What happened to the admiration of freight train-hopping nomads? People used to drop a few bucks or pick up hitchhikers, historical icons of the Americana, just to meet a stranger and hear a good story; today it’s done to be charitable, to cure a societal ill.
If someone were to say he or she was a “nomad,” we’d either scoff at the poor attempt to relive “Into the Wild” or perhaps only sympathize with this “bum” and help out.
There is virtually no end to the amount of articles about homelessness, though nearly all articles seem to remove the voice of the homeless entirely. The media either provide criticism of the homeless as individuals who made poor choices or they criticize society’s structure with regards to the homeless.
Both are saturated with an etiological focus that effectively diminishes the ethos of the homeless as individuals, and both deny the multitude of subcultures the homeless enjoy by framing them under specific language that is advantageous to their message, market or morale.
Critical media blames addictive substance and the individual’s choices, which often leads to causal justification for whether the individual is “deserving” or not of his or her situation. Sociologists have pointed to the scapegoat concept that came from the ancient Greek “pharmakos” rituals — it’s easier for us to blame the individuals than it is to feel the larger social guilt.
Though I’m sure most of you would quickly disagree with this sort of media, it is reflective of a certain mentality we take day to day to essentially silence the homeless voice. They are silent, and we are content.
But what of those who try to help? Often times the portrayal is such that the homeless are “victims of circumstance,” and the result of these circumstances is often what critical media finds to be the cause.
In viewing the entirety of the homeless as being beyond a minimum threshold of society, we place them below “us” — they are “them,” and they are thus easy to help. Many organizations make use of this discourse to propagate their message, to draw funding, and to invite charity — a call that many of us are glad to answer. And make no mistake, helping has the same result as blaming the individual: They are silent, and we are content.
By imposing the distinction, that of helpers and helped, the homeless are driven, just as they were in the case of the critical media, to find compensatory subcultures (“Dark Days” documents a physically subterranean subculture) that allow the homeless to create their own social network, free of discriminatory distinctions.
A shelter is not a home, and this is precisely because of the rhetoric used in charity and its resulting style of charity, that of victimization, which, as you can imagine, is difficult to swallow (in 2011, it was predicted that 42 percent of the homeless were “rough sleepers,” or unsheltered in public spaces, which raises questions beyond the capacity limit but rather with regards to the voluntary opting out of help).
Despite having good intentions, we forget that much of our desire to help simultaneously frames homeless individuals as a single entity and creates further alienation.
We do help, and we do feel better, though with little regard to the side effects. Many of us continue in apparent selflessness when, in full fact, we are compensated for our “help” because of their position beneath our own, and we involuntarily promote this distinction, either directly in our manner of helping or by adding to the success of the discourse used.
Yes, you can and should help when possible, but do so with modesty and awareness — you too are getting something from them, just as a consumer would, and you too are part of the discourse that is generated. The helped is in a much more vulnerable position than the giver, as they are often being defined in a process that acknowledges the differences between the two rather than the similarities and continuity.
Helping is by all means crucial, so long as the exchange is not detrimental, that there is no “stooping to their level,” just as one wouldn’t look upon his or her friend in that way, let alone an emblem of the old Americana. Sometimes it’s as simple as letting a voice be heard. (Listen to some Bob Dylan or something to kick your admiration of the freewheelers into gear — help, hear out a stranger, make a friend).
Contact Kevin Rouff at krouff ‘at’ stanford.edu.