What we talk about when we talk about homelessness

Does Emerson know how to talk about homelessness? What can Emerson do to address the extreme poverty in Boston?

Growing up in rural Pennsylvania, I always understood homelessness as an “other” that existed outside of my world. Until the age of 12, I thought the only homeless people in the world were in downtown Philadelphia, because that was the only place I had seen them. On our trips to the city, my mother told me not to look at homeless people, not to talk to them, to pretend they weren’t there, and keep walking.

Emerson students, intentionally or not, seem to take the same approach towards homeless people. Our dialogue here often isolates homeless people as scary or threatening, and many students take the approach of pretending the homeless don’t exist in order to live more comfortably in a city where poverty is frighteningly widespread.

As a school, we need to examine the way we talk about homelessness and change the way we help the homeless population. Rather than centering our language around homeless people as separate from us, we should focus on solutions that bind our community together. We need to change how we approach helping those experiencing homelessness, so that we’re directly interacting with them, as opposed to providing occasional aid from arms length. If we hold food drives or donate to soup kitchens, let’s donate the items directly, talk to people at the shelter, and see the impact from our work.

At the St. Francis House just down the street, they’re always looking for volunteers to help out with all sorts of jobs, from working in the kitchen, to sorting donations, to working one on one with the guests of the shelter. Another organization in Boston, Spare Change News, is a newspaper for the homeless to write about the struggles they face and help them get back on their feet, by offering and promoting employment opportunities. Even if you can’t volunteer with them, read Spare Change News’ articles or look into purchasing a copy from a vendor, because they humanize the homeless population and bring their struggles to light.

Many of us are taught to think of homelessness as different, separate from us in every possible way. We often fail to recognize that homeless people are, in fact, people. They have stories and lives, families and friends, just like any of us. The Emerson community needs to recognize the humanity of the homeless population. Emerson students often pride ourselves on inclusivity, but it is very easy to be exclusive when we are ignorant as a community.

Having food drives, hosting soup kitchens, and donating winter clothes are all important ways to help homeless people in Boston, of course. The problem with these acts of charity is that they allow us to distance ourselves from the issues homeless people face; if you can simply donate a coat or a can of soup, then it depersonalizes the struggles of the homeless population because there’s no interaction required. Helping the homeless through an intermediary of third party charitable organizations puts up a wall between us and the people we are trying to help.

By engaging in dialogue that addresses homelessness as a problem within our community, within our city, and by changing our advocacy and charity work to interact with homeless people on a more personal level, we can change the stigma surrounding homelessness and approach the issue without condescension and alienation, but rather with compassion and empathy.