As I reached the top of the escalator, tired office workers and students scrambled passed me to catch their busses. Over the music from my earphones, I could hear their boots clang on the steps and their coats brush up against mine. Joining the steady flow of commuters, I walked passed a woman stretched out on the floor with a tired look on her face. She wore worn-out boots and baggy stained sweatpants and groaned and laughed all at once. She stared at the cracks on the ceiling and the STM security guard who stood above her stared absently ahead. None of the other commuters paid attention to her and my eyes, like theirs, looked forward uninterested. I walked through the metro doors and felt the dry winter air whip my face.
As a college student who studies in downtown Montreal, I come face-to-face with people who live on the streets every day. To get to and from school, I push through scrambling passengers in the furnace we call a metro and pass countless people asking for food or change. While I come across homeless people all the time, I’ve come to question whether I actually see them. Even though most people in the city walk by people begging for money or holding up signs asking for food, it rarely provokes any reaction whatsoever.
Our tendency to ignore the homeless may be linked to common perceptions of homelessness. For one, many believe that homeless people don’t work hard, are lazy, and only want handouts. A study by Paul Toro, a psychology professor at Wayne State University, reveals that in countries with more capitalist economies like Canada, people hold the belief that homeless individuals are responsible for their situation. They label those who live on the streets as no longer useful or functional members of capitalism, since they don’t actively work and support the system. Those who are part of this group are often referred to by their label, “homeless”, a dehumanizing title that comes with an implication that they are dangerous, non-productive, and personally guilty (Belcher and DeForge 931). According to John Belcher & Bruce DeForge, professors at the University of Maryland, “many characterizations of the homeless attempt to draw away attention from its societal causes, such as poverty, and focus on issues such as alcohol and/or drugs, which can more conveniently be used as a device to blame them for their plight.” (932).
But does it matter that we believe in some of these stereotypes? According to a study on morality published in 2014, when you believe a person’s situation is their fault, you’re less likely to want to donate to their cause due to perceptions of justice (Lee et al. 678). In other words, if you think someone’s responsible for their plight, you’re less likely to want to help them out because you don’t feel empathetic towards them or you don’t feel like it’s the fair thing to do. This lack of empathy for homeless people is like when your friend hasn’t gone to class all semester and asks for help to study for the final exam because they’re failing. You’re probably less likely to want to help them study.
Another reason we lack empathy for people on the streets is our belief that it couldn’t happen to us. However, homelessness is just a build up of unfortunate circumstances. Take Katrina Blanchard-Gervais, a mother of six, for instance. When this Kirkland Lake resident’s marriage ended, she wanted to go to school to become a paramedic. She had aspirations, but the unhealthy marriage she left echoed her next relationships. Next thing she knew, Katrina got into a court battle with her ex-husband over child support and custody. Ineligible for legal aid, she ended up in debt and owing her husband child support. With her driver’s license having been suspended because she couldn’t make her payments, she was unable to get a job. Katrina could no longer afford to pay rent. Now, her older children live on their own and her younger ones live with their father. “It wasn’t like one day I woke up and I was homeless.” Katrina explains. “Every year things just got tighter and tighter, it was just that one more step down the ladder.”
While I do tend to ignore homeless people, I know that I don’t wish them harm. If you asked me if I wanted to help their situation, I’d definitely say yes. So why do I distance myself from them? According to Toro’s findings, about 60 percent of the people he questioned were willing to pay more taxes to help the homeless. However, while the abstract idea of helping homeless people attracts support, a real encounter with homeless people often repels. In reality, poverty is an ugly thing. Acknowledging the individuals you see on the streets means acknowledging the huge social issue they’re part of.
I think the way people ignore people on the street asking for money is like the way people ignore climate change. It’s overwhelming and seriously disheartening. We’re surrounded by insurmountable problems, told we need to save the environment and eat vegan and be superhuman. I watch documentaries about how to save the world and get convinced I can change the way things are going and I try it for a week. But a week later, I’ve tried really hard to take shorter showers and ride my bike to school and nothing’s happened. I get convinced that everything bad in the world is inevitable so I give up. I distance myself emotionally from any problem I think is too big to solve because I think I only have two options: feel sad all the time trying to change things or ignore it and feel however I want. There are too many things going wrong in the world and we can’t do anything to change it, right?
