I went to a training this morning to become a member of COTS Speaker's Bureau. The training prepares you to give talks and presentations about COTS to school groups and other community members. We spent some time talking about how to prepare for your audience and the two trainers said that they mostly speak to sympathetic groups, but sometimes they are invited to speak to audiences that are less than enthused about COTS' mission.
Oftentimes, COTS uses this as an opportunity to illuminate the faces of family and child homelessness. This is an increasing sector of the homeless population and it pulls at peoples heartstrings to hear about homeless children. I do believe that people should be educated about homelessness and that the stereotype of a homeless person as a drunk, male, bum needs to be broken. However, focusing on families does not necessarily challenge this stereotype.
Now, we have two types: the bum and the innocent child. Families can appear less at fault because the children must be innocent of any mistakes that may have resulted in homelessness and because the adults have the added economic burden of caring for dependents.
What if we look at the "bum"? He is usually characterized as an addict or mentally ill or both. While most of society will admit that addiction and mental illness are diseases, when it comes to homeless or impoverished populations, having a disease does not make them blameless.
I believe this arises from the fact that many people overcome addiction or cope with their mental illness and can function in society. So, we have come to believe that willpower is the cure for addiction and mental illness. It is not. Addiction and mental illness can be treated, not cured.
A person with cancer will earn our sympathy, but a person who has fallen off the sobriety wagon will earn our scorn. Yet, we know that both are diseases. Just as some cancers do not respond treatment, neither do some addictions or mental illnesses respond to treatment.
My boss says the only difference between a homeless person and a housed person is money. And he's right. An alcoholic who has money can afford rehabs, hide his/her addiction, take time off work, or come home drunk. A homeless person cannot enter shelters intoxicated, can be randomly drug tested by employers, and can often end up in jail if they are drunk on the streets. An alcoholic with money may eventually run through all of their funds, but it takes a lot longer and there is a lot of support for this person, not punishments.
There are as many different stories to homelessness as there are homeless people. But just because someone fits the stereotype does not meant that they are a "bum". You probably know someone a lot like them who has a home. They deserve to be treated as individuals and they did not "bring this on themselves". It is a part of a disease and they need treatment.
It's time to stop treating the homeless and impoverished like a subset of our society.