Homelessness Myth #16: Helping Infantilizes Homeless People

The myth that helping a homeless person makes him/her dependent, in other words, "infantilizes" him/her, is sometimes used as a rationale not to help a person in need. I believe the concepts that are being confused in this myth are the concepts of "helping" another person versus "rescuing" another person. It is important to understand the practical implications of these concepts so we can expose this myth for what it is -- an excuse not to help a homeless person.

When we help another person, housed or unhoused, we are, in a word, "helpful." Our actions that assist another person in need to realize his/her own plans for his/her life are helpful actions.

Rescuing another person is something very different from helping him/her. When we try to rescue someone, we attempt to take over a part of his/her life often substituting our own goals and ambitions for his/her own. The person we are rescuing appears to lose a part of himself/herself because we have stepped in and taken over.

Helping equals assisting; rescuing equals control. A person in need can be assisted. A baby is almost entirely within our control.

I believe that we can all agree that no rational, mature adult wants to be controlled, in whole or in part. We bristle at the mere thought of being "infantilized." We each have had our own turn as a baby. Now, as adults, we have the opportunity to learn, grow and achieve our individual goals and desires.

But being a housed adult does not mean that each of us doesn't need help from time to time. Truly, each of us probably needs more help than we might like to acknowledge. For example, most of us need help with letters of reference to get into college. We sometimes need "to know someone" to get a job. And most prospective buyers seek mortgages from banks to acquire their homes.

A person without a home needs help, too. Let's face it: there is a homeless person in almost every city and rural community in the United States. Further, there are not enough beds in emergency shelters, transitional housing projects or permanent supportive housing programs to shelter every homeless person. So, the majority of homeless people are unsheltered. These are facts.

Now, what do we do?

Of course, we housed people can do nothing to help a homeless person. Inaction doesn't cost us anything -- or so we think.

We now know through multiple studies that it costs the housed population more money for a person to be homeless rather than for that person to be housed with supportive services. We also know that arresting and jailing a homeless person for existing without shelter costs more than providing that person with shelter and supportive services.

Thus, having a person remain homeless is not cost-effective. So, we, the housed population, save money by housing a homeless individual.

Besides the financial costs, there are also hidden costs for the housed population when we don't help people in need because we don't exercise our human qualities of care and compassion. Through actions of compassion, we expand positive human qualities. Indeed, many religions and spiritual paths admonish their followers to "help one another." Science has also proven that when we help one another, our immune system is positively affected. By helping others, we help ourselves.

When a person is homeless, he/she often suffers negative consequences from being unhoused. These consequences can be physical, emotional, psychological and even spiritual. Therefore, a homeless person may need help on many different levels.

How can we help? An easy and quick first step to help is to serve a homeless person nutritious food. Hunger is rampant among low-income people in the United States and most prevalent among our unhoused population. Once a person's hunger is met, his/her entire perspective may change for the better.

Step two is to provide public toilets, showers and laundries. Everyone needs to be clean to work. Ask any employer of a fast food restaurant.

Together, these two steps will have an immediate impact of decreasing the number of people who are homeless. An able-bodied and able-minded unhoused person will be fortified and clean. He/she will be employable. Once gainfully employed, he/she can afford housing.

Step three is providing shelter for each person who is homeless. Right now we housed people are involved in creating housing for unhoused people often in the form of emergency shelters, transitional housing and permanent supportive housing.

We could also provide housing to homeless people by converting abandoned military bases into self-sufficient villages where homeless people will be welcomed. Working together, nonprofit organizations could help the government create these villages. The nonprofits could also train the residents to run their own village with light industry and organic farming.

Helping homeless people is good for all of us.

Publication Date: 
December 6, 2010
Journal Name: 
The Huffington Post
United States