“Our society has learned to hate the homeless.” So tweeted Eric Sheptock, a leading “homeless homeless advocate” in the District of Columbia.
It’s easy to see why. But I don’t believe it, though we’ve got good evidence that some people do indeed harbor a virulent animus against homeless people.
Sheptock had just read a news release about a homeless woman who was set on fire as she slept on a bus bench in Los Angeles. This was the second such attack on a person sleeping outdoors in the area.
These certainly seem to be hate crimes against the homeless — the subject of a long series of annual reports by the National Coalition for the Homeless.
I say “seem to” because Neil Donovan, Executive Director of NCH, himself acknowledges that “only a disturbed mind” acts out “such an intense passion of dislike.” Disturbed enough, I think, so that we sometimes can’t fathom a motive.
In its latest report, NCH documents 105 new attacks on homeless people by people who weren’t themselves homeless — 32 of them fatal. This brings the reported 13-year total to 1,289.
As in the past, most of the attackers were young men — some of them very young indeed. We’re told, for example, of a 14-year-old and a 15-year-old who shot a homeless man in order to steal his bicycle.
And some of the attacks were shocking in their wantonness — for example, a fatal bludgeoning with a tire iron committed “just for fun.”
NCH argues that such crimes are encouraged by laws that “criminalize” homelessness. It’s referring here mainly to local laws that prohibit actions more or less necessitated by life on the streets, e.g., sitting on the sidewalk, camping in a public space.
I’ve no doubt that such laws reflect an egregious lack of sympathy — in the literal sense, i.e., feeling together with.
Perhaps codifying the otherness of homeless people does somehow affect the mindsets of youth who surely can’t (can they?) perceive their victims as human beings like themselves.
Yet our society doesn’t condone violence against homeless people. When the perps are caught, they’re prosecuted, just as they would be if they attacked model exemplars of the middle class.
And in some of the reported cases, community members intervened — or when that was too late, attended memorial services, even raised money to cover funeral costs for homeless victims.
More generally, I don’t think our communities foster an environment that breeds hate-motivated crimes against homeless people — as, for example, legally and socially-sanctioned racial prejudice in the South led to lynchings, church bombings and the like.
This isn’t to say that our popular culture doesn’t glorify violence — and more generally, macho behaviors. Or that our mental health system doesn’t let highly-disturbed people fall through the cracks.
Or that our social services fail — for want of knowledge, funds and who knows what else — to prevent young people from seeking respect and release for the energies in criminal acts.
But in communities across this country, faith-based organizations and other nonprofits have made a mission of caring for homeless people.
They feed, clothe and shelter them, provide or help them get free medical care and other services, offer them supportive and skill-building programs, advocate on their behalf and more.
We, as a society, express our support for these services. Large numbers of us donate our unpaid labor and professional expertise. Larger numbers of us donate some portion of our earnings.
And large enough numbers of us support public funding for the services to have kept them an item in government budgets.
Here in the District, where Sheptock and I live, we, through our local government, have gone further.
We guarantee homeless people shelter from “severe weather conditions” that could cause them to freeze to death or collapse from heat prostration if left to fend for themselves on the streets.
We put local taxpayer dollars behind this right to shelter and related services, e.g., outreach, transportation to a shelter, blankets and a warm drink for those who refuse to go.
Is any of this enough? Of course not.
Do we care enough to adequately fund homeless services — and other programs that could ultimately end the need for them? Not apparently if the money would come out of our very own wallets.
But, at the same time, enough of us donate our time and/or money to keep the community-based services flowing.
And I believe most of us don’t want homeless services and affordable housing short-changed to help balance public budgets — let alone to ensure that the Pentagon has more money than it needs and for weapons it doesn’t want.
I’m aware that we collectively have let our elected officials get away with the short-changing. But does this mean that we as a society hate homeless people? That, I think, short-changes us.