Set aside stigmas to aid the removal of homelessness
On a cold winter morning in January outside of the Central Houston Public Library, a common yet unsettling sight played out for all to see.
A homeless man with a bearded and absent face, clad in ragged and torn clothing meant to shield his skin and bones from the biting wind, roamed in a wide circle.
“Well, that’s the portrayal that journalism is set to, to upset, sets up to … prioritize. And, which is, to prioritize itself,” the unidentified man said. “To prolong experimentation and exit a wound, a wound out exit, and a base clock. Or something.”
After his jumbled words, the man shrugged off and in a daze slowly moved away from the library and further into anonymity.
Madness is a frightening prospect. But to be mentally ill, without a home, and without loved ones or help is even more frightening.
One can barely imagine how it feels to wake up on a bench beneath the towering skyscrapers of downtown Houston in a city of strangers and cold shoulders.
Another issue is that this caricature of the insane — and therefore assumed to be dangerous — homeless man has become a generalization held by many people in society.
According to the Coalition for the Homeless of Houston, “nearly half of the unsheltered homeless population (in Houston) have a mental illness and/or substance abuse disorder.”
As such, anxiety and fear affect many who see the homeless, rather than sympathy or a determination to assist.
But with so many on the streets needing assistance, to be afraid and practice avoidance seems to only add wood to the fire. That fear is a contributing factor to the creation of a mentally ill majority amongst the homeless.
The National Coalition for the Homeless reported that contrary to popular belief, “many homeless people with severe mental illnesses are willing to accept treatment and services. Outreach programs are more successful when workers establish a trusting relationship through continued contact with the people they are trying to help.”
What society gets out of all of this is an endless cycle of woe, in which the misfortunate end up on the streets and receive judgment instead of assistance.
According to www.wdel.com, in Wilmington, Del. of December 2014, resident Matt Senge “wanted to give six homeless people a Christmas present.” Senge said he booked a suite at a local hotel for two men, a woman and her three children, all whom were homeless and living under a bridge.
But this act of holiday kindness — something all hope to see and wish to do themselves — did not see completion. The hotel cancelled the reservation for fear that the homelessness of the individuals would result in the endangerment of the other guests.
The majority of situations are the same year after year. A few acts of kindness, if they are able to survive the crucible of panic and judgment, reach the individuals who are homeless and hungry.
But for the most part, the only difference during the winter holiday for the homeless is that it is winter and it is colder, thus making life on the streets all the more difficult.
“(Homelessness) can happen to anybody,” said Carl Thomas, who said he has been living on the streets for three years.
Thomas began his dance with misfortune when he was 16 years old, at which time he ran away from home. Since Thomas was a teenager, he said he has lost jobs and has dealt with an unhealthy affinity for “booze, liquor and wine,” the same triad of vice that hurt many others in his family.
But over the holidays, Thomas said he “just (sat) back and wished (he) was connected with family” and spent his time “harbored in lunch lines.”
In his well-known book “Leviathan,” famed English philosopher Thomas Hobbes calls life, as it is for human beings, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” These definitions seem to ring true when one takes a walk through downtown Houston or in the areas near UH.
Homeless individuals are abundant; however, this abundance — and the supposed truth of Hobbes’ statement — does not mean that nobody cares and nobody helps. There are many people like Senge who do the best they can to put a dent in the homeless population or a dent in the back luck of those less fortunate.
According to a May 2014 article by the Houston Chronicle, “the homeless population in the Houston metropolitan area has continued to decline, prompting advocates … to declare they are on track to meet a federal goal of housing virtually all chronic and veteran homeless by the end of 2015.”
This is good news for Houston and for the fight against homelessness. Yet such news is the kind that can nudge people into complacency.
According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, “even if homeless individuals with mental illnesses are provided with housing, they are unlikely to achieve residential stability and remain off the streets unless they have access to continued treatment and services.”
There is more to homelessness and the fight to end it. The whole stigma that surrounds the homeless population needs to change before proper aid can be funded and administered.
Generalizations, whether dealing with homeless individuals or college students, always fall flat. These stereotypes are based off of narrow views and miscommunication and are perpetuated by ignorance. So when real facts and real people get involved, such a basis for a perspective crumbles into dust.
The homeless demographic is like any, especially in Houston: diverse. There are the mentally ill, the disabled veterans, the substance abusers, the families that are victims of poverty and so on.
If this diversity was more widely understood, then maybe more people would feel comfortable in providing assistance to the homeless. Maybe that homeless man, mentally ill seemingly beyond relief, wouldn’t have faded into anonymity, with just a ramble of what sounded like nonsense remaining as his epitaph.
Opinion columnist Henry Sturm is a journalism junior and may be reached at [email protected].