Recently I was reading a magazine article about an agency that provides services to people experiencing homelessness. These services were centered on helping people develop job skills and find employment, and the program was described as assisting homeless people in “becoming contributing members of society.”
I support programs like this. There is a considerable demand and need for these services. The idea of becoming a “contributing member of society” is often described as the goal of such programs. But for some reason, when I read it this time, this phrase stopped me cold.
Because people who are homeless are already contributing to society.
The notion that homeless people aren’t contributing to society seems to be rooted in a lot of stereotypes about homelessness. One is the idea that there is one “face” of homelessness, and it’s a bedraggled single man sleeping on a sidewalk. Homelessness is multifaceted. It includes people who work and pay taxes, but who are paid far less than a living wage and struggle with escalating housing costs. It includes people of all ages and genders fleeing abusive situations. It includes parents who do their best to raise their children under extremely difficult conditions, and children who do their best to learn and pursue an education under these same conditions. To say that homeless people aren’t contributing to society dismisses these achievements.
But even among the population that researchers and policymakers refer to as the chronically homeless—those who are literally and visibly homeless, often for long periods of time, and who often have significant mental and physical health problems—I believe it is inaccurate to conclude that they don’t contribute.
I have spent a lot of time talking with homeless people. As a social worker I worked with homeless people in a permanent supportive housing program in Chicago and, as a student and a professor, I have done many research interviews with people experiencing homelessness in Chicago and Buffalo. And like many who have spent time with chronically homeless individuals, I am awed by what many of these people have endured. The depth of trauma that I have heard about from my former clients and research participants is astounding.
For example, I remember one man who I interviewed in Chicago as part of my dissertation research. His early life had gone well, but within the past few years he had lost both of his parents, faced a major health crisis, lost his job (partly due to the health crisis and the time he devoted to caring for his parents before they passed away) and subsequently lost his housing. He found himself homeless at middle age and contending with a long-term disability. And yet the morning we met, this man (who had recently found very basic housing in a single room occupancy building) still woke up, got dressed, found food, got to his interview appointment, answered all of my questions and carried on a conversation with me in which, despite the serious subject matter, he cracked several jokes, resulting in many shared moments of laughter.
I have so much respect for this man.
So how do homeless people contribute to society? They survive. They take care of themselves. They find food, water, places to sleep, places to bath, and places to feel safe in circumstances that most of us would not wish to endure, even for a day. They manage complex chronic health conditions as best they can in these same situations. They take care of each other. They retain their senses of humor when life has given them every reason not to.
In short, people who are homeless contribute to society by maintaining their humanity in a world that is constantly telling them they are something less than human. I wish that was not the reality in which we live, but it is. And as we work to change that reality, we should recognize homeless people’s resilience as a profound contribution.
Blog Post Author: Elizabeth Bowen, PhD
Elizabeth Bowen, PhD, is an Assistant Professor in the School of Social Work at the University at Buffalo-State University of New York. Her research focuses on the relationship between housing and health. She is also the UB faculty liaison for the National Homelessness Social Work Initiative.
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