Thursday, October 3, 2013

Why Do We Fear the Homeless?
The situation:

You are walking toward a corner where you know a homeless person is standing.  They are holding a sign.  As you approach, you wonder frantically how you should handle the situation.  Should you just ignore them?  Avert your eyes?  Or should you give them something?  The feelings of dread and uncertainty fill you.  What should you do?

Nine times out of ten, people probably just avert their eyes and keep on walking.  To be honest, I feel really bad doing this, but I often do it too.

Why is it that we are so scared of homeless people?  What is it that makes us avoid them like plague-victims?

I've been thinking about this lately.

The other day, I was walking home from Wal-mart with my baby on my shoulder.  Ahead on the corner, was a man holding a sign that said, "Fallen upon hard times, please help."  I didn't have anything to give him and so I was a little nervous about what he would do or say as I approached.  I was carrying Kevin, and as I approached I was balancing on the curb edge, because there wasn't a sidewalk.

As I approached the man, he said to me, "You have good balance." 

I smiled as him and said, "Thank you."  Then, Kevin waved at him, and we continued on after telling him to have a good day.

I was a little bit surprised.  He was a really nice, funny man.  I think that sometimes we forget that.  I certainly did.   

Grig is really good about wanting to help those in need.  When we were leaving a different Wal-mart another day, there was a lady with a sign that said, "Diabetic, just lost my job."  We had an extra loaf of bread, and so we gave it to her.  She seemed really grateful.

 On my mission in Texas, we often would see homeless people on the highway corners by the stoplights.  If we had extra food, we would offer it to them.  We sure didn't have money.  I, and Grig, have always tried to make it a policy to never give money to homeless people.  If they won't accept food, they're really not that desperate.  I have seen people claiming to be in need of help, that throw food back at people who offered it to them.  They just want money.

Yesterday, my youngest brother and I were walking around a city, and we had to pass a corner where a lady was standing with a sign several times.  Every time, my brother would move to my side as far from the lady as possible.  Then, he expressed fear when we would have to go in that direction.  It set me to thinking about why we have such a fearful stigma.  This is what I decided.

1- They sometimes look dirty or scary  

I think this might be why my brother was so frightened of them.  Their appearance is usually unkempt, and they don't usually look very happy.  There is a good reason for this.  Those who are actually homeless don't have very much access to showers.  However, I have heard of some scammers who apply makeup and old clothes to help instigate the 'pity vibe'.  This is where people feel sorry for them because they look so terrible.   So, this one can cause fear or pity.

2- We're afraid they'll ask us for money or we feel bad, but don't know how to help

This is often the one that I feel the most.  A lot of times, we don't have money to give, or we're afraid that they're scammers or drug-addicts.  Either way, we don't want to give them money if they don't really need it.  That's why food is such a good option.  If they really need it, it's a way you can help without possibly contributing to another problem for them.  It also helps illuminate the ones who aren't really in need of assistance.  

If I don't have food on me, I feel bad about it, and I still want to help.  However, because I have no way to do so, I don't want to look at them or have them focus on me.   Therefore aversion is a common solution.  If I don't look at them, they won't notice me not looking at them.

I think this is the worse thing we can do.  They are still people, and a smile can go a long way.  I try to always tell them to have a good day and smile at them.  However, there is the risk that they will think I'm mocking them, and that worries me too.  Mostly, I just try to treat them as human beings.

3- We are afraid of becoming like them

I think this might be the deep-set reason in most of us.  When we see the people on the street, on some level, we might fear that eventually we'll become like that.  They probably had jobs at one time, families, and everything was probably going great.  Then, suddenly they lost their job, their family broke up, and they're on the street.  It could happen to anyone.  I think sometimes we see the homeless, and we see a future that we don't even want to consider.

And perhaps, that's the real reason they scare us so much. 

So, smile at them.  Give where you can, but be careful.  Try to avoid money.  Serving at a food bank or a similar place is a much better option than handing out money on the street.  Sometimes I wish I could offer them all jobs, but I don't have the means to do so.  Generally, they're very nice people.  If we give them a chance, they can surprise us. 


  1. One year for Christmas I put together ten goodie bags to hand out to the homeless. I put lots of things in there: tooth brush, toothpaste, wash rags, soap, lotion, comb, energy bars, hand warmers, socks and peppermint candy canes. I went to the dollar stores and discount places to obtain the materials. I put everything in big zip lock bags and put them in my car. I would hand them out as I was traveling around town. My godson and his brother eventually participated in handing these out. Everyone I gave them to was very happy to get them. I think I spent maybe $100. You don't have to spend this to help. You could organize a relief society event where people donate the materials and you coordinate everything including how to distribute the materials. This would be a great teaching tool for Kevin. It's never to early to start teaching him.

    1. Those are great ideas! Grig is really excellent at looking for ways to help people out, regardless of their station in life.