The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Smart policy on homelessness requires empathy, not contempt

Dan Stewart holds a sign at the Georgia Avenue off-ramp in Silver Spring on July 9, 2021. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)
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These days, homelessness is considered far less in relation to the suffering of those living on the streets and more as a “quality of life” issue. The focus, especially in election campaigns, is on middle-class people distressed and sometimes harassed by those without a home.

Of course, makeshift tent cities are not what public parks were built for. And people hurrying to work have a right to be upset about what are sometimes deeply disconcerting interactions with troubled people.

But there is a moral and practical obligation to avoid dehumanizing fellow human beings who have fallen on difficult times, and purely punitive policies will never resolve homelessness.

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Empathy is a better guide to problem-solving than contempt. For taking us down this path, we can be grateful to Wendy Abrams, an artist and environmental activist who created the stirring exhibit “Invisible Words.”

Abrams went about collecting the signs that homeless people hold, usually when pleading for help on the streets. In her hands, works of desperation are transformed into works of art. And like all good art, the display reaches into both the mind and the heart.

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There is nothing precious or contrived about the exhibit ending this week at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library in downtown Washington. The signs were framed in a simple but elegant way — a mark of respect. One after another, without any editorial comment, they reflect the complicated emotions of the human beings who made them: pride co-exists with shame; anger goes alongside a longing for connection.

“Poverty and homelessness will never be eliminated but they can be humiliated,” reads one. “I want to remind all fortunate people of what they’ve forgotten: The Unfortunate.”

Many convey an intense sense of personal responsibility.

“Please help. Please. I’m not a bad girl. I just made bad decisions.”

“Please help. Homeless, Alone and Ashamed. Seeking a random act of kindness. Thank you. God bless.”

“Not my proudest moment. Never thought this could happen.”

Also evident, and remarkable, is the empathy that the signs display from those who made them for the people made uneasy as they walk past. One used a stylish script and a laugh emoji to declare: “This is awkward 4 me, too.”

“Need a miracle,” reads another.

“Vet. No Job. I don’t like this. I just need a little help. God bless.” Yes, God is much on the minds of the forsaken.

The sponsorship of the exhibit’s Washington stop by the Ignatian Volunteer Corps, a service program for older people rooted in Jesuit ideals, reflects the display’s purpose, described as “an exercise in empathy.”

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“When we become disconnected from one another,” Mary McGinnity, the organization’s president and chief executive, told me, “when we lose our capacity for compassion for one another, we lose our humanity.”

The imperative is to transform the backlash against homelessness into effective and comprehensive national policies on housing and substance abuse.

The essential step, said Steve Berg, vice president for programs and policy at the National Alliance to End Homelessness, is to understand homelessness first and foremost is a housing market problem.

Yes, roughly 40 percent of homeless people suffer from “substance use, mental illness or both,” according to Berg, but that means a majority do not. It’s important to ask, “Why can’t we get treatment for people who are dealing with substance use?” he said in an interview. But even more critical is recognizing how the cost of housing puts it out of reach of too many.

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Any long-term solution will require more affordable housing. In the meantime, Berg calls for recognizing that rent voucher programs currently reach only about a quarter of those who are eligible.

“Everybody who is eligible for Medicaid can sign up, and they will get Medicaid,” Berg noted. “Everyone who’s eligible for food stamps, for the SNAP program, they can sign up, and they will get help affording food. But with the housing programs, for whatever historical reasons, they’ve never been set up that way.”

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Berg argued that we need to see housing as no less of a necessity than nutrition or health care. And a better rapid-response system would “engage people who have lost their housing, keep them safe and get them back into housing as quickly as possible.”

There’s nothing wrong with wanting safer, more orderly environments. Indicting city dwellers troubled by the chaos they sometimes experience on urban streets will get us nowhere. But the very stability and order they seek will endure only if all of us “fortunate people” try to meet the homeless on their own terms.

“All these people living on the streets is bad,” Berg said. “Who holds that opinion the most strongly? The people living on the streets.” The signs they carry remind us of this every day.