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Our fear of the homeless is killing the homeless

#HomelessShaming isn’t just horrible—it’s also deadly


Hanna Brooks Olsen


Posted on Aug 5, 2015   Updated on May 28, 2021, 5:38 am CDT

Last week a clip of Fox News host Bill O’Reilly publicly shaming homeless people for urinating on the street went viral. He also took the opportunity to call out New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio for permitting “beggars, homeless folks, and low-level thugs” to “menace passers by.” O’Reilly, like many others, sees homelessness not as a symptom of economic inequality, but rather, as a state of being for people who are intrinsically dangerous. That belief is untrue, and #HomelessShaming is actively harming—and even killing—one of the country’s most vulnerable populations.

However O’Reilly isn’t the only public figure who talks about the homeless as though they are an imminent threat to the lives of nice, normal folks. While states like California, Arizona, and Washington consider temporary encampments (often called “tent cities”) as a way to get homeless populations into transitional housing, community residents and politicians have come out against the solution, which has been proven effective in getting people off the streets. Critics cite “safety concerns.”  

The homeless are treated as something scary, a specter that goes bump in the night, one that we attach all of our worst fears to. We separate them so far from ourselves that they practically become another species. But despite a generally held belief that people living outside are chronic criminals, the statistics simply don’t back that up. A John Hopkins study found that just 25 percent of homeless individuals have committed a crime against a person or property, compared to 35 percent of the general population

In reality, mortality data shows us that those safe inside the walls of our homes have nothing to be afraid of, while those who live on the streets are actively in danger. Simply being homeless increases a person’s risk of injury and death by a factor of seven. It’s homeless people who are most at risk of violence, as hate crimes against homeless people have leapt 24 percent in the last 20 years. Between 1998 and 2013, 375 homeless individuals were murdered in hate crime-related incidents.

Hate crimes toward the homeless are alarming, but there are many other factors that lead to injury or death. Drug overdoses are the leading cause of homeless mortality, and addiction is often a factor or an outright cause of homelessness. Getting treatment is extremely difficult, though; close to 20 million Americans are estimated to be struggling with addiction and have nowhere to turn for help. And despite the many ways that the Affordable Care Act has helped vulnerable populations, key federal provisions limit addiction services, something no one seems anxious to address.

Domestic violence and assault are two other leading factors in both becoming homeless and dying homeless. Half of the women and children who live on the street are fleeing situations domestic violence. A study from San Francisco found that two-thirds of homeless women have been sexually abused or assaulted (though other studies have concluded that the number may be closer to 90 percent).

And while many of these women were victimized long before they ended up on the streets, plenty more are abused while they’re there. One study found that 13 percent of homeless women reported being raped in the last 12 months. And even when these women ask for help, there’s often none to be found. In one count conducted by the National Network to End Domestic Violence, surveyors found that, nationwide, close to 11,000 domestic violence victims were turned away from shelters in a single night.

Compounded, sexual assault and addiction put homeless women at further risk by exposing them to STIs and bloodborne illness. AIDS is the second-leading cause of homeless death, but it’s also extremely hard to treat in transient populations. Studies of urban HIV and AIDS treatment programs have found that unstable housing and addiction are two of the biggest factors when patients drop out of treatment.

There are also matters simply related to sleeping outdoors. Exposure, heat, dehydration, diabetes as a result of poor nutrition, infection, and heart disease all claim the lives of the homeless each year. All things told, the average life expectancy for a non-homeless person is 78; for a homeless person, it’s between 40 and 50.

And yet, even letting them have a plot of abandoned land with a tent on it is too scary for neighbors—who, themselves, might be in or near the same situation at some point. The Washington Post reported last week on what Census data reveals about poverty, and what it shows us is that the poor are not, in many cases, a permanent class. Poverty ebbs and flows, and most of us will experience it at least once; the data found that 80 percent of Americans will have been financially burdened at some point before their 60th birthday.

This is what we really hate about the homeless, what really scares us: They are visible reminders of a society with no safety net. They are a microcosm for everything we are permitted to openly hate and shun and ridicule. The lack of privacy and dignity granted to the homeless worsens the issue; homeless individuals are forced to eat, sleep, and excrete for all the world to see because privacy or protection are for people who can afford them. The missing piece seems to be empathy.

Neighbors and politicians are caught in a bind. They don’t want to see them sleeping or smell their unwashed bodies—it just reinforces the disgust and the fear of all of the things we are disgusted by and afraid of —and yet, when given the chance to give them a place to get help, we reject that, too.

It’s easier to discount the homeless as “a menace” and to fear them as “low-level thugs.” But the scariest thing about homelessness isn’t the homeless themselves—it’s the fact that we permit it to happen at all.

Hanna Brooks Olsen is a writer, small human, and a millennial. Her interests are politics, podcasts, Pac-12 football, feminism, and Oxford commas. She is curious to a fault.

Photo via Tom Brandt/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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*First Published: Aug 5, 2015, 3:09 am CDT