Often social issues strongly related to economics are hot button topics. With temperatures dropping and the holiday season in swing, the homeless population seems to become more visible during this time of year.
People have their opinions about individuals they see on the streets who may be panhandling or towing all of their belongings. There is a stigma that the chronically homeless are mostly substance abusers or have mental health issues.
As a college kid with an opinions column, I am not going to tell anyone how they should feel about the topic of homelessness. Instead, I am going to offer some simple observations of mine.
Firstly, homelessness increased at a faster rate in Massachusetts than in any other state from 2007 to 2013, rising 40 percent despite an overall decline in homelessness across the country. This was made apparent by the 2013 U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s 2013 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress.
What that tells me is that there is a serious issue at hand. That statistic alone is enough for me to feel that you should not make snide assumptions that anyone who is homeless is just a bum who refused to work hard enough to live a sustainable life.
There is not a responsibility for citizens to give their spare change to the homeless members of our communities, or to be friendly to them. However, even if your opinion of some of the homeless people you come across is harsh, I challenge you to be conscious about the way you think about the overarching issue that those individuals face.
Last week I interviewed Bill Miller, Executive Director of Friends of the Homeless in Springfield for a feature story to be published in a community newspaper. Friends of the Homeless is the largest shelter in Western Massachusetts, and between just 2010 and 2014 they have seen an 11 percent increase in the amount of first-time homeless guests they see yearly.
Again, this is a statistic that raises a lot of concern. This is not me calling you out to be more compassionate about the human condition. It is me urging you to be more conscious of your inclinations.
Dealing with people of any kind is something I approach on a case-by-case basis. Where there are people with diverse motives, there are not black-and-white moral contexts.
For example, a couple of weeks ago a homeless gentleman approached me downtown as I parked my vehicle.
The man began telling me a story that seemed rather earnest. As he kept his arms tucked into the torso of his winter jacket, he shivered, telling me of his simple need to accumulate fifteen dollars. He wanted fifteen more dollars so that he could purchase a new state identification card.
He began to tremble more, and not because of the frigid temperature. He was on the verge of tears, and began to ramble how he was living a clean life and would never go back to prison.
I offered the man a couple of dollar bills, which I do not always do. There are times when I feel inclined to, and times when I do not.
“I need fifteen, man. I know you have more,” he said as he took a couple of crumpled bills from my hand.
“Look, man. I gave you money, take it or leave it. I don’t carry a lot of cash on me,” I snapped at him, rather shocked that he would be so rude.
“God bless,” the man said, shaking my hand.
My point is that interacting with people is not always simple. I made the conscious decision to feel this man was sincere. I then made a conscious decision to offer him the negligible amount of money I had to offer.
The man was enraged that I was not going to give him the fifteen dollars he needed, even though most people probably would not have helped him at all. Then, he realized his selfishness and we came to an agreeable resolve.
This interaction did not change my perspective. I have come across great people that simply happened to fall on grueling stretches of time in their lives that led to homelessness. Some of these people have been extremely kind and generous despite living starkly modest lives.
In contrast, I have also seen a significant amount of posers pretend to be homeless to score some cash. Many times, I have repeatedly caught them in the act.
In essence, my concern is not whether you as individuals decide to help the growing homeless population in any capacity. That is a personal choice for you to make, and often it seems a difficult one.
My concern is that you treat the homeless as people rather than down-and-out scum of the Earth. To say that every homeless person is at fault for their own fate is to ignore that this is a socioeconomic issue greatly complicated by the recession.
Homelessness is just as pertinent of an issue as any other. In fact, it may be the most important in Commonwealth of Massachusetts at this time. The homeless are people, too. Whether you feel any sympathy or not, treat them like people.
Be as conscious about your interactions with them as any other in the public you come across, regardless of the decisions you make.