Compassion seems to be the key to ending homelessness. It’s the tipping point, as Malcolm Gladwell would say. Get the general public compassionate about the homeless and good things will happen. This works on the individual homeless person’s level, and it works on the shelter and homeless service provider level.
But here is the rub – Telling people the truth about homelessness doesn’t elicit much response in the way of compassion. It’s only when stories are told that glamorize and romanticize and exaggerate homelessness, that the general public responds compassionately – when people begin donating to homeless service providers.
Here is a basic example. Donations to homeless shelters increase when their advertisement includes a picture of a little homeless girl – more so than if the advertisement included a picture of a old homeless man. This, despite the fact that old homeless men are by far the majority of the homeless and shelter population.
It bothers me when inaccurate stories are told about homelessness. Such stories create the myths that become stumbling blocks to homeless people trying to leave homelessness. But the core of the problem isn’t so much that people are not telling the truth. The problem lies in the fact that the general public does not respond charitably towards the homeless when the truth about homelessness is told. They do not give to meet the actual needs of the homeless, but instead respond to the best story told about homelessness, regardless of its accuracy. That is why homeless shelters and homeless service providers now must hire Public Relations people. Their job is to create the best stories, all so that service providers can compete for what few donations are available.
Sadly, public relations people don’t come cheap. The money being spent to hire them should really be going to the needs of the homeless.