Blamed and Ashamed: Why Are We So Uncomfortable Around Homeless People?

Imagine you’re walking around New York City when you pass a person sitting on the sidewalk. You put your head down and walk past them, or maybe you turn to someone next to you and ignore them. You might pull out your phone and act like you’re taking a call, or put in your earbuds and pretend they’re not even there. You strip them of all their humanity when you refuse to acknowledge the space they take up. Why? Because that’s what we’ve been conditioned to do around homeless people.

Homelessness has always been a problem, there’s no doubt about that. But New York City has not had homelessness to the current degree since the Great Depression of the 1930s. In February of 2018, approximately 63,343 homeless people, including 15,546 homeless families with 23,314 homeless children, took refuge in New York City shelters. The number of people sleeping in shelters is almost 82% higher than it was 10 years ago, and that’s just the people who have access to one. Every night, thousands of homeless men, women, and children sleep in New York City public parks, subway stations, and streets.

With nowhere to sleep, many homeless people take refuge on public benches. The implementation of armrests onto benches, or getting rid of benches completely and replacing them with “leaning rods,” is just another way of cities trying to drive homeless people away. But the mere presence of something doesn't constitute acknowledgment. So, while the streets of New York City may be filled with the homeless, it’s more than likely that they get walked past without even the smallest ounce of recognition, as if they’re not even there. It’s understandable, to an extent, because it’s a fear that can be rationalized. You never know what could happen. We’re taught the concept of “stranger danger” from the second we take our first steps. Nobody wants to feel as though they owe a price of admission just to walk around their neighborhood. So, sometimes it’s easier to ignore them, to go about our daily lives and let the fear that something might happen to ease our guilt of walking by.

It’s not only the homeless, however, that call New York City home. With over 8.5 million people, living in the Big Apple is almost 70% higher than the national average, and living in Manhattan is more than double that same amount. Gas costs 5-10% more here than it does in other states, and the median rent of a two-bedroom apartment in NYC is $1,638, according to The United States Department of Housing and Urban Development. Living in a one bedroom apartment in Manhattan, however, can cost $3,350 a month or more, the average monthly income of a worker in the United States. Eating out costs an average of $15 per meal, and a meal for two at an expensive restaurant can cost upwards of $75. Studies show that New Yorkers eat out, on average, 3 times a week. Groceries will cost you 30% to 40% more than in surrounding states, and transportation via subway will cost at least $100 per month for a five-day workweek.

But in a city that costs so much, most people give very little. Dean, 52, has been living on the streets for almost three months, after breaking up with his girlfriend of 12 years and finding that he had nowhere to go. Armed with his blue NAVY sweatshirt, a leather jacket, paint-splattered blue jeans, and lace-less working boots, Dean spends his days huddled in the threshold of an abandoned building on East 18th Street, his backpack on one end being used as a pillow and cardboard laid all over the ground to make the concrete a little more comfortable. Dean had never been homeless before, and he explained how sometimes it’s hard to accept this new life of his. “You don’t think it’s going to be you, until it’s you. It’s hard to come to terms with.”

 

Dean, 52, has been homeless for almost three months. Credit to author.

Dean was named after the famous mid-century singer, actor, and comedian, Dean Martin, and he claims that this is what’s helped him through his rough days. “I’m proud to say I’m named after this guy,” he says as he holds up his phone, Dean Martin’s cover of “Gentle On My Mind” playing quietly in the background. He was even lucky enough to meet Martin’s son, Ricci Martin, in the 80s at a concert and have him sign his social security card. “Dear Dean-o, here’s to a happy life,” it reads. He smiles when he looks down and sees Martin through the screen; “I haven’t heard this in a long time,” he tells me. But when most people look at Dean, they don’t see a man who’s in love with old singers and knows almost every word to every Dean Martin song. How could they? All they see is a homeless man sleeping in the doorway of a building, his big, dirt-covered hands and his salt and pepper beard hiding his face. They see parts of him, but they’re unable to comprehend him as a whole. They fail to realize that, just like us, Dean is a person, too.

