55% of Chicago Homeless Looked Neat and Clean

55% of Chicago Homeless Looked Neat & Clean

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.
Valid Stereotypes

Valid Stereotypes?

Arguments about stereotypes are common in the world today. In the United States we have worked very hard to push back against stereotypes by bringing them into view so that we can address them directly to dispel incorrect and harmful prejudices. In the circles I am usually a part of, eliminating stereotypes is universally applauded, and people who reveal an inner stereotype, even if harmless, are often castigated for applying a characteristic or trait to an entire group of people and failing to recognize diversity and randomness within a group of people.


What I almost never hear, at least among the circles I am a part of, is that stereotypes can have validity and help improve some level of judgment. However, Daniel Kahneman in Thinking Fast and Slow suggests that maybe we should acknowledge some valid and helpful stereotypes. He writes,


“The social norm against stereotyping, including the opposition to profiling, has been highly beneficial in creating a more civilized and more equal society. It is useful to remember, however, that neglecting valid stereotypes inevitably results in suboptimal judgments. Resistance to stereotyping is a laudable moral position, but the simplistic idea that the resistance is costless is wrong. The costs are worth paying to achieve a better society, but denying that the costs exist, while satisfying to the soul and politically correct, is not scientifically defensible.”


I have a couple of thoughts in response to the quote from Kahneman. First, is about the way in which rejecting stereotypes that helps with judgment makes society more cohesive, and the second is about how we can use stereotypes to actually make the world more inclusive.


First, Kahneman states that society has become more equal and more civilized with stereotype rejection. The benefits of rejecting stereotypes comes from rejecting invalid stereotypes – prejudices that outcast other people and groups as inferior and inadequate. When we throw out stereotypes, we eliminate a lot of barriers from prejudices, even if it makes some roles and interactions with people who are not like us a little more challenging. The cost, as Kahneman notes, of abandoning stereotypes is that we have a little more friction in some of our interactions with others, but through deliberate effort this can be overcome and reduced.


The second note, is that embracing some valid stereotypes can help us have a better world. My initial thought in this regard is bright colored sand-paper strips at the edge of stairs. Many public buildings will add a strip of sand-paper like material, often bright yellow or a contrasting color, to the edge of stairs in public walkways. We might stereotype senior citizens or people with vision disorders and assume they need extra help walking up stairs, and we might be correct in these stereotypes. The stereotypes can become valid if they enable us to build a better world and accurately reflect the reality of the people we are making assumptions or pre-judgments about. The end result, if we embrace the stereotype instead of dismissing or ignoring it, is that we build staircases that are more safe and actually better for everyone. Able bodied young people will also benefit from stairs that are responsive to stereotypical concerns about the elderly. Perhaps this isn’t what Kahneman is referring to in his thoughts of valid stereotypes, perhaps this is just good design of the built world, but I think it can be considered a way of using stereotypes in a positive direction.


In most instances, our stereotypes have been negative factors that outcast people who are not like us, and serve to create more social animosity among people. Certainly these stereotypes should be discarded, however, Kahneman would argue that some stereotypes can be valid, and we can use them to construct more inclusive and overall better worlds for ourselves and others. There is a cost to ignoring all stereotypes, even if ignoring the vast majority of stereotypes actually is helpful for our societies.
The Surprising History of Marijuana in America

The Surprising History of Marijuana in America

In some ways it is impossible to look at history without applying our own lenses and filters from the modern day world. We assume that aspects of our lives today are shared with all humans from the past, but often, and in many surprising instances, this is not the case. John Hudak’s book Marijuana: A Short History has some great examples with the history of marijuana.


Before having read Hudak’s book, I hadn’t given much  thought to the long history of marijuana in the United States. I had imagined that native peoples in the Americas had probably used the plant for recreational or spiritual purposes, but I never had any evidence to support that idea and it was probably just a poor stereotype I developed from pop culture. I had never suspected that the plant had a long history in the American Colonies and in the history of our nation. It was always easy for me to assume that marijuana use has always been illegal or at least frowned upon.


Hudak’s book shows how much our views toward marijuana have changed throughout our nation’s history. In the last 10 years American’s have become much less hostile to marijuana, and I’m writing this from Nevada, where we legalized marijuana a few years back and have had received millions in taxes from sale and cultivation (see page 56). This follows decades of treating marijuana as a dangerous drug used by criminals that lead to even worse drug use. But even further back in American history, marijuana was viewed much more favorably, and in some instances, was even a required crop for farmers to grow.


“Hemp was a critical crop in the colonies, and some of America’s most revered historical figures … have had an outsized impact on production,” writes Hudak. “In Jamestown, Virginia, growing cannabis for hemp-based products was mandated by the British Crown. … George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were well-known, successful hemp farmers … In Massachusetts, John Adams, too, grew hemp, writing (under a pseudonym) of hemp’s mind-altering capabilities.”


I would never have suspected that our founding fathers would have grown marijuana to produce hemp products and for recreational use as indicated by President Adams. Drug policy, as I wrote about in my last post, is not as objective and rational as we would think. How we treat drug use and what we consider acceptable and not acceptable changes with public opinion, propaganda efforts, and cultural attitudes. History shows us that what we consider normal today has not been the norm forever, and viewing history though our lenses and filters of the modern world can leave us very surprised when history doesn’t want to accord to our standards and expectations.

Beyond Our Surface

Writer Steven Stern sent a letter to James Harmon for Harmon to include in his book, Take My Advice.  Stern ends his letter to Harmon with the following quote, “it’s been some solace to me, as I hope it may be to you, to remember that we are at least more than meets the eye.” Stern reaches this point after discussing our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents who came to the united states with oftentimes very diverse and unique backgrounds.  In Stern’s words, no matter what we are now, and where we find ourselves, we are all full of backstories and histories that were handed down from our family. His main point is to remember that we are not the social projection of ourselves that society may recognize us as on the surface.


Stern’s idea can be very powerful, and for me, it reaches a greater strength when I turn it around and think of other people.  I think that Stern’s viewpoint is an excellent and in many ways necessary first step for us to develop a greater understanding of other people.  In my life, self awareness has helped me reflect on who I am, what parts of myself and my personality I choose to share with the world, and what parts of me are recognized by others even if I do not think the parts that others always recognize are keystone pieces of what makes me the person I am.  Understanding how I fit in these types of societal relationships has allowed me to expand that vision and apply it to other people.


Each day that we get out of the house we have an opportunity to see another person and practice this mindset.  It is very easy to look at people and apply general stereotypes and judge them based on their outward appearance.  Taking Stern’s perspective and understanding that we are all more than we appear, allows us to pause before accepting those judgements. Ultimately, it affords us a moment to truly think about the other person.  Seeing the world through their eyes, with the pressures that society has placed on them and how those pressures combine with the advantages or disadvantages of their upbringing can help us greater understand why others act the way they do.  I have found that the more I practice these exercises the more compassionate I become towards other people, especially those less fortunate than me.  I do not chastise myself for the judgmental thoughts that I have towards other people, and I try hard to be aware of those feelings rather than simply ignoring those feelings or pretending they do not exist.  Accepting that when I see other people my first reaction is to judge them as someone I would or would not trust allows me to understand how I am treating them.  I can then take steps to understand my negative (or positive) feelings, and act in a way that treats the other with dignity and equality.