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Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Boots Aren't The Woman - Part Two

Thinking about this lady's boots from The North Face reminded me of something that upsets me a lot when I see or hear it, so I'm going to climb on my tiny soap box for a minute.

I have seen a handful of tweets and status updates in the past few years voicing amusement or outright annoyance at behaviors or appearances that are out of line with how people would like to view the homeless in our communities. Some examples: "the guy asking for money at the bus stop had nicer sneakers than I do!" and "I just saw a homeless guy on a CELL PHONE!"  I've heard similar complaints or commentary from friends of friends or new acquaintances.

It's something I'd like to address here for just one second.

People who do not have homes are not required to fit your expectations of what homelessness looks like.

I understand that many people's immediate reactions to seeing signs of stability in a person who has their hand out for scraps is to conclude a disparity. The perceived duality can be off putting. Perhaps some people feel they are being "tricked" into providing for this person who is merely pretending to be impoverished, or who is just too lazy to get an actual job. That might make me angry too. I understand.

But let me offer you some thoughts that may help you to understand why I think it is so offensive to pass judgment on someone's level of need based on their appearance.

1. Everyone loves to donate stuff. Homeless men and women are often recipients of hand outs. Those really nice sneakers that your local pan handler is wearing may very well have come from your neighbor's closet. Or were donated by the family of someone recently deceased. Or were collected in a church clothing drive. For society to want every single homeless man and woman on the street to dress like a Dickens' character all in rags is a little bit silly considering the amount of people who like to donate their stuff to the "less fortunate."  

2. Gifts are for everyone. The lady in the first part of this post received boots, really nice boots, from her mother. Her mother can NOT buy her a house, a clean bill of health, freedom from addiction, or the mental capacity for managing her life. But she can buy her a pair of boots to prevent immersion foot or frostbite. Homeless men and women do not have homes, but it doesn't mean they don't have families, or loved ones. Or in some cases - concerned sponsors. For Christmas, for example, this year every single patient at the respite facility where I work was visited by Santa Claus and given one brand new item of clothing and a brand new L.L. Bean backpack. It breaks my heart to think that anyone, seeing someone panhandling while wearing that brand new backpack might think "this person doesn't need help, look at that backpack." The bag was free. The person is still trapped in the cycle of street life.

3. Low income is still income. I know you know. But it bears reminding that some homeless men and woman may be the recipient of some form of disability check or veterans checks. They have as much right to spend their money they way they want as you or I do. If that means skipping lunch until they get a used walk-man so be it. Seriously. They could be using their money to buy things like cigarettes, food, or to pay for a track phone*. There are so many barriers to housing for many members of our society that it would take an entire different post to explain why buying day to day necessities/whims is more practical than going without those things. 

 I desperately want to break down any argument that if someone is wearing a nice piece of clothing, or carrying a nice purse, or eating a cheeseburger while they are out stemming that they must be manipulating you out of your money. Not because I want you to give them your money. In fact, I do not condone giving cash to panhandlers.** However, I can't sit by silently while I witness stereotypes being propagated about the members of our community who do not have stable housing. Lack of understanding about why people are homeless, or what homelessness looks like is a major barrier to finding an end to the problem. 

Our sympathy for the poor should not be limited by some implicit requirement for poor people to look and act the way the middle class expects them to. This is the attitude which keeps the class divide alive and well. If we truly want to end suffering for our fellow humans, we will not require people to prove their pain to us before we offer relief.  

So the next time you see someone sleeping outside of the train station, or holding out a cup in the park and they're wearing a super nice coat or they have a brand name back pack let your reaction be thankful and hopeful. Be thankful that in some small way this fellow human being is being taken care of. And be hopeful that if it's you out in the cold someday, someone will give you a super nice coat too. Let's not any of us deny human comforts to anyone, simply because we think they should be wearing their trauma more prominently on their sleeves. 

* The phone thing is also a whole other entry that is partially written out already in reply to someone who once asked me why a homeless person needs to use the phone at all.
**There is a list of things I do condone giving out to panhandlers, which I will be posting soon and will link back to here.

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