By BOBBI ALMEIDA
Admit it. When you saw that word, you immediately had an image in your head. Likely, it was one of someone dirty, lazy, and addicted to drugs, and perhaps you felt a little fear in your heart as well. That is the stigma associated with the homeless community. The dictionary defines stigma as a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person. This really hit hard. Who are we to say it is disgraceful to be homeless? We have no idea what led to that disposition.
People who are homeless are a tight-knit community, much like the one you live in. The obvious difference is the lack of a building to call home. They look out for each other, and many help others when they can. While you may ask your neighbor to borrow a cup of sugar, their neighbor may provide an extra blanket or share food. Homeless communities have a “neighborhood watch” system that is probably more effective than the one in your neighborhood. They look out for each other because, for them, it is about survival.
The stereotype of the homeless is not likely to change. The fact is drugs and mental illness is a way of life for many people on the streets. But if we are being real, think about your neighbors. Which one of them has battled or is battling drug addiction or alcoholism, mental illness, or even unemployment? Most of us cannot answer this simply because we do not know the answer. Just because your neighbor bought a $50,000 sports car does not mean that his life is perfect. He may be battling a drug habit no one knows about or will never know because he has four walls and a roof to hide behind. People who are homeless are visible, out on the street, with nowhere to hide their secrets. This leads to the stigmas and stereotypes associated with them. I want to say it again, not all the stigmas and stereotypes about the homeless are true.
Some families are homeless due to a divorce, a health event, or because a parent lost a job. Some are homeless even though both parents work minimum-wage jobs because they cannot afford a place to live, particularly if they have multiple children.
Let me tell you a story about a client I met when I volunteered. I will call him Chris to protect his identity. I made a point to chat with Chris when he came to the Marian House for lunch. One day, Chris told me how he had returned to his camp to find his tent and sleeping bag gone. They had been stolen. You can imagine how upset he was. His home had been vandalized. A friend from church took him to lunch the next day at a restaurant he had always loved – Big Train. His eyes lit up as he told me this. That same man offered to buy him a new tent and sleeping bag, but Chris refused, saying, “It will just get stolen again.” He also told me that this man had offered him some work the next week. Again his eyes lit up like the sky because he was genuinely happy to have work.
It is really quite simple, and Chris’ story shows that not all who are homeless are looking for a handout or to get something for nothing. Many just fell on hard times and are struggling. They are not lazy, addicted to drugs, or want everything given to them. Some just want a chance.
Too often, we (myself included) get stuck in our own little world. When I listened to Chris talk that day, it really sank in and stuck with me. I realized that my world is simple. I know where I will lay my head tonight and where I will go to my job tomorrow. Yes, things go wrong. The road does not always lead where we want it to. But at the end of the day, we have more to look forward to than some. Chris told me the highlight of his week is seeing me at the Marian House. Now imagine if something like that could make OUR day. It is such a simple thing to step out of our world and into someone else’s. You just never know the impact you might have on someone and perhaps how your actions can help change a life or the misconceptions and stereotypes that people hold. Just because the homeless do not come in a package that you like to see doesn’t mean the contents are not worthy of kindness and grace.
I have been battling depression for most of my life. It wasn’t until four years ago that I was diagnosed as being depressed. I tell you this because this is something that those close to me know. However, to see me on the street, you would never know this to be true. I am not ashamed of it; it is just a part of who I am. I say this to show that not all of our perceptions of people may always be accurate, whether it is our opinion of the homeless, the neighbor across the street, or even the weekend guard at the Marian House. We all have our secrets and things in our past that make us who we are. And the truth is, you only know what someone will allow you to know. So, what misconceptions do you carry around, and how will your actions help your neighbors in need?
Bobbi Almeida is a former Security Guard for Catholic Charities at the Marian House