Guest Opinions

When helping homeless people hurts more than helps

The Boise homeless encampment called Cooper Court, pictured in November 2015, was cleared by police last winter because the campers violated the city’s anti-camping ordinance.
The Boise homeless encampment called Cooper Court, pictured in November 2015, was cleared by police last winter because the campers violated the city’s anti-camping ordinance. kgreen@idahostatesman.com

Homelessness is a crisis competing for our exhausted attention. If you are like me, between work, family, health, bills and laundry, we can barely keep things together in our own lives. So when we are confronted with the problems of other people, we often feel overwhelmed.

But homelessness is a particularly potent trigger. Studies prove that when we are confronted with evidence of visible poverty or human desperation, we react with higher rates of fear, disgust and even anger than when we are exposed to any other marginalized trait — including traits historically associated with discrimination, like race or gender. We firmly want visible poverty to remain private. No wonder homelessness prompts many of us to shut down. Or blow up.

It is hard to consider how — regardless of our good intentions, and for many of us, regardless of our very hard work — we may be part of the problem, even as we are trying to be part of the solution.

One way we’ve evolved to deal with such overwhelming and emotional stimuli is to simplify. Every person or issue we encounter is unique, but to treat each as such would quickly overwhelm us. To function at all, we have adopted strategies to categorize information in a simplified and predictable manner. Psychologists sometimes refer to these generalizations as “schemas.” We’ve perfected this art; these cognitive shorthands have become automatic, even unconscious drivers that influence how we see the world.

Schemas can be helpful. They allow us to use previous knowledge to inform new responses and decisions. However, schemas also can be damaging. They can blind us to new information or to new possibilities when making important decisions. And these powerful instincts often activate stereotypes and bias.

Books such as “Blindspot,” “Whistling Vivaldi,” “Envy Up, Scorn Down: How Status Divides Us ” — along with studies such as Harvard’s Project Implicit — help us to understand the nature and role of implicit bias: stereotypes and beliefs of which we are entirely unaware, but that operate within us.

To most of us, it seems inconceivable that we could suffer from implicit bias. We have good intentions. Many of us commit our lives to social justice.

Leo Tolstoy famously said, “Everyone thinks of changing humanity, but no one thinks of changing themselves.”

But implicit bias is a human affliction, sparing no one. It silently influences our perceptions and our actions, including decisions about how we allocate rights and resources to poor people in general, but to visibly poor people in particular.

Our aversion to visible poverty is increasingly expressed in laws that restrict the visibility of poverty (of poor people) in public. Examples are laws that prohibit sitting, standing, sleeping, receiving food, going to the bathroom, asking for help and even protecting one’s self from the elements.

These are things that none of us could forgo for long and continue to survive. And yet the act of surviving in public is so tightly regulated that people experiencing homelessness are doomed to violate these laws. As a result, homeless people are often saddled with misdemeanors, which can render them ineligible for shelter, food and other benefits. Thus, we help to make already vulnerable people even more resistant to recovery.

I know this isn’t what anyone wants to think about right now. It is hard to consider how — regardless of our good intentions, and, for many of us, regardless of our very hard work — we may be part of the problem, even as we are trying to be part of the solution.

Leo Tolstoy famously said, “Everyone thinks of changing humanity, but no one thinks of changing themselves.”

Real change is not easy. It can be messy, painful and even terrifying. The crisis of homelessness makes many feel uncomfortable. But I want to challenge us to consider that we cannot be both courageous and comfortable at the same time. Consider the possibility that discomfort is a virtue, and that real change is only possible if we start with ourselves.

Sara Rankin, a Boise native, is a national expert on poverty and homelessness. She teaches at Seattle University School of Law. She is founder and director of the Homeless Rights Advocacy Project.

Two events focus on homelessness

City Club Thursday, Nov. 10, “The Human Consequences of Homelessness”: Sara Rankin, professor at the Seattle University School of Law, addresses Boise City Club lunch forum at 11:45 a.m. at The Grove Hotel. Registration deadline is noon Tuesday: cityclubofboise.org or (208) 371-2221. Student and listen-only discounts available.

BSU/City of Boise, Nov 17, “Solutions Happen Together”: Mandy Chapman Semple, associate director of the Corporation for Supportive Housing, is featured on a panel with CATCH Director Wyatt Schroeder and Diana Lachiondo, City of Boise director of community partnerships, 6:30 p.m. at Boise State’s Jordan Ballroom. Free and open to the public.

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