Someone I know recently called people who are experiencing homelessness “entitled.”
Context: A person wearing business casual was walking down a crowded outdoor mall in the middle of the day. A person experiencing homelessness interacted with Business Casual in some way–and then attacked Business Casual with a bear hug from behind as the man walked past him. Business Casual used non-aggressive tactics to disengage the person who attacked him, and even when the person wrapped up on him and began throwing knees, Business Casual did not escalate the situation and some other people intervened (but not the person who thought it would be pretty cool to capture the video of this on their phone).
We don’t know what happened before the video started. We do know that it was more than 100 degrees outside that day. We do know that Business Casual did not attempt to escalate the situation through aggressive force or yelling at the person experiencing homelessness. We do know that other people intervened, and also did not (at least during the time of the video being filmed) try to escalate the situation.
The person I know, who posted the video on social media, said we had to “do something about entitled [derogatory word for people experiencing homelessness here].”
It’s really easy for us to try and distance ourselves from folks experiencing homelessness. We do this by calling them names, which is the same tactic we do for absolutely anyone we want to make an other. We hold stereotypes about drug and alcohol use. We hold stereotypes about unexplained violence or aggression. We hold stereotypes about folks who experience homelessness being neuroatypical. We perhaps accuse them of not really being homeless. We maybe believe the boot-strapper myth that if only they worked harder, they wouldn’t be homeless.
That list could go on for a while–there are a lot of ways we try to distance ourselves from people not like us. There are a lot of ways that we work to blame people who have been victimized by other people, or by systems. By creating these structures of blame, we can create distance and rules. And, we tell ourselves, if we just maintain that distance and if we just follow those rules, we won’t end up others.
But the thing is, that’s mostly a charade. Most Americans are still one paycheck away from homelessness. Some might be able to bridge this gap in an emergency by using credit, but the average American credit card debt is more than $15,000 and the average student debt is over $48,000. I’ll say nothing here of home, auto, or medical debt, although many people also carry these debts.
More importantly the boot-strapper myth ignores the systems that marginalize people and leave them in impossible situations.
Those things can be addressed in another post though. For now, I want to talk about the concept that someone who is without housing can be “entitled.”
Housing should be, but isn’t, a human right. I live in a city where it’s illegal to shelter your body with anything but clothes, regardless of the weather, where folks experiencing homelessness are told again and again to move along and the perpetual question is move along to where? The shelters in this city like to state how many open beds they have as a way of helping city officials make sweeping stereotypes about people who need assistance choosing not to access it–and the shelters and the city government conveniently fail to mention not only the many barriers to actually accessing those beds–but also the fact that many shelters are not safe places for a variety of bodies for a variety of reasons, and that shelters are often noisy places where it’s hard to get a good night’s sleep but easy to get sick or have everything you own stolen.
Access to fresh, clean water and nourishing food should also be a human right, but is usually inaccessible to the people in our society who live on the margins. To compound the problem, public water fountains have all but disappeared. And of course, so have public restrooms, although everyone should also have the right to legally use the bathroom.
We live in a society where all of these things usually cost money to access–because people who appear homeless are told that “only paying customers” can access bathrooms. They may be escorted out of public buildings that are not libraries, because of how they appear–or they may be afraid to enter these buildings because they associate them with the trauma of systems that have already cast them aside. Without access to water, the only option is to buy something to drink or to bathe in a public space or in a (polluted) river which is illegal.
Groceries lock their dumpsters despite throwing out literally hundreds or thousands of pounds of edible food every week. Soup kitchens aren’t always an option (especially for those with dietary restrictions).
Housing costs money, and without housing and a permanent address, it’s nearly impossible to get a job, and because without an address of some sort people generally can’t access money paid out to them through social welfare programs.
But it sure is goofy that people are expecting shelter or food or water. So entitled.
I can hear some people protesting already, but drugs…
Because the reality is, most of us use drugs every day, in the form of caffeine and sugar. If we live in a place where it’s legal to buy marijuana many of us–and people we love–are buying and using it. A lot of us drink, a lot. Enough to numb ourselves. Enough to let our anxiety drift away. There’s a lot more I could say about drug use here, but I won’t because that’s not the point.
We do what we do to cope.
So do other people.
A guide called Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design recommends designing benches and underpasses so that people cannot lay down, and cites broken windows theory to support this type of design work. A lot of cities have already implemented recommendations from this guide, or are in the process of doing so.
Because being homeless is a crime, which is to say that it is a crime to simply exist.
And then, when we pass someone who is unhoused on the street, most of us ignore them. Maybe because we’ve been there, or almost there. Maybe because there is someone in our lives that we have yet to forgive. Maybe because we’re afraid. Maybe because no one has ever modeled for us what it looks like to interact with someone experiencing homelessness. Maybe because we believe that homelessness is catching.
In effect, regardless of our personal reasons for ignoring these folks, we make other human beings invisible. When we fail to recognize someone else’s humanity, we also fail to recognize some of our own.
There is shame in this.
To say that people who experience homelessness are entitled demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of how people end up in that situation — or a callous disregard for other people’s humanity. It demonstrates a lack of understanding about how close so many of us are to ending up in the same place and how accessing certain things based various privileges might be the only thing that kept us from ending up there at some point.
Homelessness is not a trait. It is a circumstance.
We would do well to remember that.
None of this is to justify Business Casual getting attacked. That should also never happen, and unfortunately does.
But it is to say, rather than threatening to attack or verbally debasing someone who is already marginalized, we should be asking how we can work to change the system that allows people to end up on the margins, without access to the most basic needs of survival.