Homelessness Myth #16: Helping Infantilizes Homeless People

by on December 7, 2010 · 18 comments

in Civil Rights, Culture, Economy, Homelessness

by Christine Schanes / HuffingtonPost / December 6, 2010

The myth that helping a homeless person makes him/her dependent, in other words, “infantilizes” him/her, is sometimes used as a rationale not to help a person in need. I believe the concepts that are being confused in this myth are the concepts of “helping” another person versus “rescuing” another person. It is important to understand the practical implications of these concepts so we can expose this myth for what it is — an excuse not to help a homeless person.

When we help another person, housed or unhoused, we are, in a word, “helpful.” Our actions that assist another person in need to realize his/her own plans for his/her life are helpful actions.

Rescuing another person is something very different from helping him/her. When we try to rescue someone, we attempt to take over a part of his/her life often substituting our own goals and ambitions for his/her own. The person we are rescuing appears to lose a part of himself/herself because we have stepped in and taken over.

Helping equals assisting; rescuing equals control. A person in need can be assisted. A baby is almost entirely within our control.

I believe that we can all agree that no rational, mature adult wants to be controlled, in whole or in part. We bristle at the mere thought of being “infantilized.” We each have had our own turn as a baby. Now, as adults, we have the opportunity to learn, grow and achieve our individual goals and desires.

But being a housed adult does not mean that each of us doesn’t need help from time to time. Truly, each of us probably needs more help than we might like to acknowledge. For example, most of us need help with letters of reference to get into college. We sometimes need “to know someone” to get a job. And most prospective buyers seek mortgages from banks to acquire their homes.

A person without a home needs help, too. Let’s face it: there is a homeless person in almost every city and rural community in the United States. Further, there are not enough beds in emergency shelters, transitional housing projects or permanent supportive housing programs to shelter every homeless person. So, the majority of homeless people are unsheltered. These are facts.

Now, what do we do?

Of course, we housed people can do nothing to help a homeless person. Inaction doesn’t cost us anything — or so we think.

We now know through multiple studies that it costs the housed population more money for a person to be homeless rather than for that person to be housed with supportive services. We also know that arresting and jailing a homeless person for existing without shelter costs more than providing that person with shelter and supportive services.

Thus, having a person remain homeless is not cost-effective. So, we, the housed population, save money by housing a homeless individual.

Besides the financial costs, there are also hidden costs for the housed population when we don’t help people in need because we don’t exercise our human qualities of care and compassion. Through actions of compassion, we expand positive human qualities. Indeed, many religions and spiritual paths admonish their followers to “help one another.” Science has also proven that when we help one another, our immune system is positively affected. By helping others, we help ourselves.

When a person is homeless, he/she often suffers negative consequences from being unhoused. These consequences can be physical, emotional, psychological and even spiritual. Therefore, a homeless person may need help on many different levels.

How can we help? An easy and quick first step to help is to serve a homeless person nutritious food. Hunger is rampant among low-income people in the United States and most prevalent among our unhoused population. Once a person’s hunger is met, his/her entire perspective may change for the better.

Step two is to provide public toilets, showers and laundries. Everyone needs to be clean to work. Ask any employer of a fast food restaurant.

Together, these two steps will have an immediate impact of decreasing the number of people who are homeless. An able-bodied and able-minded unhoused person will be fortified and clean. He/she will be employable. Once gainfully employed, he/she can afford housing.

Step three is providing shelter for each person who is homeless. Right now we housed people are involved in creating housing for unhoused people often in the form of emergency shelters, transitional housing and permanent supportive housing.

We could also provide housing to homeless people by converting abandoned military bases into self-sufficient villages where homeless people will be welcomed. Working together, nonprofit organizations could help the government create these villages. The nonprofits could also train the residents to run their own village with light industry and organic farming.

Helping homeless people is good for all of us.

I look forward to your comments. Thank you,

Christine

{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar RB December 7, 2010 at 6:21 pm

I believe we have a program like the one you have identified. A nonprofit village concept with housing, food, education, job training, and a model were residents run their own village has been constructed in San Diego.

http://www.fatherjoesvillages.org/

Of course, programs only work with those who want change, temporary help, and individual improvement.

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avatar Christine Schanes December 7, 2010 at 11:53 pm

Hi, RB,

Thanks for your comment.

I am very familiar and grateful for Father Joes Villages, also known as St. Vincent de Paul. It’s president, Father Joe Carroll, actually helped me over twenty years ago when we started our nonprofit, Nos Amis/Our Friends, Inc., Children Helping Poor and Homeless People (chphp.com).

However, what I am suggesting is something different from Father Joe’s Villages. My suggestion is a self-sufficient village on a closed military base that would be run along the lines of a kibbutz and homeless people would be in charge of their own village.

