Since we are referring to a past time event, we will illustrate the process of our interactions with the two residents as happened. Also, we will be referring to the two residents as M. And K.
One of the interesting things when spending time in an emergency shelter is that, not only do you get to know about people's life stories, but you also become aware of the person's habits and longings, feelings and thoughts over certain situations, personally related or generally speaking. Mark was a man little over thirty, with nice physical features and having nothing to betray his homelessness. This was something of which he was not very proud either. He came from a distinguished and financially stable family, with his father having a certain reputation in the army. M. had traveled a lot, from Europe to Africa and the likes and this was something he enjoyed doing very much. He was convinced into "trying" a certain drug by a friend and developed an addiction. Having to pay for his daily dose, he began selling things from his parents' house which is why his parents asked him to leave after not complying with recovery drug programs. On a daily basis, you would see him cooking, something he was fond of and, whether or not this was an inherited trait from his father, he was the most organized and tidiest person in the house. He held strong opinions about music and was very determined to get back on his feet. He would share with us the intimacies of his traveling but he would be all too conservative into going in depth about his situation of being homeless. It was his pride first and foremost which enabled his determination and perhaps the desire to speak to his father again. Following his drug addiction and drug related problems, his parents terminated any contact until M.'s mother decided she wanted to let her son in her life again.
The first thing that happened when we entered the shelter was that we were given background information on each of the residents' situation. This was to prevent any unwanted or awkward moments as well as to keep us vigilant. It is true that, while most of the people in the shelter were considered harmless, protective measures were constantly considered. When we heard about M.'s homelessness having been caused by drug addiction, the first thing we thought of was that, indeed, stereotyping is based on true foundation. However, once we got to know M., we were taken away by his outgoing, his genuine determination that we realized how stereotyping only provides an incomplete background and generalizes on terms of ignorance and poor information. M. was neither violent, nor bad mannered, he indeed had nothing that would make us want to avoid him. He was the first resident we interacted with and our conversations with him, although did not revolve around the subject of homelessness at all, was what got us further immersed into the idea that homelessness in itself is not bad. Neither are the people who experience homelessness. M. would often show up behind your back trying to spook you off and he would just as often succeed. Then he would lay before you a sheet with a dozens apartments that he thought suited him. He would be out on the streets looking for a job during daytime which is why we would often meet only after sunset. His will was appreciative and motivating and it finally paid off. We had long finished our voluntary time when we received news that he was doing very well living in a flat and having a regular job. He was now visiting his parents regularly and was involved in a serious relationship himself. One of the most important things we have learnt about homelessness due to M. is that homeless people are neither born homeless nor are they always homeless forever. Another important thing is that support is everything in dealing with homelessness. Because of similar stereotyping that we had assimilated, M. had often been rejected at jobs interviews which is disempowering especially for particular groups who are already fighting with low self-esteem.
K., on the other hand, was a troubled 27 years old male. He was experiencing severe depression which kept him very much isolated and he did indeed showed regular signs of violence. However, his violence was related strictly to him wanting to have things done in a specific manner while the rules of the shelter did not allow them. He had been committed several times into a mental hospital briefly and there were occasionally times when his situation would worsen to the extend that the staff wondered whether or not the shelter was the appropriate and best suitable place for him. Thus, our interactions with K. were short and often trivial as he would be unable to articulate words. Because of his depression, he would often look shaggy and he would regularly refuse to get out of bed or take care of himself. Although the basic reasons for his homelessness were drug related also, his situation differed vastly from M.'s. Unfortunately, he was transferred to a clinic facilitation dealing with people affected by mental illnesses. It is unfortunate because K. actually wanted to remain in the shelter and continue to live there.
The San Diego Police Department stated that ?many homeless are on the street because of substance abuse, mental illness, or both. (Prevention Tips, sandiego.gov) It also stated that ?there is a fine line between homelessness as a social issue and a criminal issue. It has been our experience that society often narrows that line to criminal issues. Moreover, bearing in mind that current regulations in some U.S. states look towards legally define homeless people as criminals, it is expected that societies' perception will further be influenced by such radical decisions. Psychologically, studies indicate that positive feedback builds and improves one's self-esteem. Many of those who are homeless are young people for whom social exclusion is devastating. This is why supporting them for any small progress at all is important to their future and motivation. There is a story of two rabbits that were clinging to a cliff. They both struggled not to fall into the abyss while the rabbits around yelled at them to let go because they had no chance. One of them did but the other finally managed to save himself. When asked how he managed to hold on he said he was deaf and that he thought they were telling at them to resist, that they were close, that they will succeed. This is relevant to real life situations when homeless people are often disempowered by stereotypes and assumptions. But the story is also an example of how powerful it can to know that we can rely on others.
Of course, one of the best methods to teach people different is to talk and share positive experiences about homeless people. Even though there are violent homeless people, addictive and dangerous homeless people, seriously damaged homeless people, it is important to remember they are not all as such. And before we have decided anything about them it is important to gain enough information so that our children won't grow up crossing the street whenever they see someone who is homeless. It is important that they know that not all homeless people look like the ones they see lying on the streets. This is a very important step because children are very susceptible to information and learn more quickly than we ever give them credit for. As such, they are the ones who decide whether stereotyping is dismantled or continues to exist and have negatives effects. Thus, in combating stereotyping it is important that we evaluate our own perceptions and, where possible, actively seek grounds for our opinions. But generalizing has never had positive connotations in regards to homelessness. Our experience from volunteering in an emergency shelter is the evidence we can present for our case.
National Alliance to End Homelessness (2013). The State of Homelessness in America 2013. Retrieved from http://documents.lahsa.org/Communication/pressrelease/2013/NAEH_State_of_Homeleness_in_America_2013.pdf
San Diego Police Department (n.d.). Prevention tips: Dealing with Homeless People. Retrieved from http://www.sandiego.gov/police/services/prevention/tips/homeless.shtml