Homelessness Myth #19: R-E-S-P-E-C-T

by on February 9, 2011 · 17 comments

in Economy, Health, Homelessness, Popular, San Diego

Imagine for a moment the image of a homeless person.  How do you feel?  Are you imagining someone you respect?

Many of us do not respect homeless people.  And by “us,” I mean “housed people.” Often, having respect for homeless people is only a myth.

At home with our families, at work surrounded by colleagues, and even with friends, we may thoughtlessly use negative words, such as “bums,” or “transients,” to describe unhoused people.  Our use of these words has become so prevalent that even homeless people use them to describe themselves.

For example, two days ago, I saw a homeless man wearing overalls taking a shower at the beach.  Standing in the cold weather under even colder running water, the homeless man made a great effort to wash.  As the homeless man finished his shower, he explained to an approaching housed person, “That’s how a bum washes his jeans.”

The word, “homeless,” is an adjective.  There are homeless dogs and homeless cats.  We need to remember our nouns.  We need to be clear and accurate when we are speaking about a “homeless person.”  By avoiding the noun, “person,” when we are talking about someone who is unhoused, we are essentially dehumanizing the person about whom we are speaking.

Words count and we know that words can hurt.

In addition, while we may be sympathetic to housed people with various limitations, our empathy does not seem to extend to homeless people with the same limitations.  It seems that many of us have become desensitized to the plight of homeless people through constant exposure to negative language and images in our culture.  For example, our print, radio and T.V. media often contain many disrespectful and inaccurate references to “transients,” when those homeless people are often born and raised in the same area in which they are currently homeless.

We may also show disrespect through our treatment of homeless people. Why else would we offer fewer services than are needed by them?  We disrespect homeless people when we have insufficient shelter space for the number of homeless people within any municipality.  We generally don’t meet homeless people “where they are.”   In other words, we often ignore the reality of their situations and require that homeless people live up to our standards in order to get into shelters and/or receive services.

However, there is some very good news.  The cities of Los Angeles and San Diego are now attempting to “meet homeless people where they are” by providing housing to fifty and twenty-five, respectively, most-in-need homeless people regardless of their personal needs, habits and/or addictions.  After these people are housed, appropriate services will be offered.

Why should we respect homeless people?  We need to respect homeless people because they are people.  Living without a home, money, modern conveniences and often a job, they are suffering more distress than many housed people have ever experienced.

Further, about 45% of homeless people are mentally ill.  Does this diminish the respect that we owe them?  No, because they are still people.  Most of the time we are unaware that certain housed people we know are mentally ill.  Because of a number of factors, mental illness among housed people is often not as obvious as the mental illness of homeless people.

It seems to me that the issues of homelessness have been in existence long enough for homelessness to become a formal science.  Although we don’t offer enough shelter to meet the entire need, we now offer homeless people more housing assistance than ever before.  Over time our service programs have become more effective.  Our statistical methods of counting homeless people have improved.

Therefore, it is time to review our language concerning homeless people, our cultural influences on the topic of homelessness and our treatment of homeless people so that we can recognize our biases.  When we realize our negativities, we can make changes to reflect our enlightened state of mind.   Once we respect homeless people, our world will change for the better.

I look forward to your comments.  Thank you.


Contributor, Barbara Raymer Witzer, R-DMT, LMFT

{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

Old Hermit Dave February 9, 2011 at 8:02 pm

Great read. The only ones I have no sympathy for are the kids playing homeless. The ones who can always use their cell phone to call home for money.


Christine Schanes February 10, 2011 at 4:02 pm

Hi, Old Hermit Dave,

Thanks for your comment. And thank you for the kind words.

I need to talk about having no sympathy for “kids playing homeless.” I know that you have great compassion for those in need because you understand what I’m trying to say in my article.

I just ask that you continue reading about my investigation into the very issue that you raise – “the kids playing homeless… [who can] use their cell phones to call home for money

Well, I’ve interviewed 17 of the street youth for a specific article about whether they had cell phones and called home for money. Since that time, I have talked casually with many, many more youth about this topic.

One homeless young man had a cell phone so he could call both of his part-time employers to see either or both had work for him.

One young woman, 24 years old 9 (but she looks and behaves much younger), told me that she had an apartment but she liked hanging out with the other young people.

One 15 year old young lady was hanging out with the homeless kids to the total distress of her mother. I spoke with the young lady and her mother. The young lady said that she was just having fun with her friends. Her mother told me that she would be moving to another city so that her daughter would not be around those homeless kids any more.

Everyone else, all ages of youth, had no phones and did not call home for money.

Those are my findings. I do have trust that my findings may mean something to you.

Please let me know what you’ve found.


