Attitudes about Homelessness

Homeless Hub backgrounder on thinking about homeless youth.

Backgrounder: Attitudes about Homelessness - How we THINK about homeless youth matters!

How can you tell if a young person is homeless?  Is it the way they dress?   The way they stand or sit?  Where they hang out?

What do you think about when you see a homeless youth?  Are you concerned about their well-being?  Are you scared?  Both?

There are of course many ways to think about street youth, and it is important to consider that how we think about the problem has a big effect on what we do about it.  On the one hand, if we view street youth sympathetically as victims of a bad family life who now live in extreme poverty, we may want to respond by doing what we can to ensure that their basic survival needs are met, that they be protected and given help to get back on their feet.  

On the other hand, we may think of street youth as scary, dangerous and delinquent; as petty criminals who threaten pedestrians, tourists and car drivers in the downtown areas of our cities.  We might think that in such cases these young people are bad (or more generously, troubled), who leave home for fairly insignificant reasons, and get involved in delinquent activities once on the street, thereby putting public health and safety at risk.  The solution in this case is to either arrest them or pack them up and send them home.

The differences between these two perspectives is vast, and so are the outcomes of such thinking.

Where do our ideas about homeless youth come from?
All of us have ideas about homeless youth, and many of us will have conflicted feelings.  It is important to realize, however, that our awareness and understanding of homeless youth, who they are and how they got there, is shaped by different factors.  In some cases our beliefs are a result of our own experiences of homelessness, or those of family members we know.  We may also develop our understanding of youth homelessness through direct encounters with homeless youth when we see them on the streets, panhandling, or hanging around.  

In many ways, our ideas about homelessness are actually shaped not by direct experience, but rather are influenced by media reports or the stories that our friends tell us.  Think about it: What do we really know, and how do we learn about things like homelessness.  Many of us will have friends who tell us they know someone who left home for this reason or that reason, but such stories may not get to the bottom of why people actually leave home (for more information, see the Homeless Hub backgrounder:  Why do young people become homeless?).  

Why does this matter?  Our indirect encounters with homelessness have a profound impact on how we think about the problem, and the kind of solutions we will advocate for or support. The laws, policies and programs that exist to deal with homelessness are put in place because enough people support them. Finally, we need to remember that people who experience homelessness live with the stigma of poverty and marginalization (Kidd, 2009).   If we want to change our approach to homelessness in Canada, our attitudes about homelessness must also change.

The news media and the framing of a street youth crisis
It is possible to argue that for most people, their beliefs on homelessness are mediated by depictions in the media – through the internet, television, newspapers and magazines, movies and books (Reynalds, 2006).  In the last decade or two, newspapers have begun reporting more regularly on homeless youth.  In 1997, newspapers in Toronto began to run a series of articles focusing on the growing number of young people begging for money on downtown streets.

Why the sudden interest in homelessness?  Why were news reporters and politicians suddenly talking about it?  One can argue that this was a direct result of the growing homelessness problem in Canada at that time – a problem that resulted from a reduction in investment in social housing, declining stocks of affordable housing, cutbacks to social programs and increasing poverty.  As a result, homelessness in Canada began to increase (Hulchanski, et al. 2009)

And, when homelessness increases, it only becomes more visible.  An occasional young person begging for money may draw curiosity or sympathy, or may simply be ignored.  Encountering panhandlers repeatedly during a walk downtown drives home the message that the number of people who are homeless is rising.  This is when passers by take note; when business owners begin to complain, when politicians start to lead the charge, and when newspapers start spreading the story of a growing ‘problem’

So, how was the problem reported?  The presence of homeless youth on street corners asking passers-by for change, or approaching people in their automobiles was framed as a public nuisance; a threat to public safety and the livelihood of downtown businesses and tourism.  In some cases, the so-called perpetrators were framed not as poor, homeless and impoverished, but rather, as bored suburban kids who were delinquent (Parnaby, 2003; Hermer and Mosher, 2002).

