The cycle of perpetual poverty that thwarts a poor person’s ability to afford the basic necessities of food, shelter and healthcare is a phenomenon which has become an established characteristic of the economic landscape, to a stage where our society has become unwittingly desensitised to the plight of the poor and homeless. As members of humanity who have a duty of care for our fellow brothers and sisters, we instead are predisposed towards treating their cries for help with disdain and indifference. It is also too often the case that we are willing to excuse the actions of those who unapologetically build their own lives upon the crushed dreams of others less fortunate than themselves. Through a conscious and very deliberate effort to avoid homeless people, we are reinforcing their feelings of worthlessness whilst simultaneously invalidating their very existence.
It begs the question. Why do people ignore the homeless? The sight of a human being lying motionless across the concrete should be enough to shake anyone into a state of altruism, yet it doesn’t. Instead, we divert our eyes, conceal our hearts and to those who try to reach out to us, we reject our common humanity and regurgitate clique phrases like “I’m busy” and “sorry but I don’t have any spare change.” Directing this selfish conduct towards the most vulnerable members of our society only serves to widen the divide between us and ensures that the poverty endured by thousands of people on our streets is maintained and even exacerbated.
The common misconception that we seamlessly apply to anyone who suffers the harsh fate of becoming homeless is that their predicament is somehow a direct result of their own personal shortcomings. If we can rationalise in our minds the reasons why someone is homeless, it makes us feel much better about ignoring their plea for benevolence and it justifies a repression of our human need to care for them. Anyone who is asked for spare change by the homeless is faced with the same quandary. Will my money be used to avert hunger or will it be used to subsidise an addiction? Whilst the latter may be the case in at least some circumstances, it is unwise of us to tar all homeless people with the same brush. Doing so condemns them all to the same fate, a life of endless misery and perennial poverty.
Worse still, rather than helping to alleviate their suffering with compassion and empathy, we discern them as a nuisance and as a distraction to our materialistic lifestyles. We bestow a greater importance to the act of getting to the next shop or catching the earliest bus than we do to providing aid to the homeless, who are helplessly trapped in a corporate maze with no means of escape. Psychologist and economist Daniel Kahneman put it best in his book “Thinking, Fast and Slow” where he states the following:
“We can be blind to the obvious, and we are also blind to our blindness.”Daniel Kahneman (2011)
We rarely conduct a self-enquiry into the way in which we view and react to social issues like that of poverty and homelessness. Such an enquiry may be the cure needed to eradicate these covetous and egocentric thoughts that have infected minds and poisoned relationships. Ask yourself this. Is it really asking too much to invest a brief moment of your time to ensure that a homeless man or woman is okay and to offer them some assistance should they need it? To a person who is largely invisible to passers-by and who has to tolerate their scorn, you may be surprised by the effect that a friendly “hello” can have.
This article was inspired by a sense of tremendous guilt that has plagued me for many years. I too have ignored the homeless on many occasions, often quite blatantly. If I was ever asked for spare change, I would lie and say that I had none to offer. If we truly want to fight against the perpetual poverty that is occurring on our doorstep, it begins with a simple act of acknowledgement. Please do not ignore the homeless.
I leave you with a quote from the end of a speech by Robert F Kennedy in 1968 in which he perfectly sums up a commendable view of humanitarianism and our need to care for one another. This speech was delivered shortly after the death of Martin Luther King.
But we can perhaps remember, even if only for a time, that those who live with us are our brothers, that they share with us the same short movement of life, that they seek, as we do, nothing but the chance to live out their lives in purpose and happiness, winning what satisfaction and fulfillment they can. Surely this bond of common faith, this bond of common goal, can begin to teach us something. Surely we can learn, at least, to look at those around us as fellow men and surely we can begin to work a little harder to bind up the wounds among us and to become in our hearts brothers and countrymen once again.Robert F Kennedy (1968)