Columbia, SC — It is past time to start articulating the needs of our homeless neighbors clearly and with compassion. Too often the media discussion of the “homeless problem” is focused on crime, vagrancy, trespass, defecating on porches, panhandling, public drunkenness and other “offenses.” This creates a strong public impression of “them,” the bad-behaving “homeless,” and the “rest of us” law-abiding, decent citizens. It also creates an impression of the monolithic “homeless” who are all alike and should be treated alike and a monolithic “problem” in search of a single “solution,” which often involves the removal of the “homeless” from the sight of the “decent folks.”
Our work at United Way has shown that this impression is grossly in error. Our homeless neighbors are unique individuals with highly personal human needs. They are men and women and, too often, children with personal stories. They are brothers and sisters and fathers and mothers and sons and daughters. They have had friends and jobs and places to live. They have been soldiers and students and church goers. They were not always homeless. And they are definitely not the homeless.
Some are sick and need health care. Some need access to addiction services or mental-health treatment. Others need short-term shelter and help navigating the social-services network. Some need job training. Others need to be reconnected with family. All have physical needs: clothing, food, a clean bathroom and a dry, warm, safe place to stay on wet, cold, dangerous nights. Some can stabilize their lives with just a little temporary help. Others have long-term, chronic needs. Many fall in between.
I urge all of us to start seeing the individual, to hear the stories of the men and women our community has helped and to focus the discussion on serving the needs of individual men and women in a way that respects their personal human dignity.
If we do this, the many solutions needed — mental-health access, residential and out-patient addiction treatment, temporary shelter, long-term shelter, access to affordable housing, family services, access to health care, emergency clothing, safe public restrooms, daily bread, etc. — will become obvious to all concerned. And in the process the monolithic “homeless problem” will gain a human face.
Perhaps public policy could be focused again on us, the “decent folks,” effectively serving our homeless neighbors by taking care of their individual needs rather than separating them from us and focusing on their trespasses.
Stephen G. Morrison
Immediate Past Chair
United Way of the Midlands