While walking down Kirkwood Avenue one chilly afternoon, I saw a homeless man sitting on a bench by the corner of Kirkwood and Dunn Street. A young woman approached him.
She sat down next to him, introduced herself and handed him a Chipotle burrito she had just bought. She told him where she worked on Kirkwood Avenue and offered to buy him a sandwich the next time he was hungry.
I was stunned.
We are all aware of homeless people who sit downtown, clutching small cardboard signs asking for change. Usually they are ignored. I admit to hiding my gaze, looking down at the pavement instead.
There is so much to be said about the problem of homelessness, not just in Bloomington, but in every American city. Misconceptions that many people have only add to the ?problem.
We assume they just want money for booze or dope. They’re dirty. We fear if we give them money once, we’ll never get rid of them. They should just go to a shelter. It’s not our problem. We brush these people off because we make these and other negative assumptions. That does not mean they don’t deserve a warm place to sleep at night or a place to call home.
People experiencing homelessness may be victims of the economy’s downturn, sudden unemployment, divorce or even domestic violence. They may be Navy or Army ?veterans.
They are people, too.
Tammi Nelson, a licensed clinical social worker and faculty member of the IU School of Social Work, explained the stigma that is associated with homelessness and how to better understand the issue.
“Individuals experiencing homelessness are perceived negatively through many inaccurate stereotypes, making this group highly stigmatized,” Nelson said. “Stigma arises out of difference and the fears people have about how those differences are ?difficult to understand.”
Arguably, a homeless person can be intimidating. As a woman, I am cautious of strangers approaching me downtown, whether they are in rags asking for change or wearing Sperry’s asking for my number.
However, we continue to dehumanize an entire population of people we know nothing about. We don’t know their circumstances or how they got into their current situation. Yet, we judge them on a whim.
Nelson suggests taking classes to understand diversity, volunteering at local agencies such as Martha’s House or New Hope Family Shelter or making food and cash donations to these local agencies.
“Changing stigma can happen when we work on removing our preconceived notions about a group of people and come to understand the individuals as people with diverse, unique and vast life experiences,” Nelson said.
If anything, I encourage others to at least try saying hello to a person experiencing homelessness. We could at least respond with a simple nod or a polite smile — a small courtesy in place of avoidance, indifference or disdain.
We shouldn’t continue ignoring the homeless. We should treat them like what they are: human beings.