The Ingram Scholars at Vanderbilt is a unique program offering full tuition scholarships for students engaged in community service work. They work in many fields, and one of them is homelessness. So this past Wednesday the Ingram Scholars invited three formerly homeless people to come talk about their homeless experiences. This was followed by a question and answer period. The Scholars asked great questions, I hope they were able to get something useful out of our answers.
There were a couple things I had planned on saying, but the direction of the conversation got me away from them and I forgot to mention them. Two similar questions were asked: “What do homeless people need most,” and “what need of the homeless population is most overlooked.”
This is how I’d answer those questions:
The methods currently employed in curing people of homelessness are akin to bloodletting as a method of curing people of ailments. And this is because there has been no serious concerted effort made to understand homelessness with a scientific and intellectual focus. Occasionally a class will be offered on homelessness within a sociology program, and a few books have been written on the subject. But more needs to be done. Just as there are whole fields of study dedicated to subjects like “Women’s Studies” or “African American Studies” there needs to be whole schools dedicated to “Homelessness Studies.” It was only a couple years ago that HUD, a government agency attempted to place an official definition to a type of homelessness, with their definition of “chronically homeless.” This definition was not the most accurate, but it was a start in the right direction. Homelessness is still today a vast, unexplored field. Academicians looking for a unique, undiscovered, unresearched area of study, would easily get their names in the history books of firsts, if they undertook a serious, dedicated study of homelessness.
Until now, the treatment and cure of homelessness has been left up to the religious, based on an inaccurate assumption that homelessness is a spiritual problem. But now people are admitting that this approach to homelessness has failed. Hopefully soon we will see an interest in the scientific approach to understanding and curing homelessness. It is time to drop the notion that homelessness is caused by a dysfunctional relationship with God that can be cured with copious amounts of prayer, and a proper belief in all the “right” things.
In the Christian sphere, a sphere which dominates the homelessness industry, and where supposedly judgmentalism is frowned upon, we find the greatest amount of judgment being passed. It is this act of “judgment” of homeless people that has become a tremendous road block in overcoming homelessness..
When a car accident occurs, emergency personnel rush to the scene. All injured people are treated, and if injuries are serious enough they are immediately taken to a hospital. And all of this is done so to save the lives of these people and to get them back to a productive and meaningful life as quickly as possible. During all this no one takes into consideration who was responsible for the accident. Imagine if the first thing responders did was to spend time determining who was responsible for a car accident, and then decide to refuse any service to them. Imagine all those people left on the side of the road without treatment, and possibly dying, because they were refused treatment, all because they were judged to be at fault. Seeing ourselves as decent, humane, citizens of the world we would never allow that to happen. So, why is it this type of judgment is passed on the homeless? Most homeless people are seen by society as being responsible for their homelessness and so people withhold treatment for it.
So, these are the immediate and overlooked needs of the homeless; to end once and for all the judgment of homeless people regarding who is responsible for their state of homelessness, and to begin treating fairly and equally all who suffer from it; and to create an institution where homelessness is studied, so that the best cures can be developed, and taught, so to bring an end to homelessness. It is time to stop thinking of homeless people as somehow deficient in character, or deficient in their relationship with God, and think of them instead as injured people in need of proper treatment. People used to pray for a cure to polio, but when science focused on it, a cure was found. So, who will be the Jonas Salk of homelessness?