Stop humanizing homelessness

Patrick Lee

Homelessness represents a moral horror of the highest order. Homelessness lays bare the cruelties of capitalism, a tyrannical system that subjugates basic human needs to the economic interests of the rich. As recently as 2015, there were six times as many vacant homes as there were homeless people. Homeless people are criminalized by fear-mongering campaigns and exclusionary city ordinances while simultaneously ignored on the streets as if they were invisible

Homelessness tugs at our moral heartstrings not only because it’s painful to witness a suffering human being blatantly deprived of basic human needs, but also because their presence is an enduring reminder that under capitalism, our right to live is not a birthright but a temporary privilege based on our productivity as economic subjects. 

Homelessness is our emperor’s new clothes. We see it all around us. Yet, when we come into contact with the homeless, we push them out of our minds because acknowledging their presence would result in a moral crisis. We remind ourselves they found themselves in their position for lack of trying, for being lazy or for dabbling with drugs, not realizing we too are sometimes lazy and have done lots of drugs. In psychology, it’s called fundamental attribution error. Really, it’s learned acquiescence. 

In June, CNN broke a story about how David Carter, a homeless man from the Drag, is returning to finish his UT degree thanks to an anonymous patron who paid his tuition. David, who dropped out of UT in the ‘70s, was subsequently diagnosed with schizophrenia and fell into substance abuse. He now wants to spend his life researching and writing books. 

This story was posted on Twitter and Facebook and met with comments from students expressing praise and cheerful words of encouragement. They felt good after reading it. It’s hard not to share their sentiment. David’s doing better, and that’s invariably good. 

But this story serves a purpose: It’s to seduce the reader to feel good. There is no substance past this fleeting moment of heartwarming catharsis. The story does not incentivize readers to question their relationships to the homeless. It does not politicize homelessness as a product of policy. It does not portray homelessness for the visceral nightmare it is. 

In fact, the story produces the opposite effect. It humanizes homelessness by laundering it through a feel-good narrative that makes homelessness palatable. It presents the homeless in such a way that does not fundamentally confront the material reality of homelessness. It is a performance in self-gratification, not an authentic expression of care. Feel-good stories are worthless if they are not tethered to broader efforts at social change. 

“It’s tough,” said Robert, a homeless man living on Guad. “What can I do? I don’t have anything to do go do, I don’t have a job, so I just try to keep living, I guess. I just try to go on, live. It’s suffering, being homeless. It’s not fun. There’s nothing important about it, it’s just — I don’t do drugs, I don’t even drink beer, just soda or whatever I get to eat if it’s possible.”

In focusing on one man’s lucky encounter with a rich patron, we omit systemic questions such as: Why is the fate of a human being dictated by the whims of anonymous rich people? What lack of public support system forced David to drop out and become homeless in the first place? What about the other 2,200 homeless Austin residents? How will David afford books, groceries or medicine?

Feeling for David doesn’t make you a bad person. Quite the opposite actually —  it means you have the capacity for basic human empathy. The problem isn’t that you feel good; it’s that good is all you feel. By substituting fundamental change with short-lived emotional highs, we sustain homelessness as a system. It is only in a deeply troubled society where systemic poverty is so normalized that so many would interpret this as a feel good story and not a condemnation of our society’s inability to care for the vulnerable. 

Lee is a sociology senior from Houston.