Whenever I see a homeless person I experience strong feelings of empathy and compassion. I ask myself, "Where did this person come from? Where is his family? What could have happened to bring this person to his present condition?" For answers, I always look into my own past...I have experienced the misery of homelessness at several points in my life.
Although there is a great sense of freedom to being homeless, it is a dangerous and miserable lifestyle. Homeless people are often the victims of violent crimes; they suffer from hunger and exposure to the elements; are vulnerable to disease; have little access to medical attention; and, they are generally ignored when they seek help.
Contrary to popular belief, most homeless did not become so out of choice. Most did not become homeless because, as I have heard some people say, "they are lazy, stupid, or immoral." Most of them are the victims of abuse in the form of neglect and abandonment by their parents or other caregivers, prolonged sexual abuse, or isolated incidents of extreme trauma. Some of them are simply victims of life's tragedies, such as hurricanes, fires, or other catastrophes from which they simply don't have the resources to recover. Also, there is a snowball effect that occurs with homelessness--once a person has fallen to the level of living on the streets it is very difficult for them to get a job, even if they are capable of working. After all, who is going to hire someone with no address? Most homeless people don't have the resources to even do their laundry; who is going to hire someone in filthy clothes? Also, the condition of homelessness creates and/or adds to a low sense of self-esteem, which makes it difficult to relate to other people. It is difficult to find, much less keep a job, once a person's self-esteem is so badly damaged.
Although, I would like to believe that my ability to rise out of the condition of homelessness is attributable to some kind of inner-strength or above-average intelligence, deeper reflection tells me this is not true. I believe the answer is closer related to the fact that the environment I was brought up in offered me more options than other homeless people. The closeness and kindness of the friends that I grew up with also helped me through the times of real hardship.
Like many homeless people (and nearly everyone else), I was the victim of abuse in the form of neglect and abandonment by my parents. This type of abuse is not always easy to detect or understand. Parenting styles greatly affect a persons chance of becoming homeless. My parents loved me and they told me so often--they often showed their love through great acts of generosity and selflessness, but both of my parents are extreme narcissists and are incapable of the ordinary concern and empathy that a parent should have for their children. There were times when I was often left alone, or in the care of my siblings who were not yet old enough to properly care for a child, and had experienced themselves abuses probably far worse than any I had experienced. Sometimes, my parents would leave me with their friends for days at a time--I would always say that I was fine with it, but later in life I realized that this was a big contributor to the feelings insecurity which later led me to self destructive behavior and, ultimately to homelessness.
Victims of abuse don't always realize they have been abused. Abuse can be a subtle pattern of behavior which occurs over a long period of time--in these cases it is usually not clear to the victim or the abuser that any pattern of abuse exists. Also, in such cases it is not often clear who is the abuser and who is the victim because both parties participate in a kind of mutually abusive (and destructive) relationship. Because abusers are usually only repeating behavior they have learned through observation, they usually believe that they are acting normally and reasonably. Isolated incidents of extreme abuse are easier to identify, but often people who have experienced this kind of abuse have shut these incidents out their memories in order to avoid the extreme pain associated with them. Most victims of abuse have chemical dependency problems--it is a relief to shut out the feelings of worthlessness, pain, and depression, by drowning them with alcohol or other drugs.
The next time you see a homeless person, I challenge you to look them in the eye...smile and say hello instead of turning away in disgust. They can sense your disdain and they probably feel worse about themselves than you will ever know. You don't have to give them money if they ask for it--just say hi and meet their eyes. Sometimes a friendly word is worth more than a few cents, anyway. In order to raise awareness of the problems the homeless face, I look for homeless people and ask them if I can take their photographs: I always give them a dollar or two for the privilege of doing so. Usually, I am surprised by their cheerfulness and sense of dignity and pride. Often, they will show themselves to have some kind of talent--there is a fine line between genius and insanity. They are usually very friendly and will sometimes perform great acts of generosity. Help me to fight homelessness by donating to this website or making a purchase through the Faces of the Homeless gift shop. A poor, homeless man who gives away his last dime is holier than a wealthy man who makes huge donations to charity. I know of what I speak, for I have been that homeless man.
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