Thursday, January 23, 2014

People who are homeless

By iampunha

I think it is good to be this cold. I think that the majority of us in this country are too comfortable for empathy and although an apartment with walls can never be as cold as outdoors, it gives me a little bit of an idea of what that must be like. It also makes me aware of how quickly ones hands and feet can actually start to hurt due to being cold.

I got in my car this morning, turned it on, grabbed the ice/snow scraper, equipped it with my left hand still in my pullover sleeve, ran over to my wife's van and hurriedly shoveled five-inch-deep snow off it for several minutes.

She could do the rest a few hours later. My hands were already stinging from the cold, even though my body was blocking the wind. Plus, the rest was ice, which meant removing the scraper from my sleeve, grabbing plastic that had just been not suffering in 7-degree cold (with wind chill subtracting however many cruel ticks on the thermometer), and having snow warm in my sleeve and collect as a cold, wet punishment for a good deed.

Then I got in my well-running car, drove on mostly clear roads to my office job, which supports my family of three well enough, and sat working, checking things here and occasionally watching the wind play with snow and trees and cars.

The wind out there.

Not in here, where I was warmer and undisturbed by poverty, verifying information about two-thousand-dollar technology and leadership classes.

Articles about the recent cold focus mostly on the people likely to read the articles. Here's an example, translated for privilege:

Allison Pennell said not having a [day off from taxpayer-funded public education, heat, safety and food] was "a hard pill to swallow" for her two children, [who don't have to panhandle]. "They [had the energy to complain about where they would be educated, warm, safe and fed], but they had to [stay somewhere else for all of those free-to-them benefits]," she said.
The article then goes on at length about how much snow is falling all over the place, how cold the outside is and how public officials are dealing.

But people who are homeless don't have tablets to read the news as they warm themselves over coffee, so who cares?

We are not expected to care about people we don't know -- people we rarely look at.

People we avoid looking at because we do have money, but we don't trust strangers, or we are afraid of being assaulted, or we desperately do not want to care about a need with a face a foot away from us because then there goes saving for that television.

We do not want to confront, or look in the eyes, people who are homeless.

We do not want to even walk past them because then we will hear them asking for money we all know we have. I spent a summer walking past the same people who were homeless every day, and I did my utter best to avoid looking at a single pair of eyes.

They are unwanted by most, unimportant to most, and so uncovered in most news reports. Instead, the news reports on the people who have money for houses and cars and the like.

I wonder if any reporter for a metropolitan newspaper or national news service called a homeless shelter from Virginia to Maine asking about deaths due to exposure, which is code for lack of empathy.

The people who write and assign and edit these stories are assuming two things:

1) You too have more empathy for that guy shoveling his walkway than for the homeless.

2) You actually don't realize the homeless are ignored (government services notwithstanding) at their most vulnerable. When you read weather stories, you're thinking about flights, cancellations, road and traffic conditions, and pictures of people walking amid whatever natural hijinx. Has someone snapped a picture of a squirrel busily doing whatever on ice that's normally water?

So confident is the news team behind weather coverage that you don't care about the homeless that you won't find a homeless reference in the first third of a weather story. Second third? Maybe. Third third, usually. And even then, it's the director of a local homeless shelter, not an actual homeless person. See?

Even a story about helping people who are homeless quotes none through the first four pages. This story is one of two in the top ten Google News hits for "who is homeless" that actually names a person who is homeless, and the other one names a crime suspect who is homeless.

That linked top ten search result includes tonight's funniest concept: Merchants want the city to just get the homeless to skedaddle so they can have their pretty gem show and pretend homelessness doesn't exist. So delightfully pretentious, no?

"This isn't quite as ... artistic as last night's," you're thinking. "I was hoping for something as ... anti-inspirational as your line about lumps of human."

I'm hoping for a country that doesn't spend a billion dollars on an Air Force information technology project that doesn't work while also cutting spending on people who really do need that "extra" ten dollars a week.

At 600,000 people who are homeless, ten dollars per person per week would take more than three years to spend (thanks to kck for alerting me to the error).

A couponer could come damn close to feeding a person for ten dollars a week.

I have never liked or respected the concept that the problem of evil makes us that much more thankful for the good in this world.

But I have a hard time arguing against it. So when I read rubyr's comment about the good of cold, I understood it immediately and agreed as quickly.

But it goes much further than cold. It goes much further than weather. It speaks to a general level of empathy I'm convinced we're losing in this click-to-interact world.

This online world allows us to choose very specifically what kind of information we want and what kind we want to ignore. And just as you can ignore news about the cold by removing or hiding weather stories from your online media sources, you can ignore any other thing you plain don't like.

We are increasingly teaching ourselves that if we don't like something, like a two-year-old fighting asparagus (mistakenly; that stuff's amazing), we can just throw it on the floor and ignore it.

Things we did not like as children -- vegetables, homework, cleaning where light rarely goes -- we had to deal with. Now we can click to hide that political garbage that relative posted. In doing so, we are not only atrophying our ability to tolerate things we dislike, but also discarding our opportunity to educate that relative -- and, crucially, that relative's friends. Even a polite disagreement with facts is a better situation than the philosophical purity, the echo chamber, we're encouraging.

Whether it's the weather or the opinion we dislike, sometimes the protection is worse than the attacker.

Throughout this diary is this phrase:

people who are homeless

Used it for a reason. In Introduction to Special Education, I learned about people-first language.

Say a person uses a wheelchair; people-first language would say "a person who uses a wheelchair" rather than "a wheelchair-bound person." The first wording emphasizes the person first and the other element second.

Our phrasing when talking about people who are homeless tells us some terrible if unintended things about ourselves. The worst is that when we discuss homelessness, we often do not even denote that we are talking about people. We discuss "the homeless." We discuss homelessness and joblessness and poverty without ever using personal pronouns ("they" is vague and general) or even person-based nouns, like "people who do not have jobs."

Rhetoric changes opinions. Same-sex marriage is a controversial issue, but far more people are getting behind marriage equality.

And "died from exposure" is much less saddening and action-inspiring than "died because she was frigid and alone outside because her relatives gave up on her after she got hepatitis C from a guy she had sex with so she could pay rent for one last month because her job was outsourced to Mexico, and the shelter wouldn't let her in again because she's a troublemaker because she got in a fight because someone tried to steal her boots, so she had nowhere."

I used to end my diaries with a call to action to donate or write a letter or whatever. This call to action is different.

From this moment on, don't ever talk about people who are homeless without using the phrase people who are homeless. Invite your audience to think of people first and anything else about them second. Once you get them thinking about people -- a perfectly safe concept -- you are well on the way to getting people who are homeless the help they deserve.

And here is help for people who are homeless and for people who are homeful but who need other kinds of help.

Originally posted to iampunha on Wed Jan 22, 2014