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Friday, September 11, 2009

The New Face of Homelessness?

Liz. C recently sent me an article that ran on entitled "Elle's "New face of Homelessness:" White and Formerly Middle Class. "

The article is a soft critique of 24 year old Brianna Karp's blog piece for Elle entitled "The New Face of Homelessness."

The more I read about Brianna, the more intrigued I became. I even found her blog, and other blog pieces about her.

Bri, apparently homeless after a string of temporary jobs and exhausting her savings to fix her car, was chosen to intern at Elle, and to write her own blog column. In her first go, she wanted to break down the typically negative stereotypes of homeless individuals.

She writes:

I believe it is very important to reverse the prevalent negative attitudes and common stereotypes of homelessness, such as its perceived definition. Its legal definition is “an individual who lacks a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence, or a person who resides in a shelter, welfare hotel, transitional program, or place not ordinarily used as regular sleeping accommodations, such as streets, cars, movie theatres, abandoned buildings, etc." It also includes children and youths "who are sharing the housing of other persons due to loss of housing, economic hardship, or similar reason".

Now, as many of you know, I am personally very committed to educating the public about homelessness in order to dispel Myths About the Homeless. There's nothing wrong with her piece so far.

But what happens next is where her good intentions go awry:

She goes on here (I added the bold for emphasis):

The vast majority of homeless individuals are not on drugs, do not have mental problems, want to work, and look for work. The "new face of homelessness" the last couple of years is the middle-class recession victim with a stable history, who would never have previously been pinpointed as a likely candidate for homelessness. The stereotypical "bum" is actually a very small fraction of the homeless population; the overwhelming percentage of homeless people are like me and manage to blend in relatively well.

The point she is trying to make is one I have pointed out to friends as well. On a bus or a train, at your job, you have no idea who may be homeless and "passing." Or there could be children who go to school with your children who go home to a car or a motel at the end of the day.

But to say that there is a "new face of homelessness," and in doing so to effectively brush aside individuals who were born poor, or mentally ill, or who are elderly, or immigrants (legal or otherwise), or victims of domestic or sexual abuse, or, yes even drug addicts or former convicts is absurd. And to intimate that only white, formerly middle class people are willing to work "and look for work," is offensive. It was an innocent mistake on her part, but offensive.

She seems to realize how her words may have come across so she adds "even those that do fit the negative stereotypes are no less deserving of help; if anything, they are far more in need of it than the majority."

But the damage has been done. She has created a dichotomy in which homeless people are either "bums:" people who fit the negative stereotypes; or part of the "new face" of homelessness: people who aren't stereotypical. Although she graciously admits that everyone is deserving of help, she continues to reinforce the stereotypes by playing to them at all.

But if you get to know the homeless you'll know that even those who resemble "the homeless" the way we see homeless people mercilessly and consistently portrayed in media, aren't necessarily people who "fit" the negative stereotypes. Not every elderly white man with a beard is an alcoholic. Not every young hispanic pan handler with tattoos is an ex gang member. You can't tell anyone's story just by looking at them.

Every single person without a home is first and foremost a human. Whether they were formerly middle class or not. Although Bri makes it clear that she isn't like "the stereotypical bum," she actually is. And so am I. And so are you. Because we are all human. We think, and feel. We hope and want. And we have setbacks, some more major than others.

Brianna means well, but ends up shooting herself in the foot with the "us" and "them" talk.

Hortense at writes, "her heart is clearly in a good place, and hopefully her column will reflect more than just the magazine's slightly off-putting attempt to attach a "new face" to a sad and ongoing issue."

Megan Sweas of U.S Catholic, is even more gracious and commented directly to Brianna on her blog: "I'm glad you are introducing us all to the "new face of homelessness," but I hope you also address the issues faced by those who have long been homeless, especially the criminalization of homelessness that you mentioned."

I agree completely, and I will be watching with interest to see what she puts out there next.


Shannon said...

As always Mich, well thought, compassionate and dead on.

Matt said...

Reading this makes me very sad indeed.

She does not hold all the answers and neither do you or I but she is a deeply caring and courageous woman who wishes to help all those who are experiencing homelessness. I know this for a fact.

She should be both encouraged and supported by those who claim to have similar goals, not attacked for any shortcomings she may have.

"The vast majority of homeless individuals....want to work, and look for work"

Somehow you turned that into:

"And to intimate that only white, formerly middle class people are willing to work "and look for work," is offensive. It was an innocent mistake on her part, but offensive."

That is a massive leap for which I can see no grounds whatsoever. She 'intimated' nothing. Now THAT is offensive.

I choose to believe that your heart is in the right place too so instead of whining at her, how about getting behind her and helping her make the most of what I'm sure you will agree is a huge opportunity to do some real good?

Ted said...

Matt...Misch is a nurse who works with the homeless on a daily basis. The implication that she's "whining" and needs to "get behind" Karp is pretty absurd. If you're concerned about the homeless, maybe it would be more constructive for you to volunteer some of your time toward actually helping them? If you have any left over when you're finished crusading on the internet, that is.

Matt D. Barnes said...
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Matt said...

The 'whining' and 'getting behind' references were somewhat harsh and unnecessary for which I apologize.

Ted, how did you manage to jump to those conclusions? I am of course formerly homeless myself and besides 'my crusading' I do considerable voluntary work.

MischMash said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
MischMash said...

Thank you for your passionate response. It has made me revisit the issue instead again and I will be responding in a post this week...