Does Society Hate the Homeless? Another View

January 17, 2013

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.


What Do Hate Crimes Against Homeless People Show … and Not?

January 10, 2013

“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.