Apathy, dignity, and homelessness

By Josh Kelety | Campus News Editor

It was a warm August night. I was shooting the breeze with a former classmate from my hometown at a local park, laughing about various high school memories ranging from alcohol-fueled antics to another classmate who ejaculated while observing a couple engage in passionate behavior at a school dance. It was a comic atmosphere.

During the course of our conversation the classmate mentioned that on his way to the park he encountered a homeless man passed out under a bush with an unattended backpack at his feet. With a tone of genuine regret my classmate casually said that he should have made off with the man’s backpack due to a protruding bottle of vodka in the bag.

He viewed that bag as being up for grabs just because the owner was homeless. But it wasn’t.

That bag belonged to a person, and given that person’s status as homeless and poor, he probably needed those items more than my White, male, upper-middle class classmate. That bag might have held food, some tokens with sentimental value, a bottle of water, some spare change, a raincoat, and a bar of soap. He probably needed everything in his bag to survive on a daily basis, in a minimalist lifestyle that my classmate could barely imagine.

A 'home' on Broadway (photo by Josh Kelety)
(photo by Josh Kelety)

I’m sickened to see such cruel apathy in my peers. My hometown classmate didn’t need that homeless drunk’s personal belongings. He probably would have discarded them a block after he picked it up. He wanted to do it because he could, because he thought it would be funny. He wanted to do it because he didn’t see a human being in that bush, just a heap of dirty clothes and flesh clogging up the sidewalk.

With a few casual sentences, my former classmate unwittingly highlighted a broader problem in American society: our relentless contempt for the poor. While the individualistic ‘pull yourself up by your own bootstraps’ mentality has produced an admirable work ethic, it has also cultivated disgust for people who fell through (or never had access to) social safety nets. Homeless people are perceived as being weak, unable to support themselves, and lazy. They are therefore held to be unworthy of the same respect and dignity that we ‘normal’ people pay to one another.

It’s common in American cities to ignore and dismiss panhandlers. Of course, many of us just don’t have the cash flow to donate to every needy person we meet. But we also tell ourselves that there is nothing we can do, that our resources are more usefully spent in other areas, and that we don’t bear responsibility for others. Dealing with shameful inequality by disowning responsibility for it erodes a person’s empathy, until one day these fellow human beings become just an irritating part of the scenery. The man shaking an empty cup on the corner is no long an unfortunate person; he’s a pest who gets in the way of the ‘productive’ members of society.

Poverty isn’t predestined. Any one of us could find ourselves, without warning, sleeping under a bridge or in a doorway. The causes of homelessness—skyrocketing rent, inflation, job insecurity, trauma, debt, and mental illness—threaten all of us. Contrast this harsh reality with the stereotype of the weak-willed` alcoholic leeching off society for his next bottle of Old English: it’s comforting to think of the homeless as belonging to another species, because that implies that we’re immune from their misfortune. But the impoverished aren’t mosquitos; they’re us, plus bad luck.

We have to dispute the notion that wealth is the same thing as worth. When our only values are expressed in dollar signs, we deny the humanity of the poor—of the very people who need our compassion the most. We must look at the reasons why these people fell through social safety nets in the first place, and what we can do to address those gaping holes in the system. A good place to start would be providing basic necessities for everyone, like food, shelter, transportation, healthcare, and education—but accomplishing even that requires not just kind wishes but political organizing. Once those needs are ensured, people like my former classmate can start talking about personal work ethics and laziness.

Follow Josh on Twitter:@Josh_Kelety

This article originally appeared in the March 2014 issue.

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