The homeless deserve to be treated with dignity and respect, and we should organize relief efforts with this mindset.
The summer after my freshman year of college, I interned at a homeless shelter. I’d grown up volunteering there, but whether it was my collegiate-level mind or simply understanding more with daily exposure, I found myself realizing that this organization was different from many other homeless relief efforts I had seen.
One of the things that resonated with me the most was the organization’s focus on dignity. Through every service they provided, they thought not only about the logistics it takes to run a large-scale homeless relief organization, but about the thoughts and feelings of every person who would receive those services.
A big portion of this was based on the kind of attitude the shelter encouraged. In volunteer summer camps, we created a classroom setting to teach our volunteers, mostly upper-middle-class suburban kids and their parents, about empathy and what it is like to be homeless.
We would have residents tell stories about their experiences and answer common questions such as, “Why do so many homeless people have cell phones?” Which, by the way, if you were faced to choose between limited resources, wouldn’t you also choose the one that provides storage for your photos and memories, lets you apply for jobs, contact police or medical care if necessary and stay in touch with family and friends?
They also focused on creating a positive, familiar experience for people who may not be used to asking for assistance. Both clothing and food donations were sorted, organized and presented in a retail-like setting, so clients could come and shop for whatever specific clothes or food they wanted.
This organization was, in my opinion, doing a lot of things right. But what can other groups hoping to help the homeless populations in their own cities do to maintain this same focus on dignity?
We often start with the basics when giving people immediate assistance. When people are struggling to access basic necessities such as food and water, it makes sense to prioritize this above all else. But one of the greatest stigmas for those faced with homelessness comes from the idea that they’re not competent enough to make their own decisions–as if they do not have the right to make choices or have opinions like everyone else.
So when organizations sort donations by size, pre-screening them to make sure that nothing unwearable is being given away, they are reminding the person who receives them that they are worthy of choice. By providing more sustainable donations, these items will actually be used in the way they were originally intended.
When you see the recipient as a person with a sense of style and innate preferences, that T-shirt you are donating no longer becomes a handout. You remind another human being, despite the situation they are in, that they still have the ability to make a choice.
For someone who is surviving from meal to meal, packing an extra lunch to share with them or providing a small gift card to a restaurant allows someone to focus, even for one meal, on something other than hunger. This time can be valuable. Being the stepping stone to other resources could ultimately provide them with greater opportunities in the long run.
Homeless assistance organizations that provide services such as resume workshops give people the idea that they can be active participants in their situation. These organizations remind them that someone believes they have the right to improve their current situation. By creating communities within assistance programs in which they are given responsibilities, everyone can feel like a cherished member of the community.
Despite their circumstances, every member of the homeless community can carry responsibility and be relied upon. They have strengths and value like anyone else. When we associate those who are homeless as lazy, we actively dehumanize and further stigmatize them. It should come as no surprise when they do not have the confidence to pick themselves up by their own bootstraps.
Organizations such as Grace Marketplace have been working to address homelessness in Gainesville for years. By supplying a variety of resources, it has considered the difficulties and cost of transportation for homeless individuals. By providing land for Tent City to exist on, the folks at Grace Marketplace have listened to the opinions of the community. They have provided what the community wants, rather than what they think it needs.
As a community, we are taking steps in the right direction, but we still have a long way to go. We can look at Utah’s Housing First program, for example, which provides government-funded housing to individuals who are chronically homeless. Gainesville may be considered a liberal city, but what does it say when one of the most progressive responses to homelessness in the country is happening in Utah?
We need to reassess how we think about helping others. Instead of planning a trip to a developing nation, spending thousands of dollars to travel for a short period of time, what if we were to spend that same time and resources giving back to our own communities? What if instead of spending money on plane tickets, we used it to create jobs, paying members of international, developing communities to do the same labor we would?
Everyone around us is a part of our world and our community. We can either make the conscious effort to treat others as such, or we can continue to progress the false notion that those with a roof over their heads have more worth. The decision is ours to make.