Also, homeless people would be invited to stay as long as they wanted, including their entire life, in their self-sufficient village. Finally, a home for an unlimited duration. This self-sufficient village would provide quick and relatively easy permanent housing with supportive services provided by nonprofit agencies.

I feel this is the answer to the question of how do we end homelessness.

What do you think?
Christine

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avatar Carebear February 2, 2012 at 7:42 am

Well then, let’s do it!! This is a dream I have had for quite some time but I seem to not have the money, time and expertise to do it. But let’s do it anyway! Now, where to begin? Here’s a thought. Let’s include the homeless in the planning.

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avatar Christine Schanes February 2, 2012 at 10:52 am

Hi Carebear,

Thanks for your comment.

Absolutely, people of all economic status would be a vital part of creating the self-sufficient village.

And I agree with you, let’s do it now. Stay tuned.

Christine

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avatar John December 12, 2010 at 3:26 am

Its nice to know that some people can live for free while im still trying to afford rent,raise a young child,and work 60 hours a week. Its hard for me to feel sympathy when I tell them that I have nothing to spare and they have some rude comment or go on a wild tangent about how need God in my life. Just because im not living on the street doesnt mean Ive got change to spare.And it really makes me mad when i see them asking children for money which i have seen on several occasions.Granted not all every one out there is doing that but three time this week? End Rant… Ugh

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avatar Christine Schanes December 12, 2010 at 8:59 am

Hi, John,

Thanks for your comment. I do understand what you’re talking about. It’s tough these days to even find work, then the work may not be what we want or not what we are suited for and then there are family responsibilities. Tough. No question about it.

Yet, despite how difficult it is for us housed people, it is even more difficult for those living without a home. The stress is enormous out there. Day after day, night after night with out hope.

There is a reason that they have no hope – there is not enough help for those in need so even the strongest people out there, including former policemen and women, lawyers, master carpenters, etc., may turn to substances just to try to alleviate the pain. Of course, substance abuse of any kind does not help, but we can understand why any person, housed or unhoused, could turn to it.

The answer? Do what we can to help those in more need than ourselves when we can do it. I carry dollar bills with me and when I’m out, I just say that I can’t help right now.

I look forward to your further thoughts on this matter.

Christine

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avatar Diane5150 January 29, 2011 at 7:17 pm

Funny thing about being at the very bottom of the human food chain. You have nothing to lose. People who feel as if they have nothing to lose are invulnerable to the shame of debasement at the time. They may feel ashamed later, but the shame will be covered up by whatever mood altering device they chose to use.

Begging from children, piece of cake.

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avatar Christine Schanes February 2, 2012 at 11:00 am

Hi, Diane5150,

Thanks for your comment. A quick story. A lovely elderly gentleman, Sylvester, was working at a company that offered him early retirement with a severance package of $27,000. Sylvester opted to retire and put his severance pay in the bank. Unfortunately, soon after Sylvester’s son got in trouble and Sylvester used all of his retirement money and then some to help his son. As a result of his largess, Sylvester became homeless.

I met Sylvester during the 6 months that he was riding the bus. After a considerable period of time, Sylvester explained that he was riding the bus all day every day because he was so embarrassed because he was homeless.

Many of us service providers discussed how we could help this lovely gentleman. Eventually, Sylvester became housed again, helped many of us service providers and was featured in an Eddie Murphy movie!

True story. And there are many more stories about how embarrassing homelessness is to people.

Please stay in touch,
Christine

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avatar radicaluterus February 6, 2012 at 12:42 pm

Hi Christine, I was at Von’s last week and I saw a very young man with a large backpack and a cat leashed to his neck. The cat rode on top of the backpack. I was not surprised as I myself had a cat for 18yrs, a cat which was equally amazing as she adapted to my unstable life over and over again. I went into Von’s and I thought I would get some cat food and drop it off where he was resting. As I was shopping I hoped he would still be there. I also thought, what would I do with cat food? So I opted to wait and see.

As I was exiting the store I handed him some money and encouraged him to seek help from local agency’s. His only complaint was he had no official identification and the hoops he had to jump through were overwhelming for him. He also stated that he hated homeless people and would not seek help from a local shelter.

I could relate to his experience. All I had to offer him besides the money was, “Sometimes we have to do things which are difficult, in order to help ourselves.”

I can say that, because I have done it. I too hated my homelessness. I too hated homeless people. I hated myself. My cat saved my life more than once.
My point, I am catboy.

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avatar Christine Schanes February 6, 2012 at 6:02 pm

Hi, radicaluterus,

Thanks for your comment.

