Robert L. Karash
In the various media, be it print, broadcast, or internet, we sometimes see news stories and reportage on topics related to homelessness and the poor. Sometimes an incident reported in the media nearly obliterates any empathy or compassion we may have felt for the homeless. Unfair generalizations about homeless people become pervasive in a sensationalistic but upsetting story. It takes time for the homeless to once again garner the compassion of society-at-large.
Recently, a newspaper reported an assault inside an isolated college classroom in the wee hours of the morning. There were some twists to this story. Any assault is a terrible thing, especially in an open classroom on a college campus. But in this case it was a sexual assault, making matters worse for all involved. Then there’s the unfortunate fact that the person who allegedly perpetrated the assault was homeless and had no affiliation with the college. Then it gets even worse: the perpetrator had a history of mental illness and also had committed another assault some months earlier, but was released.
Once revealed that the man who perpetrated the attack was homeless, most people stop reading between the lines. They figure that this is what homeless and mentally ill people do. That’s the impression one is left with, despite the fact that in a general population of homeless people the odds are against such behavior. This could be a death of hope and compassion for the homeless.
A sexual assault is a heinous crime that cannot be erased or overlooked. There’s no denying that. Some psychologists, advocates and jurists might argue that the motives for such a crime are driven by illness and might try to analyze the incident carefully, explaining just why it was predictable for this individual. But it hardly matters to the general public, to the victim, and to the family of the victim. The deed was done. Someone was irrevocably hurt and damaged.
The homeless cause was hurt by the actions and crime of this one individual. That’s quite unfair and sad. Despite everyone saying it isn’t true about most homeless people, that they commit such crimes or any crime, the impression weighs heavily upon the public. It makes the homeless problem and any potential solutions even harder to untwine.
The fact is that a good number of people who experience homelessness were also in jail at some point in their life. Some had petty offenses, others convictions related to drugs, others were charged with larceny and related crimes, and the list goes on. In cases of sexual assaults, it would seem that all rules are off, especially if there is concern of recidivism. Sexual offenses are horrific crimes, and many would say there’s no forgiveness for them. Some societies might even take the life of a sex offender.
So this is the dilemma. How does the homeless cause recover, if at all, from this requiem and likely death of empathy? Is it temporary? Will reason prevail, allowing the public to realize that spectres of violence don’t represent most of the homeless population?
The whole situation is murky and emotionally charged, and rightly so. What most people might not realize is that after offenders for all types of crimes are convicted, sent to prison, and released into the world again, sometimes after decades, they may have no place to go. What that implies is that many former sex offenders wind up living either on the street or in homeless shelters, regardless of whether they have recanted and reformed and are able to function in society without a repeat of their crime. Yet even if an ex-offender is rehabilitated and never commits such a crime, or any crime again, his reform may be of little consolation to the family of the original victim or maybe even to society generally.
A broad rule of thumb might be that the person has served his prison time and now, if the release proceedings find nothing risky, he can be released into a so called “re-entry program” to try to get back his life again. The argument is that he served his prison time and was punished for what he did, so let it go. Sure, but that’s the theory and not always the practice for a variety of reasons, including irreparable damage done to victims and families.
So we’re stuck moralizing on the issue. In the end, it’s better to evaluate situations on a case-by-case basis. We should hope that justice will be served and that a detente will form emotionally between all parties.
Some wise scholars and spiritual leaders over centuries have said things to the effect of “show me your prisons or how you treat your poor and I’ll tell you how well your society functions and how compassionate it is”. The implication of such words is that in a healthy society there shouldn’t be very many poor people or prisoners. That’s the theory. But it might not be that way in most countries of the world, regardless of political systems or the relative wealth of the country. It may be more tied into human nature and nearly justifiable fear.
The hope here is that although news reports can be ghastly and horrific, at some point the attitude towards the downtrodden—which includes the homeless—should not be poisoned indefinitely. So we hope there is no requiem or lasting dirge for the homeless cause, but rather a mourning period followed by a recalibration of expectations, in order to again begin to help.
Robert L. Karash is a semi-retired Industrial Computer Sceintist and university researcher and lecturer. He lives in Boston and gives part of his time to helping those in need through compassion, education, and empowerment.