This week on campus Kevin Ryan will be speaking about how his book, Almost Home, calls our attention to the issue of youth homelessness. A study by the Princeton psychologist Susan Fiske shares that when people were shown photographs of the homeless, “’their brains responded as though the images depicted things and not humans.’” As the National Coalition for the Homeless notes, Fiske’s study concludes that “anti-poverty feelings are ‘the most negative prejudice people report.’” A pervasive attitude remains, according to the Coalition, “that the poor do not deserve to be helped since they are somehow lesser than their more successful – or lucky – peers.” Indeed, an intern who took part in the Coalition’s homeless challenge simulating homelessness on the streets, reports being treated as a second-class citizen by some businesses. She writes: “They made me feel angry and lonely because they could not see past my stench and my grime and my grimace. They were privileged enough to ignore me, and they did.”
In a forum led by students, who either had been or were actually homeless, these students stressed they did not choose to be in homeless situations. As brought home by Ryan’s book, family issues dealing with neglect, abuse, and conflict among other issues led them to the streets.
At the same time, the opportunity for personal contact with the homeless can lead to transformations of people’s attitude toward them. Adam Bruckner of Philadelphia’s Helping Hand Mission admits that years ago he would have been one of the perpetrators of stereotypes of homeless people. What changed his attitude was getting to know homeless people in a personal way – the principle of the life and dignity of the human person. Indeed, homeless students attest to the impact a particular person made in their situation both by acknowledging their dignity and introducing them into long-term support structures. Especially to deal with the despair of abandonment, “they needed reassurance that their hardships were not deserved but rather, unfairly placed upon them.”
To establish right relationships based upon the common good, the Pontifical Commission “Justice and Peace” shares:
“The poor and marginalized are waiting for a concrete answer, and first of all, for a change in the attitude of certain sectors of society that are indifferent, if not hostile, to their plight. They are urgently waiting for a bold social policy, expressed in concrete programs of accessible housing and favorable mortgage terms, coupled with easy access to the necessary technical means and legal assistance. They long to integrate themselves normally into society and see their rights recognized.”
Let each of us draw upon for inspiration both for changing outlooks on the homeless and realizing just social structures that would enable the homeless to share their personal gifts once more in community life, the words of Matthew 25: “I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked as you did not clothe me.” May we not only see Jesus in the homeless person, but remember that when he came into this world as a baby, there was no room for him at the inn (Luke 2:7).
John Francis Burke, Executive Director, The Wolfington Center
Resource material from the following websites was drawn for this reflection: