Monday, February 24, 2014

Debunking the Myth about Homelessness

A few weeks ago, I was checking in on the world via Facebook, when I saw that there was a comic posted in my newsfeed from The Oatmeal. Now, if you aren’t familiar with The Oatmeal, he is a comic writer whose work frequently has to do with the true nature of cats and dogs (like this one:  He’s also a HUGE fan of Sriracha. His humor can be a bit crass and sometimes borders on the offensive, but is frequently laugh-out-loud funny.  For the most part I find him entertaining.  So when I saw that he had posted something, instead of skimming by, I actually took the time to read it.  And then I started fuming. 

The comic he posted was a Venn diagram featuring a cat and a homeless man, entitled “Homeless man vs your cat.” According to his comparison, the homeless are like cats because they don’t pay rent, have excess body hair, live in cardboard boxes, and if that wasn’t bad enough, they “wash their nards in public.” Now as someone who has actually worked with the homeless, you can guess how livid I was at seeing this.  I was so mad that I literally couldn’t come up with a coherent way to respond in a professional or useful manner (I didn’t think calling him a “nardhead” would do much good.)  It’s taken me this long to be able to put my thoughts to page in a way that might actually have some impact.

Not only does this comic dehumanize being homeless, but plays into all of the stereotypes about the homeless.  I know that I’m probably preaching to the choir, but let me address some of these:

People are homeless because they are lazy, crazy, or an addict:  People are homeless because they cannot afford housing. There are a variety of reasons why this might be the case. Some people do struggle with drug/alcohol addiction. Others suffer from mental illness. The largest growing segment of the homeless population are actually people with physical health issues. Many people who are homeless are employed (15% of LPCS Guests are); however, they aren’t making enough money to be able to afford market-rate rent. Current estimates are that 12 million renter/homeowner households pay more than 50% of their income for housing. According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, a family with one full-time worker earning the minimum wage cannot afford the local fair-market rent for a two-bedroom apartment anywhere in the United States, let alone expensive cities like Chicago or San Francisco.

You can always tell who is homeless by looking at them: Um, no. Homelessness can happen to anyone. All it takes is one major event for someone to find themselves without a permanent roof over their head (illness, job loss, etc.). Being homeless doesn’t necessarily mean you don’t have access to professional looking clothes or a shower.  

Homeless people who aren’t in a shelter live on the streets: This just isn’t true.  When most people think about the homeless they picture someone living on the streets or at a shelter, what they don’t picture are people sleeping on someone’s couch, living in a motel, or fleeing from domestic violence. Also, most people don’t tend to think about kids being homeless but there is a growing number of homeless youth.  Homeless youth (those under age 18) make up approximately 22% of the homeless population (about 40% of these are not with a family unit).

I was discussing this comic with a friend of mine while trying to come up with some way to articulately respond. I thought her response to me was well stated.  She said: “Thing is, there's a pretty big difference between homeless and those living on the street. That is, many homeless people have jobs and families, take showers, sleep on their friends’ couches, and try hard to keep it all together. So it's not a fair comparison-- but even if it was, I think it's in bad taste. But some lines I feel, not that you can't cross them but that a) you should be extremely careful of your audience and b) it has to actually BE funny. Still the approach is what really matters. I think this guy saw some comparisons he thought might have been cute (as in, aww my kitty is such an adorable little freeloader), but unfortunately the often tragic reality of homelessness makes it just not funny.”

Based on the comments other Facebook users made, many of them didn’t find this comic funny either. Despite how awful I think it is, I hope that some good will come out of it by inspiring people to take action to help end homelessness.

To learn more about what homeless is checkout our video "Homeless Is".

-Heather Pressman - Heather is the former Community Relations Manager for LPCS. She is still connect to the LPCS family and currently guest blogs for Voices from the Lincoln Park Community Shelter. 

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