But Dean’s life is more than just sitting on a curb and hoping for people to give him a few dollars. Even though he makes only about $50 per week and survives on the little amount of food stamps he’s given, Dean doesn't say that his biggest problem is being hungry or cold. It’s the loneliness. “I don’t have anyone to talk to but myself,” he says. “My [ex] girl lets me shower and eat at her place sometimes, but, other than that, I’ve got no one. People pass me by and kind of ignore me, and I try not to bother them. They think I’m gonna do something to them. I don’t know why they think I’d hurt them; I’ve never hurt anybody. I promise you, they’ve all got more skeletons in their closet than I do. Because everything I’ve got…it’s right here.” When asked why he thinks people view him as a threat, Dean’s eyebrows arched, his mouth dropped, and a look of confusion plastered itself onto his face. “Honestly, I couldn’t tell you. I really don’t know.”

So, what is it about homeless people that makes us so uncomfortable? When asked why she tends to walk past homeless people on the street, O’sha, a freshman at The New School, says that it’s not necessarily the homeless person themselves she’s afraid of. Rather, it’s the relatability of them. “We see these people on the street and we try to put ourselves in their shoes... and I think it’s when we begin empathizing that we really get scared. Nobody wants to ever be in that position [homeless], and I believe when we see them we start to think that maybe it’ll happen to us, so we walk by and ignore them just so we don’t have to think about it any longer.” O’sha tries to give whenever she can, but being a college student in New York City on a budget, she isn’t able to as much as she’d like. “I feel bad when I pass someone and don’t stop to give them a few dollars, but you just can’t give to everyone. I always try to smile and ask how they’re doing.”

But not everyone is as kind to homeless people as O’sha; many blame them for everything wrong with the world. Just look at the news: in January of last year, Bill O’Reilly stated that the sole reason for the increase of property crime in San Francisco was because of the homeless; “Homeless people are all over the place urinating and defecating in the streets, panhandling, and -- when they need money to buy booze or drugs -- committing crimes. The situation is out of control and a disgrace.” In 2013, CEO of a startup company in California, AngelHack, posted on his Facebook status, “in downtown SF the degenerates gather like hyenas, spit, urinate, taunt you, sell drugs, get rowdy, they act like they own the center of the city. Like it's their place of leisure... In actuality, it's the business district for one of the wealthiest cities in the USA. It a disgrace.” It’s these type of comments that perpetuate the classic stereotypes about homeless people; that they’re alcoholics, drug addicts, or completely content with living on handouts from the government. Dean, however, understands why so many people on the street choose that way of life. “It’s cold out here, and sometimes a drink makes you feel warmer.”

Law professor and director of the Homeless Rights Advocacy Project at Seattle University, Sara Rankin has spent the last four years studying why people feel so uncomfortable around the homeless. Rankin explained that most people’s reactions when faced with poverty is to get rid of it, and that’s why there are so many laws that make it more difficult for homeless people to take care of themselves--take going to the bathroom, for example. “As much as people may not like to talk about it, you cannot exist without pooping and peeing.” But because nobody wants to see that on their morning walk, we make regulations and write laws to prevent against it. And while that may make our lives prettier on the surface, it leaves homeless men and women with nowhere to go to the bathroom. She went on to say that we as a society refuse to take any responsibility for increasing poverty rates. “We tend to blame the poor people,” she explained. “We associate them with criminality, we look at them through this lens of evaluating them based on their perceived impact on our public health and safety. We don’t think about their public health and safety.”

There’s no one single answer as to why we as a society feel so uncomfortable around the homeless, and nothing is going to change overnight. The negative feelings we have towards homeless people isn’t an extrinsic problem, it’s a systemic one. It’s not even the discomfort that’s the real issue; humans are bound to feel uneasy around things they’re unfamiliar with. You can’t understand something you’ve never been taught to believe in. But to act as if they’re not there, that is a problem. Why? The reason’s simple, and Dean said it best: he’s lonely, and all he wants is to be acknowledged.