The animus isn’t difficult to find. It seeps into social media, giving life to blogs named, “Why Homeless People [Tick] Me Off.” It has spawned a Tumblr account unabashedly called, “I hate the homeless.” Then there are the tweets. They come one after another, condemning the homeless for how they look, how they smell, how they’re unemployed, how they undoubtedly spend their money on drugs and booze. Lazy bums.
“I hate it when I pass by a homeless person, because as much as I did not try to hold my breath, I still smell the bad smell,” one person wrote to her 42,000 followers. “Feel sorry for the homeless on a night like tonight… Lol jk… Stop spending your money on drugs,” another person commented.
The comments reflect a series of cultural stereotypes that, despite their persistence, haven’t kept pace with the rapidly changing demographics of modern homelessness. Here and elsewhere, broad economic forces have meant the leading cause of homelessness is no longer addiction or mental health issues, but affordable housing. The fasting growing subgroup of homeless are homeless families. And a homeless person is just as likely to be a child as not. More than 2.5 million American children were homeless at some point in 2013, according to the National Center on Family Homelessness. The average age of a homeless person in the District is now … 9, reports American University.
Exploring this disconnect between what people think of the homeless and what they actually are, come a series of vignettes that deliver a devastating portrayal of modern homelessness. The subjects in these videos, produced by a Canadian non-profit called Raising the Roof, couldn’t be more different than smelly, drug-addicted bums. These are people of all ages and races, lucid of thought and well-dressed. They’re emotionally wrought over their situation, but also over what some people think of them.
Riffing off a bit on Jimmy Kimmel Live, one video, which has now collected nearly 1.2 million page views, depicts a series of homeless people reading mean tweets about the homeless. Equal parts heartbreaking and elucidating, the video shows multiple youths, a young family and several women, some of whom read the tweets and weep. To Carolann Barr, executive director of Raising the Roof, it wasn’t a surprise that things got emotional.
“This was a platform to expose those disturbing attitudes that people have toward the homeless, but also was a great way for our homeless to respond to those attitudes and try to dispel them,” Barr she told The Washington Post. “When you think of the homeless, you think of the people on the street, but from the research, the people who are homeless on the street only represent a small percentage of the people who are actually homeless. Today’s homeless couch surf, they bunk up, they’re precariously housed.”
The campaign, called Humans for Humans, also asked the subjects a series of questions that many people have perhaps wondered: Are you on drugs? Why do you have pets? Are a lot of homeless people alcoholics? Why can’t your family help you? Barr said she wanted to show that the homeless aren’t easily identifiable. “That was another myth,” Barr said. “The homeless person may not be visibly homeless.”
They can be anyone, she said. Even you.
When asked if he wanted to be homeless, a gray-haired man named Kim said, “For people to say, you know, ‘Do you want to be homeless?’ I don’t suggest anyone try it. Really, it’s not an experience you want to live with. It’s not an experience you want to have a memory of.”