Does Society Hate the Homeless? Another View

My latest post on violence against homeless people took off from a remark by Eric Sheptock, a leading “homeless homeless advocate” in our adoptive hometown. Commenting on a recent attack, he’d tweeted, “Our society has learned to hate the homeless.” I begged to differ.

I invited Eric to respond. Here, lightly edited, is what he has to say.

Friend and fellow homeless advocate Kathryn Baer calls my analysis into question. She quotes Neil Donovan, the Executive Director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, whose Speakers’ Bureau I’m part of: “Only a disturbed mind … [acts out] such an intense passion of dislike.”

Their shared analysis flies in the face of my broad indictment of society by narrowing it down to a small group of delinquent youths and suggesting that they might not be fully responsible for their bad choices, due to mental deficiencies.

Their points are well-taken. However, my own unprofessional psychoanalysis of society has shown me that society’s core values are most easily detected by watching the behaviors of its least intelligent, most disturbed and youngest citizens.

Consider the six-year-old boy who killed a female classmate or the fact that some of the least intelligent members of society understand the importance of money and will do anything to get it.

It would seem that the smallest minds learn the biggest truths and then, in some cases, lack the capacity to balance them with other important concerns or any critical thinking. This points the blame right back at society and its leaders.

To say that violent crimes against the homeless are encouraged by laws that criminalize homelessness implies that the perpetrators of such crimes know these laws, assessed their implications and determined that the disregard for homeless people which has been codified into law gives them license to hurt or kill them.

It’s hard for me to imagine them taking the time to learn such laws and even harder to imagine a group which is not known for its consideration of consequences even caring whether or not their actions are legal or supported by law in any way.

It’s true that when the perps are caught, they are prosecuted. However, it’s not hard for a cynic (which I don’t claim to be) to make the case that, on some level, public officials are indifferent to violence against the homeless.

After all, it rids society of homeless people who are dependent on social services and gives police a reason to lock up the killers so that they don’t hurt the productive members of society. Politically speaking, it’s a win-win situation.

That said, my statement that “our society has learned to hate the homeless” was in response to much more than just violent crime.

I know of several concerted efforts to have the homeless removed, even when they are not causing a problem.

We know with certainty that hospitals have dumped many homeless patients on the streets.

And let’s not forget about the NIMBY-ism that manifests itself every time that even the best homeless services program (or housing for the homeless) is located in their neighborhood.

The homeless are an easy group to hate. They are seen by public officials and the general public as being lazy and shiftless. Many of them use up more tax revenues than they contribute.

The homeless are seen as “getting in the way of business.” They are often mentally ill. Those who are not often lack the drive or ability to stand up against public policies and attitudes that adversely affect them. Boy, do I know that!

All of this enables the people and policies to take various actions (legal and illegal) against the homeless virtually unopposed.

It also makes the few prosecutions of teens who hurt or kill the homeless look like nothing more than a token effort which policymakers can point to when accused of ignoring the homeless.

Let’s hold them to a higher standard by demanding real solutions. After all, we all want to get rid of the homeless. The most practical way would be by reversing the societal conditions and social ills that create them.

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2 Responses to Does Society Hate the Homeless? Another View

  1. Tyler says:

    I’m not really sure what the argument is in this post. It seems arbitrary to exclude the influence which laws have on a cultural zeitgeist.

    Your reason for excluding the influence of laws is because it is unbelievable that, “the perpetrators of such crimes know these laws, assessed their implications and determined that the disregard for homeless people which has been codified into law gives them license to hurt or kill them.” You attribute this to their age (e.g. children) and/or lack of critical thinking skills (e.g. the less intelligent). Since the influence of laws did not pass this reasoned process you conclude that they could not have had any influence.

    I’m confused as to why this standard of thorough reasoning is only applied to laws. Why do you cite the example of homeless being removed from a library? Do you believe that a person sees this ruling, considers how it reflects society’s attitudes about where a homeless person can and cannot be and then chooses to commit violence?

    If you want to say that these acts are considered in totality (which I believe you do, given that you say, “All of this enables…”) and therefore are not subject to a strict logical cause-and-effect teleology then this goes against your reason for excluding the influence of laws.

    I’m interested to know if I’ve interpreted your writing correctly, or if you have another reason for excluding the influence of laws.

  2. ericsheptock says:

    Tyler,

    I agree with you in your assertion that laws can and do have an influence on the cultural zeitgeist. But that would only be true for those who care enough about the law to find out what the laws are. Nowhere in the nation is murder legal. If you were to say that a youth murdered a homeless person because he or she knew that the law and lawmakers hold the homeless in low esteem, you’d essentially be saying that this youth broke the law by murdering because they considered laws that dehumanize the homeless. And that, my friend, is grossly counter-intuitive.

    It seems likely that a delinquent minor or young adult would perceive public attitudes toward the homeless which they witness in real time (as opposed to reading the law) as well as the helplessness and lack of fight on the part of the homeless person and immediately determine that they can hurt this homeless person — not because the law won’t prosecute them, but because the homeless person themselves won’t fight back.

    Let me recap how this post came to be. I posted an article about an attack on a sleeping homeless person on my Facebook page along with the comment that “Our society has learned to hate the homeless”. kathryn wrote a dissenting blog post and invited me to write this one. When I wrote the FB comment, I was thinking not only about that attack but also about the several other ways mentioned in this post that society’s hatred of the homeless manifests itself. I was using the most recent attack as a springboard into a broader topic.

    My “This enables…” sentence was meant to be understood as: Laws that target the homeless, public attitudes toward the homeless and the lack of fight in many of the homeless enables people to take actions (legal and illegal) against the homeless virtually unopposed. It is any combination of the three — not necessarily ALL three — which factors into different people’s decisions to mistreat the homeless.

    I hope I’ve cleared things up a little.

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