In many comedies, one of throwaway gags seems to be the “crazy homeless person.” You see it in almost every other funny movie – it’s usually the person who emerges from the garbage and either chases after or yells at the main character(s) for a cheap “gross-out” laugh.
In many different forms of media, the homeless have been used as a means of humor for years, basically implying the person is inconsequential. But in reality, homelessness is no laughing matter.
According to a report from hudexchange.info published in 2016, there were 549,928 people without homes on any given night in the United States throughout the year. And less than 70% of that number had shelter, leaving the remainder to face the elements.
It’s a sad sight all too common in larger metropolitan areas such as New York City, Boston, and San Francisco. Many of these people have turned to begging in the streets, hoping for the kindness of strangers to help them fight another day. However, those kind moments are often few and far between.
But why does this happen? How is it a person can just “end up” on the streets? A number of factors come into play. Addiction, financial ruin, and mental illness all play a part in why people lose their homes, seemingly unable to rejoin society and help themselves. I think we can agree none of these things are very funny.
Perhaps you’ve heard a family member or friend compare themselves to a homeless person when they’re having a bad hair day, or their outfit isn’t quite on point. They’ll usually laugh it off as a means of explaining why they look “ugly” or “crazy.” Though it may not be their intent, when they do this, they’re dehumanizing a group of people for the sake of making themselves feel better.
You may have also heard people say they want to avoid a place because there may be “crazy hobos” there, as if they were a subspecies to be feared. While there is some truth many homeless people unfortunately do suffer from mental illness and thus can be unstable, the simple fact they have come upon hard times and have been forced to live on the streets shouldn’t cause one to fear a person like a monster.
Although, I will admit, I too have been guilty of this.
Not too long ago, my husband and I were driving home late one night from a friend’s house out of town. My husband’s car needed gas, and he insisted on going to his favorite gas station, the cheapest one, on the “sketchier” end of an already “sketchy” major street in our small city.
As he was outside of the car getting gas, I’d noticed from the rear view mirror a disheveled old man approaching. I had a hand on the lock of the door, while at the same time preparing myself to call the police, should things get out of hand.
I couldn’t hear the exchange between the man and my husband, but I assumed he had approached him for money. This assumption was confirmed when I saw my husband fumble around in his pocket and produce a five to hand to the man. They spoke for a minute or two, and the man proceeded to walk away, seemingly apologetic. My husband reached out to the man and shook his hand, placing his other hand over their other joined hands in a reassuring, encouraging manner. The man was on his way and my husband entered the car.
Mind you, it was late at night, and I was tired and cranky, but the words that came out of my mouth surprised me.
“You’d better wash your hands before you touch your face or do anything, you have no idea where that guy has been. He looked a little diseased. And you need to be more careful, you don’t want to get shanked.”
I can’t forget the look on my husband’s face as he said: “He’s a human being, too. One of God’s children…I thought you were better than that.”
The short ride home from there was fairly quiet. I thought to myself what my reasoning was for saying those things. I tried to justify my actions, saying to myself you should really wash your hands after coming into contact or shaking hands with any person, regardless of their domestic status or lack thereof. But as we got home, my husband reminded me of a very important verse:
And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, inasmuch as ye have done unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done unto me. Matthew 25:40 (KJV)
I had judged that man based on his appearance and status, which I look back on and cringe. I didn’t take back the part I had told my husband about protecting himself, but I realized I could have aired on the side of a more compassionate caution. From then on, I resolved not to jump to conclusions so readily, and to have more empathy for the “least” of my brethren.
We see this scorn on the homeless often. People passing them by as if they don’t exist, yelling at them to “get a job,” or worse, stopping to make fun of them or be intentionally cruel as a joke. Here we circle back to the cinematic implication the homeless are there for our entertainment, and have no other purpose, if they won’t just “get a job.”
There is a stereotype they are all “drunks” or “drug addicts,” and they deserve the harshness thrust upon them. Although addiction does play a part in many of the homeless population’s situation, and is a major problem in and of itself, this is perhaps something we should all be a little more compassionate about, as we all have our addictions, one way or another.
Mental illness often plays a part in this as well. Many of the people you see on the street have given up and have already lost everything, their mental well-being included. They may have had a hard time coping beforehand, and now have nothing to help hold them together, so many of them simply can’t help themselves.
And the fact there are so many people panhandling, pretending to be homeless to pray on the generosity of their fellow humans, doesn’t do any good to fight against the stigma. It can be difficult to tell who truly needs help and who is trying to play on the sympathies of others for easy money. Some panhandlers can be very convincing, so many people choose not to give any person they see on the streets the time of day, in case they are faking it.
The stigma against being homeless keeps many who need it from seeking help. We shame the them, equating them to less than human, when they are, just like us, human; we are all made by a loving God, with a divine purpose. We are no better than they are by any means, and we should not be so quick to pass judgement we never had the right to give in the first place.
Hereby perceive we the love of God, because he laid down His life for us: and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren. But whoso hath this world’s good, and seeth his brother have need, and shutteth up his bowels from him, how dwelleth the love of God in him? My little children, let us not love in word, neither in tongue, but in deed and in truth. 1 John 3:16-18 (KJV)
When we serve others, we are also serving God. But when we ignore the needs of others, we are ignoring God’s call to minister. God made each and every one of us for a unique purpose, but there is one thing each and every one of us is called to do.
Ephesians 2:10 says, “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them” (KJV). So before we were born, it was expected of us to help one another, and this is especially true for those who can offer us nothing in return.
It isn’t just grandiose donation drives that grab the attention and praise of others, but the smaller, unnoticed gestures that can mean the most. If we see someone on the street, even just a smile and a kind word, with some spare change or a donut from the thousands of coffee shops throughout the streets of America, can make a world of difference to someone going through hard times.
Volunteering at your local shelter or donating to a nearby food pantry or donation closet can make a difference as well. Even if we all only contributed one thing or a small amount of charity each month or week, we would still be contributing to a growing need. A stone wall can only be built one rock at a time.
If we could try to blur out the word “homeless” before the phase “homeless person” we have been conditioned to bold, underline, and italicize in our minds, what are we left with? People who are flawed just like us.
Together we can help bring a little light to their story, instead of turning them into a punchline.
Author’s note: Here is a link to a sermon by Pastor Rick Warren of Pastor Rick’s Daily Hope that I had heard on the radio that inspired part of my article. This sermon was called “The Word of Humanity part 3” and was just part of a series called “The Seven Greatest Words of Love”. In this particular part of the series, Pastor Rick talks about serving others, including our enemies and those who are shunned by others. It really resonated with me and reminded me that it’s the smallest things that mean the most sometimes. Enjoy! http://pastorrick.com/listen/player/?bid=d5f3d1f1-f43c-4ee9-b8a2-8795072c0119