It was another humid Saturday evening in DC. I was with a peer of mine who was standing in the street while the crosswalk was still red. A homeless man noticed my peer in the middle of the road and said something along the lines of “get out of the street.” To my surprise, the person I was with responded to the homeless man with a mildly aggressive comment as they stepped back onto the sidewalk. “You know you didn’t have to be mean to a homeless guy,” I said as we walked away, unaware that I would then hear a complicated component of my peer’s view on homelessness: “I’m going to be honest, I don’t really feel bad… I believe that everyone can better themselves and I just don’t feel bad.”
Since then, I have been more cognizant of homelessness throughout DC and more interested in understanding the predicaments that can lead to homelessness. Now don’t get me wrong, I firmly believe in a strong sense individual responsibility and self-advocacy; however, I don’t think that it’s fair to apply such a brash statement to a group of individuals who do not have the means to put a roof over their heads or food in their mouths. Whether you acknowledge it or not, every single “successful” person has someone who believed in them or helped them achieve. Seeing someone sleeping on the sidewalk, however, indicates to me that this person truly has no one to turn to in even the most dire of situations.
In my quest to better understand the predicaments that lead people to homelessness, I found some answers during our group visit to the Center for the Study of Social Policy. We discussed the issues with child welfare in the U.S. and how 40% of homeless youth are/were a part of the foster care system. While discussing the foster care system, one of our speakers said a startling but key statement: “These are the children that no one cares about.” Youth in the foster care system move from home to home, often being placed with people who are doing it for money and nothing more. Foster children often do not have a “cheerleader” or someone inspiring them to be fearless – they instead, at a young and vulnerable age, gain firsthand experience with how cruel the world can be. Our speakers spoke of the inhumane holding facilities they have seen for foster children, as well as the rampant mental health issues that are not being addressed by the system. As you can imagine, this often results in poor outcomes for the children being pushed through this imperfect system.
I cannot even begin to imagine where I would be in life if it were not for the people who saw value in me and my abilities throughout my adolescence. On top of that, having a relatively stable home life allowed me to focus on finding my passions and preparing for my future. It is no wonder that these children, who essentially raise themselves, lack the preparedness required to be on their own in young adulthood. How is it fair to expect stability from a person who has never experienced it?
It is my hope that our group visit to CSSP showed my peer the place of privilege they came from when stating their view on homelessness. I do not believe that you can make such a statement until you have been in a situation where you were unable to put a roof over your head and food in your mouth. While I generally have a “fend for yourself” mentality, homelessness will always be a soft spot for me. I truly cannot imagine a world where I have not one person to turn to in the most dire of times. Everyone has a story, and making bold assertions about others before understanding the complexity of their lives can be a dangerous game to play.