Being homeless is many things . . . invisibility, hyper organic networking, a byzantine paper procedural, sensory overload, protracted process for simple tasks, truncated opportunity, frustration, default wrongness, loss, social justice 101 streaming live, instant family, and a variable-but strangely-rather equal measure of humility and bravado. It is fluidity and forgetfulness. It is the new now.
As much as it is so many things, at its thickest it is pulsing, relentlessly, fractally blossoming, Emergence Theory. The science of human cooperation: people helping people. This sounds straight forward enough, but is really nothing less than the parsing of need.
Most homeless I have seen are boundlessly grateful for the assistance they receive. This is true even if they disguise it. When you are part of a large contingent who has experienced long term economic marginalization, disguising gratitude becomes a survival mechanism—akin to that engaged in by hospital or crisis personnel to manage the stress of the events they encounter in their occupations.
What makes people helping people so tricky is that sometimes the people (or organizations) doing the assisting have specific ideas about what the need for assistance should look like. Those ideas may be accurate in some cases, but just as often a person’s need of assistance manifests in an entirely different form. This can only be expected when social issues are used as a scapegoat for the epidemic of homelessness brought on by an imbalanced and malfeasant economic policy.
Recently, I overheard a homeless woman worry is that she had not spoken highly enough of a salad served with a shelter meal, and that her (bottomless) gratitude might be missed because of it. She was genuinely distressed. And she wasn’t wrong to worry. Because assistance offered frequently comes with expectations, though not the ones that might be anticipated. Expectations related to employment, residency, safety regulations or medical concerns can be reasonable enough. But a problem arises when assistance is given attendant with expectations regarding demeanor or capability. By virtue of lacking shelter, the homeless can be pressured to be silent, devoid of a right to an opinion or a say in things—including matters regarding their own lives. Also, unfortunately, demonstrating capability—particularly emotional capability, but also academic or vocational—can be a liability to those without housing as well. It is as if assistance for financial need is made contingent upon agreeing to have intellectual or emotional need, which makes the assistance not about the needs of the homeless at all.
The homeless shouldn’t have to engage in self-destructive or mentally disordered behavior in order for those who administer programs or provide assistance to deem to do so. Lacking real estate should not be automatically correlated with having emotional problems—although it is not surprising if some may arise due to the resulting encounters with bureaucracy and erroneous representation. Machiavellian dysfunction has no place in charitable acts or organizations. They should not be tolerated or excused by clients or staff. Land ownership (or its lack) is indicative of nothing as regards character, intelligence or spiritual nature.
Most homeless people want only to be grateful for the miracle presence of those who show up, day after day, to provide assistance for those who are experiencing the harrowing circumstance of failed economic and social policies. The best way to allow that is to leave ill-fitting expectations of what being itinerant means out of the equation of assistance.