Homeless People Are Real Human Beings

Brian Nadon San Francisco
Brian Nadon San Francisco

By Brian Nadon

A video is circling the internet which shows the reactions of homeless people reading nasty tweets about them. Apparently this is necessary to show the world that homeless people have feelings too.

Research has shown that many people don’t see homeless people as real human beings. A recent study made brain scans of regular people looking at objects and human beings. When looking at human beings, the medial prefrontal cortex was activated, which is involved in social cognition. When looking at objects, the medial prefrontal cortex didn’t light up, and the same happened when they saw pictures of heavy marginalized groups like substance dependent or homeless people. I found the same sentiment reflected in a recent blog post, that basically came down to the conclusion that homeless people are not worthy (or not worthy enough) of our money. Homeless people were portrayed as professional beggars who make tons of money collecting our 50 cents. And they don’t use their fortunes to improve their lives, but to buy drugs or alcohol.

I have done quite a lot of volunteering in homeless shelters. I can tell you, it really got under my skin. When I would come home on a Friday evening after volunteering, I would feel very numb after spending so much time in a unit with 20 other people, the constant noise of a tv, having to ask for a key to use the bathroom, having no private space. Call me sentimental or materialistic, but when I would come home, I would cry. Having your own fridge, with your own favourite drink in it that you could just get and drink by yourself without anyone watching you suddenly felt like a privilege.

Why should we give money to homeless people? For me, it is because of what the Lithuanian-French philosopher Levinas calls the ethical appeal that the face of the other makes to you. Seeing someone being in misery should evoke feelings of empathy. For that, I don’t need to see homeless people being hurt through nasty tweets before I recognise them as human.

I know that people get homeless for very different reasons. Relationships break up and people find themselves homeless, some people become homeless after spending a lot of time overseas, and when their fortune turns, they find they have no place to live, no social network, and their savings evaporate quickly. Some people have serious mental health issues, suffer from PTSD, and addiction problems, but sometimes treatment facilities for addiction refuse them for their mental health issues and vice versa. Hopefully, society will remember we are a community and realise that homeless people are worthy of our compassion and money.

In the end, rather than confront the people who tweet nasty things about homeless people, homeless people got extra violated, just so that we could see their emotions (what’s wrong with us). In the Netherlands, a very interesting experiment has started. Homeless people were given a smartphone and a twitter account and asked to tweet about their lives. The idea was to break the social isolation of homeless people. I think this is a way more respectful way to show the general public that homeless people are human.

To end with one of these tweets: ‘When I look back at my life, I see chaos, mistakes, suffering and sadness. When I look in the mirror, I see strength, lessons learned and wisdom’.