” to assume that since “they” will always be here the solution is only to give them assistance to stay alive. This allows the speakers and listeners the opportunity to not consider the system and to not challenge the way they and their friends live or the society in which we live- or especially corporate ceos, politicians and developers –to not say and do things that cause discomfort and frustration and ultimately change.

If “the homeless” exist we don’t need systematic change because “the homeless” are to blame.

We must stop defining people by circumstances or by one aspect of their experience. One who has black or white skin is not solely defined by this one aspect — every person consists of different facets. It is impossible to find a one-word description for any human being — there is far too much to us to be captured in one word.

Language is important. Regardless of intention (because very well intentioned people make mistakes), when one person refers to “the homeless” she or he reveals a bit of her or his own thoughts and affects what others believe. There are certain terms that many of us would never use to lump people into a group because we have learned how this can negatively affect life. We must begin to act the same way with homelessness. Changing our language can start to change our attitudes and the attitudes of other people.

Homelessness is not a defintiion, it is a circumstance forced upon people by society.

With all of this in mind and realizing that since our Coalition was created when modern-day homelessness was brand new, the description “the homeless” has come to reflect homelessness as permanent, an evolved reflection never intended or anticipated by those who came together to form us, please pay attention for an upcoming organizational name change for the Greater Cincinnati Coalition for the Homeless.