As an editor for The Street Sheet, Matthew Gerring, was supposed to be an invisible helper allowing the contributors to speak in their own voices. The only exception to this rule, however, was correcting the phrase “the homeless” to “homeless people.” The goal is this seemingly simple change was to change the false idea that “the homeless” were somehow different that the average person, and switch the mindset to recognize that “homeless people” are experiencing the condition of being homeless, a temporary state. It changes the readers reaction from pity to one of empathy.
RULE #1 : Don't think: "~~HOMELESS~~." Think: HOMELESS PEOPLE."
Gerring states that his time at The Street Sheet completely changed his outlook. He became an advocate and “refused to give an inch to anyone who would elevate their personal discomfort over the rights of homeless people to seek shelter.” After leaving the paper, he began working as a resident manager of an apartment building near the Golden Gate Park. The park has a large population of homeless youth, and the apartment residents often complain about the youth sheltering near the building.
The complaints are mostly justified. The youths often don’t clean up after themselves or their dogs, they are loud late at night, and they are often rude to people on the sidewalks.
It puts Gerring in a tough spot. On one hand, he has an obligation to take care of his residents, but he also tries to maintain empathy for the homeless youths. He can understand the rudeness of the youths stems from feelings of powerlessness, and Gerring believes the change needs to begin with the residents. So, the former editor created a “non-combative guide” for befriending homeless people.
Teach yourself to see homeless people as people
For people to be able to address the homelessness issue, people will first have to actually see and speak with homeless people. The day-to-day reality of being homeless is difficult, but that difficulty is multiplied by basically being invisible. People don’t make eye contact with you or respond when you speak to them.
The Street Sheet attempted to combat that invisibility by providing those affected by homelessness with t-shirts, aprons, and badges--a uniform. It helped them be seen as vendors and gave a legitimate reason for occupying public spaces. It helped them “be seen.”
Tip number one for being a good neighbor: Make eye contact. Let people know that you see them, and if someone asks for help respond politely. Even if not providing assistance, a response can go a long way to making someone feel like a human being.
Understand how we got here, and that another world is possible
Tip number two is all about understanding the condition of homelessness and why so many people are affected in our society. Homelessness, on the scale that it is today, is a relatively new social problem. As the federal government cut funds for public housing in the 1980s, homelessness rates shot up. Now what is considered common levels in major cities would have been a considered a crisis by the previous generation.
Also, the myth that most people “choose to be homeless” it categorically untrue. 70% of people experiencing homelessness are in that state because of some sort of catastrophic event, like job loss. Obviously people’s life choices play a part in their situation, but to really understand the problem of homelessness, the entire picture needs to be taken into account.
Resolve to stop calling the police, and stop giving the police more power
Fixing homelessness is hard because it will require sacrifice. People may have to live near shelters or housing developments which many do not wish to do because of how it affects property values. Also, many people feel that a homeless population in a neighborhood can make the neighborhood unsafe, although statistically homeless people, especially homeless youth, are more likely to be victims than non-homeless people.
Making political choices that are beneficial to the homeless population can be a tough choice, and oftentimes, the opposite, legislation that targets homeless people, is what ends up being legislated. For example, legislation that gives police the power to dismantle encampments on sidewalks or under freeways. This type of legislation sends the message that being poor or homeless is their own fault, but at the same time it makes self-improvement for the poor or homeless person more difficult.
“It’s one thing to call the police when someone is in danger, or causing danger to others. It’s another thing to call the police (or to vote to give new powers to the police) just because someone is doing something that annoys you.”
Tip number three is stop calling the police on homeless people for simply existing. The police literally make life harder for people whose lives are already extremely difficult, and sometimes calling the police on someone can lead to that person’s death. Obviously, if someone is being hurt or actively hurting others, the police should be called, but if someone is merely sleeping in a doorway there is no need to call the authorities. Many major metropolitan areas have alternative agencies that can be called that will help in instances like a mental health crisis.
Advocate for homeless shelters and supportive housing in your backyard
To properly combat the homelessness crisis cities around the U.S. will need to build a lot more affordable housing and shelters, and some of those may end up in your neighborhood.
Tip number four is a reminder not to fight against the building of shelters, but to actually advocate for the building of affordable housing at all levels including homeless shelters. Projects such as these are often faced with strong opposition, so be the voice that shouts out in favor.
Fight evictions of homeless people when there’s no alternative housing for them
Gerring recalls a time he worked on an anti-eviction campaign in San Francisco. 60 people were in danger of being evicted from an undeveloped bit of land by nearby homeowners. The homeowners claimed that the conditions the homeless people were living in where “unsafe and inhumane,” but the problem with that argument was the fact that there was no where else for the people to go if they were evicted. There was no safer alternative available.
It is an argument that is used often. People are often quoted as saying “people shouldn’t have to live like that!” However, a tent or a bike-trailer or an RV is shelter, and it is better than nothing.
Tip number five is to educate yourself about the actual facilities that are available in your city or town. Find out how many shelters exist, how many people they can house, and if there is a waiting list. Then, before jumping on an eviction bandwagon, make sure there are adequate resources for the people affected by the eviction.
So what about my neighbors?
That brings us back to the homeless youth living outside Gerring’s apartment building. What solution did he come up with? First, he encouraged his residents to complain to him first before getting police involved, and he attended neighborhood meetings that were attempting to build new shelters and permanent housing.
He also went outside “and asked them to quit being jerks.” He also says “hi” everyday to try and develop a personal, neighborly relationship.
Gerring says, “It’s not perfect, but it’s a small step in the right direction.”
Read more about being neighborly, “How to Be a Better Neighbor to Homeless People” written by Matthew Gerring posted by Better Humans on June 19, 2018
One of the most haunting and eye-opening photo collections humanizing the homeless people - South Beaudry and Homelessness in LA, a series of photographs by Ed Freeman-LINK