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Society Needs to Be More Compassionate Towards the Homeless

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The United States has one of the highest homelessness rates in the world with  582,000 individuals experiencing homelessness in 2022. The largest cities in the United States, including Los Angeles, New York City and Seattle, have the greatest rates of homelessness with California accounting for 30% of the nation’s homeless people. Although homelessness is a nationwide crisis, people of color, former foster care youth and previously incarcerated individuals are disproportionately susceptible to becoming homeless. 

Homelessness is a pressing issue that needs to be addressed, yet it carries stigmas, which serve as barriers to finding solutions.Negative stereotypes such as the idea that people experiencing homelessness are lazy, choose to be homeless or are all drug addicts contribute to the dehumanization and criminalization of the homeless community. Before we can properly address homelessness, we have to treat affected individuals with the same level of humanity, kindness and respect as everyone else. 

People frequently justify not giving homeless individuals cash with the claim that the money will be spent on drugs as opposed to necessities such as food, toiletries and clothing. However, this perspective suggests that those who are financially better off feel they know what a homeless person should or shouldn’t spend their money on to better their life. It is no one’s business to say what is the “right” way to spend your money, and this equally applies to homeless people.

While some homeless people do spend the money they receive on harmful substances, it is critical to understand that substances are frequently used for self-medication to cope with the harsh conditions of homelessness: hunger, violence, poor health and stress. Additionally, no one wants to beg for money. People must understand that having to resort to begging for money might be humiliating for some. No one chooses to be homeless, and regardless of whether someone did something “wrong” to become homeless, it is not morally right for society to degrade and abandon those in need.

Another way people fail to treat homeless people with basic humanity is when individuals assert that it is preferable to offer food rather than money to those who are homeless. Some even get angry when homeless people refuse their leftover food, reducing homeless people to the status of a dog receiving scraps. Like a dog who will eat anything, people often expect the homeless to do the same because of their circumstances. Yet, like all people, those who experience homelessness may have food allergies and restrictions, or they may be wary of accepting meals from strangers. Anyone would be cautious about accepting food from unknown individuals, so it shouldn’t be looked down upon when homeless people do it as well.

With more than half of Americans living paycheck to paycheck and consumers still feeling the effects of inflation, it is important to acknowledge that the average American cannot escape the possibility of homelessness. Eviction and unemployment can easily land someone homeless.

Although marginalized communities are disproportionately homeless, the reality is that no one can avoid the risk of homelessness. Every human being struggles, and in times of adversity, a person should be uplifted through resources and assistance, rather than being treated as a inhumane second-class citizen. Supporting those that are homeless does not always have to involve money. Rather, we need to demonstrate to homeless individuals that they are equally deserving of basic respect and care. 

The prejudices against the homeless population encourage people to view them as lesser members of society. Yet, everyone, regardless of their economic status, is entitled to empathy and respect. We need to stop these negative perceptions from dictating how we interact with the homeless population, and they should not be a barrier that prevents someone in need from receiving resources and financial assistance. Everyone faces challenges, and no one should be defined by their circumstances.

Zahira Vasquez is an Opinion Intern for the spring 2023 quarter. She can be reached at zivasque@uci.edu.