If I pictured a homeless person in my mind I would imagine someone who was dirty, who may not have a shirt, and who had a mess of overgrown and ungroomed hair. Whether male or female, ragged clothes, unkempt hair, and bags full of stuff seems to be the typical image of a homeless person. However, there are many homeless people, perhaps even a majority in some cities at some times, who do not fit the stereotypical image of a homeless person.
In The Homeless Christopher Jencks writes about our expectations of what homelessness looks like, and what the reality of homeless often is for those experiencing homelessness. Regarding our expectations, he writes, “but appearances can mislead us … When [Peter] Rossi surveyed the Chicago homeless, his interviewers classified 55 percent of the people they interviewed as neat and clean rather than dirty, unkempt, or shabbily dressed.”
We don’t expect people who wear normal and clean clothes to be homeless. We don’t expect people who are generally well groomed and don’t smell bad to be homeless. But when Peter Rossi was writing his book Down and Out in America, a slight majority of people interviewed were dressed more or less normally and appeared to be typical people. These individuals are part of the group generally referred to as the invisible homeless. Rather than the visible people sleeping in tents who can’t shave, can’t shower, and have a few dirty possessions, these people appeared normal, but still didn’t have a home. They were missed and misunderstood in the debates and discussions of homeless people. They often hid their homelessness from the people they interacted with, creating space for the misperceptions about homelessness.
I think it is important to compare our stereotypical view of homelessness to the reality of homelessness for many people. When we see the visibly homeless we often have strong reactions, and those strong reactions generally dictate how we think the homeless should be handled. But those strong reactions and opinions fail to account for the kind of homelessness that perhaps a majority experience. This means that policies and programs to help the homeless (or more nefariously “address” the homeless) may fail to actually benefit the majority of homeless or to even focus on the leading drivers of homelessness. If someone who is neat and clean is in line at a soup kitchen, or asking for aid, they may not seem like they need it because they don’t look like the typical homeless person. Or, if we deny assistance to the homeless because we think they are all dirty, lazy, and possibly on drugs, then we fail to help those homeless who are trying to look and appear normal, who are tying to keep a job while homeless, and who are trying not to fall into the ungroomed stereotype of the homeless. It is important that we are aware of our expectations, biases, and prejudices around the homeless so that we can develop an accurate understanding of homelessness in our nation to actually address the problem.