Old Hermit Dave February 10, 2011 at 6:36 pm

“Everyone else, all ages of youth, had no phones and did not call home for money”.
That might be it, get them all phones, and a home to call for money. OK that’s Dave the comic. Back to the Old Hermit, no question, homeless humans present a problem that will never be easy to solve. Good people will continue to try, politicians will continue to talk. I am lucky because I have a line that all homeless people seem to understand when I fail to give them money. “I am just a SS check away from pushing the cart behind you”.


Christine Schanes February 10, 2011 at 7:48 pm

Hi, Old Hermit Dave,

Thanks for your comment.

Well, you got me laughing. I have to agree. I would love to get each of the homeless youth a cell phone so that they could call a trusted family member. Some of the youth explained to me that home was not a safe place to be. However, I’m hoping that they would have an extended family member, perhaps a grandmother, with whom they would be safe.

And I agree with you. I believe that homeless people do understand when we tell them we can’t share any money with them. They know severe poverty. Most of them know what it feels like to lose everything. And they have compassion for us when we tell them we’re afraid of becoming homeless, too.

Please stay in touch,


Marisag February 9, 2011 at 9:44 pm

OK, I’m guilty. I do call homeless people “transients”. I never thought of it as having bad connotations, only that it mean the person moved around and that it was a lot shorter than saying homeless person. I say ‘black’ instead of African American for the same reason. I’m lazy. I had no idea that transient was disrespectful in any way. But I admit you make a good point and I’ll probably think twice before using it again. We really should have solar showers at the beach for the homeless population. Also, why aren’t the parks planted with fruit trees? We can certainly grow citrus, plums and other tree fruit in San Diego.


Christine Schanes February 10, 2011 at 4:15 pm

Hi, Marisag,

Thanks for your comment.

Straight out – “transient” is the new “N” word. Its use dehumanizes a person. The term implies that a person does not belong where he/she is and that he/she is moving from one place to another, in other words, he/she is in transition. Homeless people reside where they are. They have no “primary residence” or “secondary residence” as many of us housed people do.

For some time now we have been using words in the field of homelessness without thinking. Why? Because we’re busy. Because homelessness was not supposed to be last this long. Because some of us are tired of the whole issue.

So, I’m not excusing us for using disrespectful language. I’m just trying to help us understand how we got here when we are basically nice people.

Do you think we can collectively understand about our language and change it for the better?


Patty Jones February 9, 2011 at 11:12 pm

Thank you, Christine, for you enlightening thoughts.

I have a relative who lived on the streets for many years. He is a diagnosed schizophrenic that went without treatment for a long, long time. He disappeared from our lives because, he told me years later, of the stigma of mental illness, the shame that he felt and the fear that we would reject him. He was finally hospitalized in pretty bad shape and a social worker convinced him to contact us. This was about nine years ago. He has since remained in treatment and finally found low income senior housing downtown and we see him on a regular basis. The place he lives now is not great, but is much better than some of the hotels he lived in in the past.

He has certainly been through some hell in his life and I’m glad he’s finally found some peace.


Christine Schanes February 10, 2011 at 2:59 pm

Hi, Patty,

Thank you for your comment. And thank you for sharing so much about your relative who has schizophrenia. I am glad to hear that he is in treatment and that he has found low income senior housing downtown.

Please know that I feel that your relative is very heroic. He shows great courage to go through all that he experiences every day. Some lives are easier than others. I would say that he is living one of the most challenging lives possible.

I, too, am glad that he’s finally found some peace. I know that you give your relative great support through your visits.Please give him my best wishes.



Jack February 10, 2011 at 3:58 pm

“Why should we respect homeless people? We need to respect homeless people because they are people.”

Christina, this is probably the most important line in your essay. For whatever reason they have found themselves on the street, they remain people. The minute we as human beings begin to chip away at our humanity by making a determination as to who is and who is not worthy of respect because of their individual circumstance, we become less ourselves. Our desentization carries over and hurts all aspects of our lives, interactions, and relationships.

And this does not mean sell all your worldly goods and give yourself over to a life of charitable work. I do not hand out money to every person who asks me, and walking around OB I have plenty of opportunity to do so. Respect can be as simply as looking another person in the eye and smiling, an acknowledgement of that person’s existence. Not head down, eyes cast away, stiffened pace walking by, as if you could “catch it.”

Think of how you feel in one of those momentary relationships when you have eye contact with a stranger, and instead of looking through you, they look at you and smile.

Now of course a look and a smile is not going to resolve the issues of homelessnes. In fact, as long as we as a culture disenfranchise those with mental illness, those who have hit a bump, hard or soft, we will have homelessness. But a look and a smile can a long way to change, if only the beginning of your change of heart.



Christine Schanes February 10, 2011 at 4:23 pm

Hi, Jack,

Thank you for your comment.

And thank you for highlighting these two sentences: “Why should we respect homeless people? We need to respect homeless people because they are people.”

When I thought about those sentences, I reflected long and hard about them. I concluded that the real reason, although simple, was worth stating. Thank you so much for confirming my conclusion.

