I’m not a front line worker when it comes to homelessness. I have spoken with many homeless people, heard their stories and, yes, given them money, often in the face of disapproving glances from passersby, as if it were any of their business. Homeless people are often thought of as threatening, loud, dirty, uneducated, lazy and drunk or drugged out. There is some truth to these thoughts. However, homeless people don’t have a monopoly on them.
Homelessness forces people into the street where their every gesture, their actions, their conversations and their very beings are constantly visible. If they are street bound, that is, if they have no temporary accommodations, no shelters to sleep in or no tent in the bushes, they are visible 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Being observed all the time, without privacy has to be very emotionally taxing, to say the least. If the homeless person has mental health issues, a brain injury or an addiction (most of them) , the vulnerability of constant exposure must be enormously distressing, compounding any problems they might already have ‘behaving’ themselves and relating to other people. Constant surveillance by the police and other agencies cannot but add to the stress of living homeless.
Most of us, if we have too many drinks, get a little raucous, loud, or a little unruly, can catch a cab home and crawl into bed, secure in our isolation and out of the public eye. Our homes are our refuge, a place where we can do things we wouldn’t dream of doing on the street or anywhere in public. In fact, if you can afford to rent or own a home, many behaviours and activities not for public consumption become viable. Drinking to excess, getting stoned, walking around nude, all these things are possible if you live in a home. Those are the things that make it so liberating when we move out of our parental homes into our own pads. Privacy is precious and it’s obvious that the more wealth we have the more privacy we can buy.
Privacy is not something homeless people can afford. The public life that homeless people lead makes them incredibly vulnerable to being targeted, scapegoated and unfairly characterized as morally unacceptable and less than worthy in the eyes of many. Mental issues, brain injuries, addictions and other problems are spread throughout the population, but the wealthy can buy themselves into expensive treatment programs and privacy. Street people don’t have the same advantage. Our attention is drawn to the homeless because of their visibility. If we were subject to the same surveillance intensity they are we may not be so quick to judge and reject.