I am very moved by your personal story. I understand how pets can be so very important – even life-saving. Although you don’t need congratulations from me, I do sincerely congratulate you for living the experiences you have and continuing. Congratulations!

And thank you for your keen observations of the young man with the cat at Vons.

I wish I had shared this with you before – we at the Center for Justice and Social Compassion (cjschomelesslaw.org) do help homeless people get their ID.

CJSC works on Saturday mornings (except not this Saturday, 2/11) from 8am – 10:30am at the Episcopal Church Center at Sunset Cliffs Blvd and Brighton.

Can you find the young man again and tell him of our services?

We haven’t really done any advertising because we need funding. However, as we apply for grants, we’re doing the work.

CJSC helps homeless people get certified copies of birth certificates, offers a $7 voucher for DMV CA photo ID and help with getting Social Security cards.

Please feel free to spread the word.

Also, please let me know how it goes.
Christine

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avatar tricia February 11, 2012 at 10:06 am

John,
I am sorry that you feel the way you do about homeless people.I understand that some can be rude and demanding.But isn’t that just a reflection on society as a whole?We deal with rudeness everyday from people who are not homeless.

What bothers me is that I think we have lost our capacity for compassion.You may think that bad things will never happen to you, but they do.And you might find yourself in a similar situation….having to beg.

I understand times are tough, and you are by no means required to give these people money.But remember not of all them are beggars.Not all of them addicts.
Some of them just might be your neighbors.
As for the catboy…I saw him yesterday in La Mesa.He was getting money to leave town.Yes he told me he had no I,D., but that he is homeless by choice.He enjoys traveling.But he took another young homeless man to the library to help him get started on looking for a job, after giving him some of his money.
That it seems to me is how it should work.He had some good fortune, and he passed it along.The other young homeless man, is a recent Iraqi vet.Clean cut and very polite.His sign clearly stated that he was looking for a job, but would accept assistance.He got it in the form of another homeless person.

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avatar Christine Schanes February 13, 2012 at 1:15 pm

Hi, Tricia,
Thanks for your comment. And thanks up the update about carboy. Wherever he goes, he will need ID, so our offer stands to help him get ID. We, Center for Justice and Social Compassion, do forward ID to homeless people at their new location.

We’ve found that sometimes homeless people just keep moving because they can’t get help.

Please stay in touch,
Christine Schanes

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avatar radicaluterus February 7, 2012 at 8:53 am

Hi Christine I saw catboy once since I spoke to him the first time. I’ll keep the info with me and do what I can. Thanks

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avatar Christine Schanes February 10, 2012 at 11:11 pm

Hi, radicaluterus,

Many thanks for spreading the word. Thanks for all you do for others. Please stay in touch and let me know how it goes. Thank you.

Christine

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avatar OBCindi February 11, 2012 at 7:54 pm

***STANDING OVATION*** to Christine….We need more compassionate, kind and generous souls like you in this world. I agree that there is no need to come down on those who are already down on their luck by choice or hapistance. I truly had not even a dime on me the other day after hitting Farmers Market and this sweet girl (who I at first, mistook for a boy) told me she was creating love on the sidewalk and could I spare any change. Avoiding eye contact, I told her I had nothing and you know what she said, “Many blessings for acknowledging me.” I stopped in my tracks, struck by how rude avoiding eye contact had been. I turned around, made eye contact with her and told her, “Many blessing to you too Mama.” The smile we shared made me feel like a million dollars. How simple and pure! I agree to your response regarding rude people–the glass is half full–most people who ask for change are good but in a difficult circumstance. We can definitely learn a thing or two by taking the time to acknowledge that by the grace of God, we are in a better situation than them, and to give them compassion (and as I learned, at least eye contact) if we can’t or don’t want to give money.

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avatar Christine Schanes February 13, 2012 at 1:18 pm

Hi, OBCindi,

Thank for your comment. And thank you for your kind words.

However, it is you who I thank for reflecting upon the exchange you had with that young girl and for your response to acknowledge her!

Great job, OBCindi! Please keep it up and keep in touch!
Christine

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avatar radicaluterus February 11, 2012 at 1:41 pm

Here’s the thread, yahoo. I saw catboy today. He is indeed trying to get out of town. He took the paper I had written the church address upon, and if he kept it I don’t know, not worried about it. I briefly mentioned my homelessness, my cat and then petted Chaos his cat. Then I went about my business. I have no control, I seek no control, I am blessed to have me a cool black cat.

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avatar Christine Schanes February 13, 2012 at 1:21 pm

Hi, radicaluterus,

Thanks for your comment. And thanks so much for following through by giving the church address to carboy.

I feel that your attitude is perfect. We do what we can do, and you’ve done that, and go on to help the next person, which I’m sure you will do.

Please keep in touch,
Christine

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