The Benefit of the Doubt: Homelessness and Trust Stigma

I have heard some homeless people tell me that they get the police called on them ten times a day. Not for any good reason, of course, but because the place that I live (Sarasota, Florida) happens to have an enormous class rift: an abnormally large homeless population and a swath of wealthy tourists.

After responding to a 9-11 call and finding nothing wrong, a police officer might sit in their car for hours, watching the crowd of homeless people and waiting for something to happen.

And when something does happen—even something as innocent as having a dog off the leash or tossing a cigarette on the ground—the police are ready for it.

The lack of a basic level of trust in homeless people to act decently goes beyond just police behavior. Practically any act of direct aid toward a homeless person is considered “enabling,” to such an absurd degree that enormous bureaucracies are required to manage the environment under which homeless people receive aid.

Groups like the Salvation Army don’t just give away a service, but enforce strict norms on the participants of their programs—from an early curfew to a ban on talking to people outside their program1—that make sure that the people receiving help don’t squander it away.

Other examples include the city of Fort Lauderdale banning the act of giving away food, unless the proper permit is acquired, or Sarasota taking away the benches of a park, claiming that they encourage bad behavior among the homeless.

Often times the real reason these rules exist is to allow cities to shield their wealthy residents from poverty (or to “respond to residents of the highest property tax value,” as Sarasota’s ex-vice-mayor once stated), and thus make them feel more comfortable spending money.

But the reason that most people think of is the equation of homeless people with the mentally ill. If we have mentally ill people out on the streets, the logic goes, we can’t trust them to act properly toward others or themselves.

Now, it’s important to not dismiss mental illness as a serious issue affecting the homeless community; according to The National Coalition for the Homeless, 25% of America’s homeless population is affected by a mental illness (compared to 6% of the national population). But there are a few crucial points that I think most people miss when they dismiss a beggar, or defend laws that criminalize or control homeless people.

1. Most homeless people are not mentally ill. Despite its increased prevalence, there is no reason to assume a homeless person is mentally ill, or otherwise incapable of managing their lives.

What’s more, I don’t think such an assumption would be appropriate if the rate was 75%, or even 99%. As we have seen with phenomena like the school to prison pipeline, stigma about a person’s tendencies will end up affecting those tendencies themselves. And this is to say nothing of the diversity of mental illness and the uselessness of trying to predict someone’s behavior based on their neurology.

2. Correlation shouldn’t be confused with causation. Ableism—often in combination with other oppressions—can cause mentally ill people to become homeless, but homelessness also often leads to mental illness. The psychological stress of food insecurity, lack of shelter, lack of privacy, and criminalization should not be understated, and is a good reason (among many others) that the first and most important step to ending homelessness is making housing a human right, with no strings attached.

3. If mental health is the problem, the state and the largest NGO’s are not addressing it. The most common programs a mentally ill homeless person will encounter are those in jails or at NGO’s like the Salvation Army. These programs teach things like personal finance or spiritual fulfillment—rarely useful when the core problem is schizophrenia or anger management. We need professional, universal, voluntary and community-oriented mental health services if we are going to help the minority of homeless people who are affected by mental illness.

So when you have a dollar to give, consider who deserves the benefit of the doubt: the Salvation Army, a group that has proven itself to contribute to the cycle of poverty, or a homeless person, who has problems just like you and I, only many more of them?

(Notes on the Salvation Army: The rules of the Sarasota Salvation Army divide people into “in house” and “community” groups. “Community” members are anyone who come in for a meal. The “in house” group are the people in the Salvation Army’s programs, which give them food and a bed in exchange for following strict and invasive rules and attending various classes. Because “in house” people are seen as volatile and vulnerable, they are kept on a separate floor from the “community” members, and a “community” member can get banned if they find a way to talk with the “in house” members.

Besides many other reasons to not support the Salvation Army, my own comes again from Sarasota. Despite its attempt to be a service for the homeless, the Salvation Army has been supportive of the laws that criminalize homelessness that have passed over the last decade. They have even been inscribed into Sarasota’s law, where the city excuses their law that criminalizes sleeping outdoors by citing the Salvation Army’s insufficient and expensive shelter.)

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