Back home in northern Virginia, homelessness wasn’t a concept that often crossed my mind. Despite being a quick 20-minute drive from the urban streets of Washington, D.C., encounters with the homeless were relatively rare in my suburban town.
You can imagine the culture shock that I experienced when I arrived in Berkeley, where even a simple walk to class means passing anywhere from five to 15 homeless men and women with their loads of belongings and their blankets that they call “home.” Like many others, I did just that — pass by them, as if these human beings were mere growths on the sidewalk, going on with their lives as I’m going on with mine.
But there’s something disheartening about seeing each and every one of these individuals being treated like nothing by most people. While homelessness obviously is a problem, our perception of homelessness as a strictly individual phenomenon amplifies it and takes a toll on the community overall.
Just last week, I sat down to rest on the steps of Sproul Hall during a break between classes. Anyone who attends UC Berkeley knows that, as a site for tabling, activism, performances and hanging out, this area is one of the busiest on campus. It was especially hectic that day, but only one thing caught my eye — a woman who appeared to be homeless sat down on a nearby bench with her cart of belongings. What got my attention was not the woman herself but the reactions and responses of the people around her. Maybe it was her dirty appearance or maybe she smelled, but almost every student she sat by got up and moved to another spot farther away from her, as if she had terribly wronged them in some way.
By no means are they horrible people because they decided to move to another spot. Fear of the homeless is common, but it is just as common that that fear is unfairly rooted in presumptions — that they are beggars, addicts, mentally ill or violent — and selectively remembered instances of “homeless people gone wild.”
As a society, we tend to justify homelessness by presuming hostility and laziness in homeless individuals. We think, “I’ve worked hard to get where I am today, I know others who have struggled but overcome. These people are not trying, therefore they’re undeserving.” There is even a justification for inequality — it is because of the moral shortcomings of the homeless and poor that socioeconomic inequality is okay. In justifying inequality, we fail to recognize that every homeless person has a unique story to tell. So we conveniently avoid the responsibility of taking action to help the homeless.
The pervading notion that people who are homeless became so because of their own faults and failures creates an illusion that people with homes are, in some ambiguous way, better than homeless people. This ignorance of factors outside of an individual’s control makes homelessness even more difficult to overcome.
And due to these presumptions, we feel that we can’t relate to the homeless — but why can’t we? Mark Rank in the New York Times discussed the myths and stereotypes of poverty and pointed out that poverty in America is far from abnormal. He found that 40 percent of Americans between the ages of 25 and 60 experience at least one year below the official poverty line, and 54 percent spend a year in poverty or near poverty. Financial hardship is common. If and when I fall to my own financial “low,” I expect it to be the result of at least some factors outside of my control, just as homelessness was for many people facing that situation now.
Whether we accept homelessness tests the moral foundation of our community. Do we treat the homeless as if they’re lesser beings than the rest of us? According to Richard G. Wilkinson and Kate Pickett’s book, The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better, large inequities “damage the social fabric” of a society. And this is evident in Berkeley as well, where obvious differences in treatment between the homeless and the rest of the city’s residents leave people on both sides feeling alienated or uncomfortable.
In Berkeley, we share public spaces, such as parks and sidewalks, with people living in stigma and isolation. By simply saying hello and even just remaining seated when a homeless person sits beside us, we can welcome them into the community we live in and strengthen social cohesion, which will itself provide more opportunities for homeless people to improve their conditions.
Since coming to Berkeley from the other side of the country, I’ve realized that homelessness affects everyone. Shelters, counseling and treatment programs could be effective in reducing the overall homeless population, but communities cannot reach their full potential until all their members — including the homeless — are integrated, accepted and treated equally.