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Defy homeless stereotypes this winter

Hannah Wiebe, Journalism Writer

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It tends to go as a common understanding in society that the “right thing to do” is reach out to the poor, however, a larger percent than is willing to admit holds onto common underlying stereotypes of those in poverty. Once these ideas reach our minds, we fail to acknowledge our lack of compassion. We constantly form prejudices against those less privileged than ourselves, therefore treating them as if they are undeserving of our humanity.

Targeting the homeless population across America, I believe that each individual, whether in a warm home in Andover or on the streets in the city, is deserving of value and compassion.

To understand the concept of an “inadmissible” stereotype, Huffington Post suggests that 44% of Americans think “people not doing enough” is the cause of poverty. Projecthome.org states that on a random night in January, 2015, 564,708 people experienced homelessness across the US, which is nearly 1% of urban populations. Of these, 15% are chronically homeless. Where we fail to realize the severity of these lives is when statistics lose the value behind their numbers. These statistics should make you feel uneasy, so what is it that truly stops us from giving? When we view others as inferior to ourselves, we lack empathy for their situations. Everyone faces struggles, although theirs have been taken to extreme measures. They become stuck in a cycle of prejudice, poor jobs, few resources, and nothing more than “pity”. If we never take the time to listen to their backgrounds, we will never be fully charitable. If we never assist their needs, they will never get out of downwards spiraling cycles. We must re-humanize the population, but cannot be done alone.

Our lack of compassion is driven by selfishness along with the misconception that homeless people deserve their poor situations and that it is not our job to help them out of their personal mess. According to the Wichita Eagle, homelessness has decreased by 13% in the US, but increased by 23% in Kansas since 2007. Of these, 17% lack shelter and 8% (42,725) are veterans. The National Health Care for the Homeless Council states the average lifespan of a homeless person is 50 years, compared to 78 years of those who are above the poverty line. Why should wealth have such an impact on a person to detract 28 years of life? The mindset of “it’s not my job” is not only shallow and unjust, but also transforms into the belief that we should not give to them at all because they did not earn it. We label those in poverty as lazy, although the truth is, 45% of homeless people have worked in the past 30 days and are making efforts to rejoin society according to Washington Post. If nothing was given out of charity, what would we be left with? Based on the roots of Christianity, no one earns salvation, rather it was given freely through Jesus and forgiveness. We are called to serve: “Whoever oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honors God.” Proverbs 14:31.

One of the most common motives for neglecting to help the homeless is fear. The National Association of State Alcohol and Drug Abuse Directors (NASADAD) estimated that over 19.3 million people were in need of addiction treatment in 2005, but did not receive help due to high costs and a lack of insurance. According to a 2008 survey by the United States Conference of Mayors, 68% of cities reported substance abuse as the largest cause of homelessness. The National Coalition for the Homeless states that 20-25% of the homeless population have mental illnesses, 38% use alcohol and 26% use other drugs. Even so, the possibility of them using money for these purposes does not mean they don’t need food, shelter, clothes, job opportunities, addiction outreaches, etc. If you have doubts that a person will misuse your hospitality, just take a moment to put yourself in their shoes and imagine how much courage it takes to lower oneself to beg strangers to provide for you. More than likely, if they are on the streets they need help no matter the circumstances and nothing will be taken for granted. Drugs may play a part, but each individual is worth more than the worst thing they have done, and there is a history of obstacles behind the mask of labels. No matter what brought them to the streets, they deserve humanity. There is an escape to this life of darkness, but it requires hope and support, not judgmental stares passing by on the streets.

Although the opposing argument is rarely publicly displayed, it subconsciously affects the way many view the world. They get the preconceived idea that homeless people are all addicts, dangerous and lazy. We begin to think that if they don’t work for what they receive in life, we should not support their lifestyle by giving. Many assume they will use any resources given to them for drugs, although there are other ways to reach out, and not all homeless people are addicts. There are dangers of living on the streets, but most will react with gratefulness and a warm smile if we simply help. We begin to believe that they are taking advantage of people’s conscience and good will, but in reality, they have no other option than to rely on other’s generosity. Our fear of diversity drives us away from serving this population. Just because one does not work does not mean they are any less deserving of humanity than those within our own social classes.

You live outside of the city. Growing up, you were sheltered from this brokenness. Chances are, your parents go to work each morning towards the bustling streets, where life rushes past and no one ever stops to take a breath of the crisp, winter air. Snow comes and you play outside with the comforting thoughts of hot cocoa and sitting by the fireplace when you finish. You say your prayers at night and thank God for the blessing of a warm home. You may occasionally feel sorry for those less fortunate, but have never given more than $2 worth of pocket change to the man at your local grocery store asking for donations to the Salvation Army. On the other side of this invisible city wall, people on the streets hear talk of the cold front. Rather than gathering their hats, gloves and boots to play, they scurry to the nearest shelter in which they are welcome. In the coldest months, it’s not unusual to run out of space. This winter, I encourage you to keep these thoughts in mind.

Homelessness is a real life issue that occurs constantly, even in Wichita. I challenge you to overcome your fears. Don’t ignore people on the streets; Give them food, hot cocoa, a blanket, anything. They beg for mercy yet receive hateful glances. Let your hearts mourn and relate to other’s lives. Feel sympathy towards their struggles and do not label people before you hear their stories. They are worthy to be served and our humanity only extends so far as to whom we reach out to. Have faith there is hope and remember that you have the potential to make a positive difference in the community.

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Defy homeless stereotypes this winter