When someone is telling you the truth about homelessness how do you know they know the truth? Sincerity of purpose is no measure of truth. A lot of sincere people are sincerely giving out bad information about homelessness and calling it the truth. Facts and figures discovered and disseminated by people working in the homelessness industry are always conflicting. Myths about homelessness are more popular, more often recited, more often used in determining policies, than facts about homelessness.
This has me asking not only if anyone really knows the truth, but also if the truth is allowed to be told.
I took a photography class at Belmont College many years ago. About all I remember from the class was something the professor said about working as a professional photographer. He said that when he first started his photography business he wanted more than anything to be true to himself, to be his own man, to live his life on his own terms. Part of this was to purposely be “himself” while working. Dressing the way he wanted to was one such way of achieving independence. He believed that the quality of his work would be what would drive his business, and his clients would respect his individuality. Eventually he learned his lesson, because his business as suffering. Regardless of other factors, people expected him to “look” the part of a professional photographer. He learned that any photographer that does not adapt that “photographer-esque” way is bound to have difficulties getting business. Soon, he was conforming to the ways people expected of him. His business grew.
I have been told many times, over the years, that I don’t look like a homeless person. For this I am glad. I never want to look like a homeless person. More than anything I’ve wanted to be accepted for “who” I am, and not rejected for “what” I am. But now I’m selling homeless newspapers and I’m having a problem. I don’t sell as many papers as other vendors in the area. And, I don’t receive nearly the tips that the others do. Just a block away, another vendor sells 4 times as many papers and averaged $1.50 more per tip than I do. The difference? He looks homeless, and I don’t. I wear clean and decent clothing, I shave, etc. The other vendor looks like he’s been camping in the woods a long time. He doesn’t shave often, doesn’t comb his hair.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not being judgmental towards this vendor. As a matter of fact we met up the other day and discussed business. He told me that I should try to look more homeless, to look more like he does.
For me this is a bit of a conundrum. I’ve been trying to be an advocate for homeless people, have been working to dispel the myths and break the stereotypes that homeless people have to deal with. Ignorance about homelessness by non-homeless people is homeless people’s biggest obstacle to leaving homelessness. Still, there are many homeless people who do not sport “the homeless look.” But now, my look is the determinant factor in whether or not I am a successful newspaper seller, and earn enough from selling homeless newspapers that I become financially independent. The other vendor now has his own place with no government assistance of any kind. I am still stuck in section 8 housing, living in the ghetto and dependent on others to get by. For me to achieve true independence I’ll have to lie about who I really am. Instead of breaking stereotypes, I’ll be conforming to them. I will be perpetuating myths about homeless people. This is not what I want to be doing, but it is expected of me.
The way a person presents him/her self is seen as a narrative, a story. Not only do people like a good story, they have a preference for certain types of stories. And often times, people find fiction to be more compelling and more comforting than the truth.
This issue with dishonesty plagues all other aspects of life too. Politics, religion, relationships. Bernie Madoff did pretty well for himself with nothing but lies. A lie about WMDs in Iraq earned Haliburton a half a Trillion Dollars. Lies in religion? Lets not even go there. A necessity seems to have developed, that one is now required to lie, just to survive.
Being true to yourself, telling the truth about yourself, has a high price. As I work my way out of homelessness I hope you’ll listen more to what I say, than what I do. Please forgive me.