Thank you also for your understanding about people without homes. I’m guessing that you are quite a compassionate human being. I’m pleased to know you through your comment.

Please stay in touch,


Jack February 10, 2011 at 4:33 pm

Well Christine (sorry, not Christin-a), I am, as a few of you know, a firm believer in action over words. We can always use an extra hand to help feed the hungry every other Tuesday at Sacred Heart Catholic Church (next meal 2/15 @ 5:00 p.m.). Regradless of your faith, you can feed your soul, while helping others find a few minutes of reprieve from the streets.



Christine Schanes February 10, 2011 at 4:52 pm

Hi, Jack,

Thanks for your comment.

Well, I’m smiling because your compassion comes right through your words. And you have just confirmed that compassion for me through your actions at Sacred Hard Catholic Church every other Tuesday.

I can’t make it 2/15, but I hope to be there in the future.

Thanks for extending the invitation to serve food to those in need. I hope we all take you up on your invitation.


Abby February 12, 2011 at 1:30 am

Of course all humans deserve respect, but I have to say some of our local homeless need to show a little more respect to OB and it’s residents. I’m sure it’s just a few bad apples, but it’s frustrating all the same.

I don’t mind people going through the trash for recyclables and usable stuff. I even try to put clothing and other good stuff on top of the can rather than in the bags with the actual garbage. Yet some people still feel the need to rip open the trash bags and scatter garbage all over the place.

Recently we went out to our new car to go to work only to find someone had used the trunk lid as a picnic table, getting food all over the car, and leaving tin cans to rust on it. When it’s damp a tin can left on a car over night will leave rust rings.

And we all have had the joy of waking up to find someone has used our yard, driveway or even porches as a rest room.

OB is a very tolerant place, but some people are pushing the limits. If things like I mentioned above wouldn’t happen, I think we’d see a lot more respect for the homeless, after all you have to give respect to get it.

Of course there will always be people who simply don’t like the homeless, just because they are homeless, and they don’t like seeing it. Nothing will change those peoples minds, their hearts are just too small to begin with.


Christine Schanes February 12, 2011 at 9:40 am

Hi Abby,

Thanks for your comment.

I understsand exactly what you’re saying. It is frustrating when adults/youth soil our belongings and even hurt/injury/destroy our property.

A homeless man in OB said to me recently, “There’s bad in every group.”

Of course, there is.

Yet, I think that when we, housed people, are inconvenienced by the actions of people without homes, it’s on us to understand.


Well, I can only speak for myself and I’ve given this a lot of thought. I truly believe if I was homeless, that it would take 3 weeks for me to start abusing some substance. Then, I believe that I really wouldn’t care about doing the “right thing” about anything. In fact, I would be abusing a substance because I really did not want to live as a homeless person. I would want to die.

Some one reading this might say, “Well then, why don’t homeless people just kill themselves?”

The answer is: homeless people do kill themselves.

Just one example. A friend of mine, Annie, 86 years old, lived without shelter in Santa Monica for many years. After she broke her foot, two of us tried to find her shelter so that she could recouperate indoors even for a few days. There was no available space in any shelter we could find.

So, late that Saturday night, I drove Annie to the only available motel room I could find, but because Annie did not have ID she could not stay.

I ended up giving her $20 and leaving Annie at an all-night donut shop.

Six months later, Annie had had enough. She threw herself off a parking structure and died.

Perhaps, when we see the negative consequences of homelessness, we housed people can be spurred into action to help homeless people.

Also, understanding the actions of homeless people takes a lot of compassion on the part of everyone. But, I belive that increasing our compassion is always a wonderful addition to our character.

I believe that we can resolve the issues of homelessness.

Your compassion is evidence that we are up to the challenge.

What do you think?


Sunshine February 14, 2011 at 7:18 pm

thanx for your contribution to end homelessness. I enjoyed reading your article. I like how you are working toward getting peoples’ vocabulary & definition of terms on the same page. Its worth its weight in gold toward solution oriented progress. I’ve used the phrases “walled” and “sans walled” in conversation with both homed and people who are experiencing homelessness. who people are can’t be determined by what “side of a wall” they live on.

In my short time in OB, I have had many conversations and interactions with both homed and homeless people. I have seen the same human behaviors in both ‘circles’ if you will. Some productive, some destructive. To me, it’s not a house that determines a persons character or worth, it’s their inner intention that reveals who they truly are.

Keep the articles comin, I’m reading!


Christine Schanes February 16, 2011 at 9:08 am

Hi, Sunshine,

Thanks for your comment. And thank you for your kind words of support.

I appreciate your thoughts and insights. I agree with you – “walled” and “sans walls” are wonderful terms to describe the situation of housed and unhoused people.

Your words, “it’s not a house that determines a person’s character or worth, it’s their inner intention that reveals who they truly are,” are words to live by. Absolutely.

I enjoy reading your articles, too.

Best Wishes,


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