Where do you fit in?
Invisible People, the website dedicated to increasing the visibility of homeless people and the issues they face, commissioned an extensive study. I have been reflecting on the different parts of their results.
They present an interesting list of the variety of ways people look at people who are homeless.
- Involved Advocate – those who are comfortable around homeless people and feel included in the fight for solutions.
- Hesitant Helper – supporters of government action with personal hesitations or fears about homeless people.
- Active Ignorer – people with low levels of political involvement who feel homelessness is not their problem.
- Stubborn Skeptics– those most concerned with quality-of-life issues they blame on homeless people.
Obviously, these audiences bring different levels of comfort, knowledge, and involvement to discussions of homelessness. I propose two questions
- Where do you fit in?
- How do you further conversations with people who live in other categories than your own.
First, let me say it is important to recognize my own stance. I realize that my own stance has evolved over the years. I also recognize it has evolved as I have learned more homeless people and the issues they face.
Second, let me say it is important to recognize what’s behind the way each group came to their default position. If I want to be part of the solution I realize that I must learn to encounter people with an openness to where they get their information.
Different starting points
When forming their opinions on homelessness, most people are starting from what they see on the streets and on local TV news.
On the streets, members of the public notice a new or growing encampment or a person in a moment of crisis, reinforcing perceptions that the system is failing and the problem is getting worse. On local news, people hear a mix of stories eliciting either sympathy or fear, with a focus on specific and sometimes exceptional individuals.
Whether on the news or in public, what grabs people’s attention are often the least representative stories: a person having a crisis in public, or someone whose biography makes their story stand out. Luckily for advocates, the sympathetic stories often resonate most. When asked to remember what they’ve heard about homelessness, people most often recalled examples that pulled at their heartstrings or inspired them.
I think often what people miss are the paradoxes of the homeless people. One of the things I appreciate about Invisible People is that they capture so much of what a quote from their study sums up beautifully.
“Homeless people are both vulnerable and strong, victimized and capable, criminalized and innocent, seen and willfully ignored.
I do wonder whether they missed another factor. Group reinforcement – what those in their own circle of friends think and reinforce.