Have you ever had that moment when someone you know, but don’t know well, says something that just makes you bristle? Maybe calling a particular part of town “sketchy” or mentioning the “druggies” in the park? Or an off-handed comment about how Portland or Seattle or places like that have “really gone downhill” — and you know, you just know in your heart, that they mean the cities have a lot of poverty?
It’s a hard moment. Because you — a person who understands the complexity of housing, the complicated nature of substance use, the political significance of the opioid crisis — you know this is coded language. You hear these dog whistles. And the person you’re talking to — the person who’s afraid of people living in tents — isn’t a bad person. But maybe they just haven’t done the work.
It’s also a hard moment because it puts you on the spot. How much do you push back? Do you bring up the realities of this particular scenario? That most homeless people turn to drugs once they’re already outside because how else are they going to get to sleep? That many women who end up in tents are there due to intimate partner violence? That every increase of housing costs comes with more and more people priced into visible poverty? Or do you shrug it off because it’s not the time?
The fact is that it’s actually very easy to become hardened to homelessness. It’s a defense mechanism, honed into the human brain for generations. When we see visible poverty, it’s extremely normal — natural even — to respond with revulsion or contempt. It’s our brain’s way of protecting us from a very real fear: We could be next. It’s how our body and our mind stop us from spiraling into a fear so dark that it could keep us from doing what we need to do to stay housed.
The first reaction the vast majority of us have to homelessness — to visible poverty, to active representations of our worst fears — is disgust. But it’s the next steps we take that matter.
Rejecting this instinctual fear is the work. It is a continual, perpetual reminder that humans are humans and that wherever they are — whether it’s in front of the Grocery Outlet or in the Gaza strip — their problems are not dissimilar to ours. They feel the same feelings. They experience the same emotions. And their plight could very easily be ours, especially under a capitalist system that is so callous toward its subjects.
It is a praxis that requires a constant drumbeat of empathy, action and education. And it’s in those hard moments, when someone you know to be good of heart expresses some very ugly views about unhoused neighbors, that we do the most work.
Have the hard conversations. Ask the hard questions. This is how well-meaning folks become well-acting folks and we need all we can get.
Read more of the Nov. 1-7, 2023 issue.