Wednesday, July 7, 2010

What Does It Mean To Be Homeless?

This question seems obvious. Clearly, homelessness is being without a home. But what is a “home”? And what does it mean that someone doesn’t have one? The problem with using a term like “homeless” is that it means so many different things. And one must solve the problem of what a thing is before we can begin discussing how to solve it. If you have five people and they all mean something different about homelessness, then how can they agree how to solve it?

Homelessness is inadequate shelter
The broadest way the term “homeless” is used is for those who have inadequate shelter. These are people who may have a family taking care of them and a roof over their head. But they are considered homeless because they don’t have adequate shelter. These are folks who have a job or is physically and mentally able to get a job, but perhaps they sleep on a couch, or they live in a shelter or they sleep in a vehicle with a bed. Many of these people may not consider themselves “homeless” because of the stigma attached to it, but they are technically homeless because they don’t have even a room to live in.

Homelessness is no shelter
A more precise use of the term “homeless” is for those who have no permanent shelter whatsoever. These are folks who may sleep on the street, in a park, in the forest, in a tent, under a bridge, in a car or wherever else they can sleep. Some of these homeless are without shelter for a week, some for a month, some for years. Some of the homeless are young, some are families, some are women, and about half are single men. More than seventy percent of these homeless get off the street in a matter of months. But the important characteristic of these folks is that they have no where else to go. A very small percentage may have chosen homelessness as a lifestyle, but most were forced on the street because they had no other choice.

Homelessness is a culture
What is often forgotten by most is that homelessness describes not only a physical condition, but a social reality. Over the years, a distinct set of cultures emerged for those who have lived on the street in a long term capacity. Others, especially youth, have participated in homeless culture, while not actually being without a place to live, dressing like the homeless and participating in the homeless community. Some of the characteristics of homeless culture is: dependence on others, especially other homeless, to meet one’s needs; alternative labor such as dumpster diving or canning; not participating in the social structures of broader society, such as many holidays or formal religion; and open sharing with those in need. To be homeless, for many on the street, means a participation with the community of the homeless, a subculture and a family for those without family.

Homelessness represents extreme poverty in the West
In the West, especially the United States, homelessness is a symbol. It is a representation of extreme poverty in the West. Even as the famine-starved child is a symbol for the poverty of developing countries, so the haggard homeless man is the symbol in the United States. Homelessness is seen as the lowest one can hit in the West. If one becomes homeless, they are at the end of their rope—there is no where else to go but up.

Homelessness is rejection
Because the homeless are the symbol of extreme poverty, they also represent failure. Either homelessness is a failure of society, or it is the failure of an individual. Because many do not believe in the failure of their society, they choose to believe in the failure of every single individual who became homeless. Thus, because poverty is often seen as a failure as a person in the West, the homeless are rejected as inadequate people. The homeless can be seen as an object of pity or an object of scorn, and either response lessens them as equal human beings.

What does it Mean to End Homelessness?
All of a sudden there are a number of goals to realize. It is not just about getting people housing. Rather, it is putting a potion of a fractured society back into a proper place. Not only does there need to be healing of the homeless, but a healing of society. Not only do physical needs need to be met, but we need to learn to be more culturally inclusive. Ending homelessness is not as simple as it seems on the surface. Instead, it seems that how we end homelessness is a test for our society. How we approach the homeless is a test of just how broad and intelligent our compassion is. Keep reading this blog to discover possibly the most inclusive plan to end homelessness ever. I think.

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