This last week my wife and I volunteered in a kitchen to help serve meals to homeless men and women in our community. With the rise of the Delta Variant, the kitchen we volunteered at was not serving meals inside, but instead outside in the parking lot. This was the first time that we had served outside rather than inside, and the group leader chatted with us about the new format and some things to be aware of with the different serving location. It was the first Friday of the month, and as a result he warned us that some of the homeless individuals and people who came by for dinner were more likely to be using drugs or abusing alcohol for the evening since assistance checks would have just gone out. He warned us that when the kitchen switched to serving outside, they lost some control over the individuals and their things, and that a fight had broken out a few nights earlier. He wasn’t trying to scare us, just to warn us about the realities of volunteering outside rather than inside the kitchen.
I will admit, listening about the recent fight and likely active drug use of the people we were volunteering to help was frightening. I am not immune to a fear of the homeless, even though I still want to find ways to help them. Elliot Liebow would not have been surprised by my reaction. In his 1993 book Tell Them Who I Am he wrote, “everyone fears the homeless, including the homeless themselves.”
Fear is a big reason we don’t do more to help the homeless. We are afraid of unpredictable people who are (or may be) using drugs and alcohol. We are afraid of people who may have mental illnesses and could act irrationally at any moment. We are afraid of people who are messy, who smell foul, and who could carry some type of disease or pest. Fear is a driving emotion related to the homeless and drives many of our behaviors. Liebow’s quote shows how common this fear is by noting that even the homeless fear each other. With this fear comes a lack of trust and a lack of willingness to be around homeless. Without learning about the homeless, without having a chance to meet and interact with people who are homeless and needy, we fail to truly appreciate who they are, the challenges they face, and to develop any empathy toward them. Fear prevents them from reintegrating into society, and prevents us from understanding how we can best help those in need. It keeps them from connecting with each other and joining together to advocate for their needs or even help each other out. Fear locks the homeless out.