Rather than frame the issue in terms of growing poverty, many in the media depicted teenagers yet again as spoiled, dangerous and out of control.  The then-mayor of Toronto, Mel Lastman, described squeegee kids as “thugs and criminals”.  

The impact of framing panhandlers as ‘dangerous’
When public figures – and the news media – describe and portray people in this way, it can influence how all of us think about them.  It can also shape how we think about homelessness, and in this case, street youth. The moral panic that arose in the late 1990s focused on the perceived increase of panhandlers and squeegeers (these are young people who use squeegees to clean car windows  - for money).    

So, while many young people hang around on downtown and suburban streets, often dressed in clothing some might find unusual or even intimidating, it is not this alone that alerts us to the presence of homeless youth.  In fact, in many ways the key identifying characteristic of homeless youth is the way they make money.  That is, it is through the money making practices of homeless people that we are made aware of the existence of the issue; an awareness that may be visibly and tangibly reinforced on a day to day basis.  A homeless person staying in a shelter, living in an abandoned building, an alley way or in a part of town that few people frequent may be rendered invisible.

Even a homeless person sitting on a sidewalk or on a park bench may not draw our attention, or eventually will become part of the backdrop of urban life.  We may not think of them as homeless; we may not even know that they are. But when a street youth is making money – either through pan-handling, squeegeeing, prostitution or other means -  it becomes much more difficult to ignore them.  When people who are homeless panhandle, they in fact make homelessness and poverty visible to all passers by.  The issue of homelessness becomes much more direct, personal, visceral and to the chagrin of many, unavoidable.   

Think about it: When someone extends their hand, stands in front of us, speaks directly to us, looks us in the eye, it becomes an encounter that we cannot ignore.  Homelessness is no longer invisible - it becomes something we are forced to deal with.

And, how we deal with it may be shaped by our pre-existing understandings of  poverty and homelessness, or they may cast them in a new light.  Polite appeals for money may draw on our charitable impulses; our desire to help an individual in need at a time when we are becoming increasingly aware of this modern manifestation of poverty.  However, difficult encounters may provoke a different kind of response.  When the person asking for change is rude, imposes on our private space, or threatens violence, this gives us a whole other impression.  

These single encounters may reinforce our prejudices. If we are repeatedly reminded that homeless panhandlers are “thugs and criminals”, how are we to respond when someone is rude to us? One difficult encounter with a homeless person, whether experienced directly or through the stories of others, may lead us to generalize this negative experience to all people who are homeless.  But can we really say that one encounter – a person yelling at us, or appearing to be stoned – allows us to assume that everyone in this situation is the same?  This is how discrimination works.  

We need to think about this, because our prejudices can lead us to specific conclusions or outcomes.  We may, for instance, be led to conclude that people who are homeless are not deserving of our charity, and that their presence on our city streets degrades the experience of the city for all.  The fact that many ‘appear’ to be fit and able to work only reinforces our view that we should discourage these acts.    

All of this is important.  The way we think about youth homelessness is never neutral.  How we think about homeless youth shapes how we respond to them.  If we think they are young scammers who should just get a job, then we will use law enforcement to deal with the issue.  More police, more tickets, and a good dose of discipline is needed in order to encourage them to get a job, get off the streets and become good citizens.  

However, if we think of street youth as young people living in poverty who have had bad things happen in their lives (for more information on the causes of youth homelessness, see the Backgrounder: Why do young people become homeless?), we may be inclined to think of different kinds of solutions to youth homelessness.

Stephen Gaetz (2009)
“How we THINK about homeless youth matters”
Homeless Hub – Educational Resources.  
York University

Additional Reading:
To explore first hand accounts of the lives of people who have experienced homelessness, visit the Homeless Hub Experiences section:

For more information on the following subjects, visit the Homeless Hub’s Topics library:
-    Legal and Justice Issues
-    Criminalization of Homelessness
-    Discrimination
-    Income, Employment and Education

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