Homelessness and Hypocrisy

11 Nov

In 2008 and 2009, my colleague Dale and I interviewed nearly fifty young patrons of a youth drop-in centre in Ottawa. Some of them were homeless, some of them were just poor, and all of them were what a lot of people call “street kids.”

I walked into the first few with a very rudimentary and over-socialized, over-structured idea of how the world works. I wanted and expected to find young people who were poor or homeless or dependent on social assistance (or all three) because of some fluke of circumstance, because of situations of abuse or neglect that were beyond their control, because of anything, really, for which they could not be blamed. In most cases, this was true.

But there were also a disturbing number of interviewees who had a real chance at a good life, and they blew it. The one that stands out most – and bothers me still – was the kid I’ll call “Eric.” Eric had, by all accounts, a middle-class upbringing with professional parents in a nice part of town. He was sharp-witted. He seemed smart. He could write and draw well. But in junior high, he started using drugs, lit fires at school, stole thousands of dollars worth of computer stuff from the school’s computer lab, and was expelled. His exasperated parents kicked him out, and he’d been sleeping in a closet in an apartment that housed five or six other guys with similar stories.

In the interview, I wanted to be “cool” for this kid.

I thought I was compassionate enough to confront and shrug off the bits of homelessness and poverty that other people find vulgar or repulsive or scary.

I thought I could resist judgment, too.

I guess I thought I could find structural explanations for every single person’s plight – to disprove everyone who believes that poor people just need to pull up their bootstraps and get their lives on track. And there are many people who believe this.

Paul Goyette, via Wikimedia CommonsThe Salvation Army interviewed 1,025 Canadians in 2010 and found that one-quarter believed that poor people are poor because they are “lazy” and have “lower moral values” than the average Canadian. Half of the respondents also believed that if poor people really wanted to work, they could just find a job.

After I interviewed Eric, I worried that his story was just fodder for these apparently pervasive and potentially harmful beliefs. I was tempted to erase his interview or, at the very least, omit the most damning parts of it from the study. I wanted to recreate it – to throw in an abusive parent or a disability, or find in it a single, pivotal moment where the good kid can’t help but go bad. But in his story, and in a handful of others, there was simply no such explanation to be found.

It took me a year to figure out how to “deal” with Eric, but eventually I came to this: any approach to homelessness and poverty – be it a personal attitude or a policy response – has to make room for human fallibility. We all make mistakes. The mistakes we make as teenagers can be particularly stupid, maybe because we think we’ve got less to lose and more to prove, because we have only a little bit of agency and we’re willing to use it in dangerous ways.

As adults, too, we screw up. We lose our tempers at the people we love. Sometimes we cheat. We lie. We drink too much. We speed. We run through stop signs. What matters, I have come to believe, is not just how we deal with people who are brought to their knees by factors they can’t control, but also how we deal with people who make mistakes.

If someone fell down in front of you in the street, your first reaction, unless you’re a jerk, would be to pick them up. It wouldn’t be to ask whether the person could have avoided falling by stepping in a different spot.

We need to accept that people will screw up, and we need to be willing to confront that potential in ourselves as much as others. And we need to bring our hypocrisy out into the light.

When it comes to homeless people, many of us – most of us, even – are hypocritical.

The evidence of this is beginning to burst through the seams of the neat and tidy explanations we normally rely on when we think about inequality. As Stephen Gaetz (director of the Canadian Homelessness Research Network) recently argued, even at our best, when we assess the societal response to homelessness, we normally think of the soup kitchens and charities that reach out and give love without judgment, and we focus our energies on making more of that good stuff happen.

We don’t think nearly as often about the way we criminalize homelessness. Homeless people who sleep on benches get ticketed for doing it. People who get drunk in the streets are ticketed and jailed, when there are plenty of googly-eyed drunk people in bars, who are more or less protected from police intervention because they paid the cover charge and receive their drinks in glasses, not paper bags.

Even outside of criminalization, we judge the poor and homeless by a different standard than we do the people who’ve “made it.”

When a panhandler humbly asks for money, we wonder “what’s he going to spend it on?” If we suspect it’s something morally questionable or unhealthy, we keep our nickels to ourselves. Or we do as my mother does, and walk them into a café, buy them a coffee, and place the steaming cup directly into their hands, thereby preventing a booze purchase at the same time as we show them we care. The latter approach is in most respects laudable, touching, compassionate. But we don’t exercise nearly the same judgment when it comes to the companies and employed people we support with our money. (There are soft drink companies allegedly murdering workers in developing countries who are attempting to unionize! And yet, we drink up.)

There are also rumblings about implementing drug testing for welfare recipients. Polls are circulating on Facebook, asking whether or not you agree with this policy, and many people I consider friends and social progressives are in favour of it. The question of why drug testing is pertinent to welfare claims is curiously unexamined. Research has shown that 70% of drug users are actually employed. Welfare recipients are no more likely to use drugs than the rest of the population. So what is supporting this connection? Could it be that most of us sort of suspect, on the basis of fear of the unknown or contempt for the poor, that people are getting welfare even though they don’t “deserve” it?

It’s certainly not out of compassion, or a desire to help drug addicts overcome their habit. After all, the idea of testing CEOs for designer drugs, cocaine or even prescription drug abuse never crosses the collective mind.

We are, then, a hypocritical bunch.

Reactions to Occupy Wall Street and Occupy Toronto have brought this increasingly into view. In Toronto, homeless people from the areas surrounding the tent city have, understandably I think, come to the park. They’ve slept there, sat around campfires, mingled with protestors, and have been offered food and supplies just like anyone else.

Observers have used the presence of homeless people as a reason to shut Occupy down. “There are a few people there with legitimate concerns,” one neighbour recently said on the radio. “But the rest of them are just there for a place to sleep.”

The Occupy “cities” have been condemned for allowing homeless people in – for housing and feeding them, offering them dry socks and tarps to cover their minimal belongings from the rain and frost. Occupiers have been asked to explain the presence of homeless people, to account for their existence. News media have run stories about the Occupiers “struggles” to integrate the homeless and drug addicts into their communities.

It’s a shame we don’t apply that same standard of scrutiny and level of attention to the wider world outside Occupy.

*A book about our study is currently in production with UBC Press. For now, it’s called ‘Reimagining Intervention in Young Lives: Work, Social Assistance, and Marginalization’ and it’s due out this summer. You can follow developments here.


One Response to “Homelessness and Hypocrisy”


  1. What we are waking up to « elementalpresent - November 13, 2011

    […] survives especially on our reluctance to be dependent on anyone but ourselves, our castigation of those who are dependent on others, and what Sachs called “the demonization” of the main […]

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