How Are The Homeless Dehumanized?

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Aug 29, 2008, 1:14:38 PM8/29/08
to Mennonite Poverty Forum
Almost every person who is homeless goes through a process of
dehumanization. Here are some of the ways homeless people are
dehumanized in many cities in the U.S.

The homeless become homeless because they are separated from their
family and friends, not allowed space in their social network to
live. For some, this is because they are doing or have done things
that were unacceptable for their community, for others it is because
they have received all the help their social community feel they
deserve to have, while for others it is because they have no social
network at all. Whatever the case, the homeless person begins their
time on the street alone, separated from the people they are familiar
This segregation continues as the homeless are assumed to be a “class
apart.” This assumption soon becomes truth as those on the street,
getting their clothes and food from the same places, often begin to
look like each other. For many people, although there is a homeless
“look” about them, many never make connections with others on the
street. Although there are some homeless communities, for the most
part each person on the street is separated from everyone else, alone
and lonely.

The majority culture fear the homeless because of their differences.
First of all, almost all of the homeless come from the lower classes,
which have different cultural standards and mores than the middle class
—the ruling culture. Also, since most people don’t understand how
people become homeless or why some remain on the street, there is a
distinct otherness about the homeless. A lack of understanding of a
social group almost always creates social fear and disgust of the
other group.

Illegal to be Poor
They are automatically criminals in most towns and cities in the U.S.
which have anti-camping ordinances. Although homelessness is almost
always an unwanted tragedy by those who experience it, most cities and
towns, by having this ordinance, makes it illegal to have this tragedy
occur to one. There are certain types of poverty which will cause one
to be treated as a criminal, of which homelessness is one.

The Criminal Label
Because it is illegal to be without a house, the police feel the
social obligation to treat the homeless as criminals. It is assumed,
wrongly, that the homeless, especially the chronic homeless, are
hotbeds of criminal activity, and so every homeless person is checked
by local police. Because they are assumed to be criminals, it is made
clear to them that police service is not for them because they are not
really a part of the community. Thus they are denied community
At times the homeless, because they are already labeled as criminals,
feel that they have the right to act as low-level criminals. They
might drink in public, jaywalk, participate in low-level drug trade or
steal items from stores to sell.

Attacked by Police
Also, because of the assumption of wrongdoing, the police at rare
times, especially in certain communities, feel it necessary to be
brutal. The homeless are excluded from public areas where they did no
criminal activity, verbally abused by the police, beat up by the
police and attacked by police dogs. While these instances are
relatively rare compared to the number of times the homeless are
stopped by the police, these incidents cause each encounter between a
homeless person and a police officer to be tinged with fear.

Community Self-maligned
Because it is assumed by the majority culture that all homeless are
criminals, low-lifes and screwups, almost every homeless person comes
into the homeless community assuming that of their fellows. They will
assume that every homeless person is a thief, drug user, alcoholic and
lazy until they are proven otherwise. Thus, even when one interviews
the homeless about their street community, they will degrade them all,
except for the few that they personally know.

Refused a Place to Sleep
The homeless, because they have broken a camping ordinance (because
they have no way of obtaining an apartment), they are denied the right
to sleep on public property or (in some cities) on private property,
even if they have permission. This means that they are often awakened
in the middle of the night, rousted out of bed and told to move all of
their possessions out of whatever space they are in within a given
period of time, often an hour. Depending on where the homeless person
is, this may happen as little as every two years, or as frequently as
once a week.

Property stolen legally
Because they are camping illegally, the property of the homeless is
also at risk to be stolen or damaged by public servants. Police
officers, park workers, other government crews and also other homeless
tear up tents, steal sleeping bags, throw away clothes, steal money
and take and sell precious metals.

Denied food
In some cities, it is illegal to serve the homeless a free meal. The
fines are steep to those churches or organizations who take the moral
high ground and serve the homeless despite the ban. Even in cities in
which meals are available, most homeless only eat one meal a day,
because of the difficulty of getting across town from one meal to
another, and to prevent themselves from having to stand in long lines
more than once a day.

Denied bathrooms
Because the homeless are assumed to have a higher level of drug use,
they are, as a group, denied access to bathrooms. Most homeless train
themselves to need to go to the bathroom once or twice a day

Denied proper health care
Almost all emergency rooms are required by law to meet the desperate
needs of those who come for treatment, especially life-threatening
emergencies. However, many doctors and nurses, when they see a
patient has been treated for drug-related issues or when they see a
patient is homeless, they will do the least amount of work possible
and send the patient away as quickly as possible. Some emergency
rooms only see a homeless patient after all the other patients have
gone home.
Even if a hospital provides adequate medical care, if a homeless
person’s care is severe, the hospital will send the patient “home” to
a shelter or to the street, with inadequate healing time, thus causing
secondary infections, a recurrence of the condition and sometimes even

Existence denied
Many communities deny that there are any homeless among them at all.
If a group tries to assist the homeless in a community, the mayor or
police chief may deny that any homeless exist in their community,
despite them sending police officers to roust the homeless out of
their camps. Bill O’Reily infamously denied the existence of homeless
veterans, despite some living only blocks away from his studio.

Verbally abused
Any homeless person trying to catch up on their lack of sleep the
night before or asking for money for food will at times be maligned
and abused by some. They are abused by those who feel that the very
act of being asked for assistance is an affront to them and also, at
times, by police officers. They are sometimes just told to “get a
job”, but often they are invited to participate in more colorful

The homeless are under constant danger of attack. The police are not
with them, but against them. A routine police sweep, to “move the
homeless on,” might turn violent where the homeless person might be
electrocuted with a tazer, attacked by a dog, or just beat up. Some
young people, feeling their community’s wrath against the homeless,
feel that they have the right to beat up homeless people, burn them or
even murder them.

These are the conditions the Jews and Gypsies had to live under before
the holocaust really got underway. The Tutsis in the early stages of
the Rwandan holocaust faced some of these conditions, such as being
forced to move out of their homes, living under fear of attack and
being declared illegal as a group. Those who are tortured for
terrorist activity face many of the same problems—lack of sleep, lack
of food, inadequate health care, fear of attack at any time of the day
or night. Many groups’ existence have been denied to deny them
adequate protection when a genocide occurs.

What have the homeless done to warrant such ill treatment? None of
the stereotypes of the homeless hold up under scrutiny (see “Myths of
the Homeless”). Are the homeless maligned, mistreated and refused
protection to communicate to them that they are not wanted? That
communication has been clearly received.

But I also wonder, given the pattern of dehumanization before any
genocide, should the U.S. become more of a society of fear than it
already is, how long will it be until the homeless are locked in camps
and allowed to die of the sickness that comes of having inadequate
food and bathroom facilities? What is the next stage in the
dehumanization of the homeless?

The only way the state of the homeless will get better is if we all
become concerned. And being concerned can only come about when we
know those who are suffering.
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