By Randall Amster, J.D., Ph.D.
Homelessness is a continuing concern in nearly every American city and in many locales around the world. The global financial crisis of recent years has further exacerbated the issue, driving significant numbers of working and housed people into the perpetual uncertainty of being homeless. Increasingly, entire families have been displaced, joining the ranks of the dispossessed on the streets, in parks, and in the margins of a society that previously kept them at least gainfully employed and reasonably situated.
This new wave of the displaced join the already-expanding ranks of people constrained to survive in the rough edges of modern life. As a society, we do not deal well with homelessness, more often than not seeking to sweep it under the rug or, even worse, turn it into a crime. Homeless people are often seen as mentally ill, substance-addled, or otherwise damaged in their behaviors. A generally prosperous society has little tolerance for those who appear to have “failed” in attaining the American Dream.
To a not-insignificant extent, the homeless serve as a nascent mirror and nagging reminder that the relative wealth and privilege many of us enjoy comes at the expense of others in our midst. When the poverty and despair are presented with a name and a face, suddenly the convenient distancing we prefer is collapsed, leaving us to consider the basic fairness of a system that has only served some of us well. In this sense, the homeless oftentimes represent that which we would rather not be reminded about.
Against this pervasive process of “othering” as a function of imposing cultural distance, social scientists have uncovered another set of processes that can serve to illustrate an alternative. Sometimes referred to as the “contact hypothesis,” the basic notion is that prejudice and similar antipathies can be eroded by increasing contact among conflictual groups. Essentially, the more we interact with others, the more likely we are to see them as similar to ourselves, thus reducing the impetus to disdain them.
This is not an exact science, and there is no guarantee that contact brings affinity in all cases. Still, there is an intuitive aspect to the theory that implicitly drives a good deal of scholarly investigation into marginalized groups and associated phenomena. With much of this work the intention is to be descriptive and/or analytical, presenting subcultures and social issues in a novel light -- and an often unspoken aim in many cases is to promote greater understanding and empathy in the process.
When it comes to studying homelessness, the stakes can be even higher, and the concomitant need for empathy even greater. Many of us are more vulnerable to becoming homeless than we might imagine, and even when we are not, there is the subconscious psychological pressure of benefiting from a system that allows widespread poverty and acute despair to exist unabated. Homelessness, because of its visible and visceral nature, tugs on both our hearts and our heads in a manner that is unsettling.
Yet in this tendency to disturb are also instructive lessons as well as potential pathways toward experiences of heightened compassion and much-needed social change. Putting homelessness “out of sight” cuts us off from these possibilities and denies us an opportunity to both assist others and help ourselves at the same time. By bringing these issues to light, an invitation is extended to increase our contact with those who trouble us, and in the process to discover more about our own capacity to care.
Randall Amster, J.D., Ph.D., is the co-editor of the new volume, Professional Lives, Personal Struggles: Ethics and Advocacy in Research on Homelessness.