Nothing would ever improve if we really believed this was true. So, is there a way to harness our want to help people in poverty in an abstract way without having to face the issue completely? The Housing First approach suggests that giving homeless people places to live may help them tackle larger elements that contribute to their situation, such as mental illness. In other words, instead of trying to solve homelessness as a whole, which can be an overwhelming task, tackling one element can be more effective. The stability of a home means fewer costly trips to hospitals, fewer interactions with police and the courts, and takes shelters out of the picture. The Alberta government reported that it could cost more than $100,000 every year to support a chronically homeless person, while with the Housing First model, it costs less than $35,000 annually to provide permanent housing and the supports they need. Simply put, for every dollar spent on Housing First for those with the highest needs, there are about $2 in savings. Instead of paying taxes to pay for hospital stays, encounters with the police, and shelters, we could be spending (less) money to actually help stop the issue as a whole through subsidized housing. Sign me up! But would this approach really solve homelessness?
The Housing first approach has been criticized for being too exclusive, prioritizing the needs of older men at the expense of women, young people, and the hidden homeless. And while tackling a small component of homelessness instead of facing all of the factors that contribute to the issue may be less overwhelming, it’s not as simple as paying the problem away. “Are people without homes homeless? Are people without homes and with mental illness homeless? Are people without homes and victims of domestic violence homeless? Are people without homes and without educations homeless?” Ralph DaCosta Nunez asks, president of the Institute For Children, Poverty & Homelessness. “If the answer to all these questions is yes, then the answer can’t be just homes.” Alain Spitzer, executive director at the St-James drop-in center for the marginalized and homeless, commented on the Housing First approach when I met him in March. “There was this insinuation that it would be this vaccine of some kind,” Spitzer said. “But there’s no vaccine for homelessness.”
When I walked in to the St-James drop-in center that day, I could hear a rumble of laughter and discussion. The basement was a safe haven from the piercing cold of the outside. A few of the men who sat around the giant table in the middle of the room looked up and smiled when I got to the bottom of the basement stairs. A man sitting on the couch jumped up, smiled, and led me into Alain Spitzer’s office. The man walked me confidently to Spitzer’s office, turned, looked me in the eyes and told me to have a nice day. In that moment I was reminded that I almost never pay attention to homeless people.
All of the walls in the St-James drop-in center were covered in paintings and sketches. When I sat down with Spitzer, he told me they were all painted by the center’s members. Spitzer spoke in rants about what he’s seen and what he thinks should change. He condemned the word homeless, explaining that when people try to address the issue, they get stuck on the word. “People talk about homelessness like the only issue is housing, so we give everybody an apartment—you’re no longer homeless.” Spitzer remarked, “But home is more than just a place to live. It’s dignity, it’s an opportunity to give back, it’s an opportunity to contribute, it’s a reciprocal relationship with other people.”
So, what are we to do? As for the government, the city of Montreal appointed a new “protector of the homeless” this month, who acts as a link between community groups, the city, and the homeless to improve services and to promote better training for Montreal police. “I don’t think it’s only a systems issue—a government issue, a hospital issue—it’s a collective responsibility,” Spitzer suggested. There is no simple answer to solving homelessness, which seems obvious once you acknowledge how complex the issue is. It’s a problem we often forget is about people. Following the government’s lead, it looks as though communication and a sense of community is key. Sure, ignoring the woman stretched out on the metro floor may be less upsetting, but recognizing that she is an individual could be a start to helping the issue. Actually noticing the people who hold up signs in the metro and recognizing that their situation as part of a bigger social issue could be the beginning to breaking down the barrier between “them” and “us”. We all need to take responsibility for what is happening in our community. Let’s give them a home before we give them a house.
Belcher, John R. and Bruce R. DeForge. “Social Stigma and Homelessness: The Limits of Social Change.” Journal of Human Behavior in the Social Environment 22.8 (2012): 929-946. Web.
Bruemmer, Rene. “Montreal’s new ‘protector of the homeless’ will have complete autonomy, Coderre says.” Montreal Gazette. n.p., 18 April 2016. Web. 18 April 2016.
Figueroa, Alyssa. “Do You Ignore Homeless People?” Alternet. n.p., 29 January 2013. Web. 6 March 2016.
Lee, Saerom, Karen Page Winterich and William T. Ross Jr. “I’m Moral, but I Won’t Help You: The Distinct Roles of Empathy and Justice in Donations.” Journal of Consumer Research 41.3 (2014): 678-696. Web.
LeMarche, Pat. “Housing First Doesn’t Work: The Homeless Need Community Support.” Huffington Post. n.p. 16 January 2014. Web. 18 April 2016.
Ostroff, Joshua. “Canada Could End Homelessness. And It’ll Only Cost You 46$ A Year.” Huffington Post. n.p., 13 August 2015. Web. 6 March 2016.