The criminalization of homelessness

Inherent classism in rhetoric and expressions

By Timothy Scalona, Collegian columnist

Classism permeates every facet of society, through whispers, frowns and stares — expressions subtle yet powerful. Those that face the brunt of this internalized discrimination — homeless and impoverished populations alike — are increasingly demonized in a society that would rather invest in anti-homeless spikes than shelters and social support programs. Humanity has begun to take a back seat to economic theory. Misguided “solutions” are proposed by those with no direct experience with poverty or contact with victimized communities. With repetition, a lie becomes ingrained truth and from this lack of understanding, inherent discrimination is borne. But reality could not be further from these preconceived notions. Skyrocketing wealth inequality is now a newly formed catalyst for discrimination, as many with the privilege to accept the status quo push to herd the homeless like sheep, unsupported, displaced and out of sight of those who cannot live with the weight and human consequences of putting profit before compassion.

For many, homelessness conjures an image of an individual on the street wearing tattered clothing with dirt-encrusted skin, panhandling for spare change to purchase alcohol instead of food. They believe this false image because it is one that society has accepted, placing blame on victims rather than on systems of oppression. These same people fail to realize the umbrella term that is “homelessness,” as it includes living in shelters, hotel stays and taking refuge with family, friends and others. This internalized stereotype shapes the poorest of our society in the image of the “lesser,” unwilling to put in the work to achieve the American Dream and supersede their financial reality. It is a dogma rooted in fear and misunderstanding. Through this, classism is masked under layers of rhetoric in everyday speech, discrimination against the homeless legalized in the name of economic interests.

This concept manifests itself in a variety of forms, both overt and unconscious, present from a stare with downtrodden eyebrows as one walks down the street, to policy decisions and property protests. When wealthy businesses and homeowners organize against homeless populations with the mindset of “we don’t want those people in our town,” they are reinforcing the idea that impoverished individuals are harmful to profit and that they need removal rather than support, contributing to the stigma surrounding poverty. Instead of advocating against the systems that produce cyclical poverty and homelessness, such as unaffordable higher education, housing discrimination, the lack of a living wage, the healthcare crisis and mass incarceration, they choose to encourage relocation of populations in need, therefore continuing the cycle. Lacking a permanent address, phone number or email, many in these situations are unable to apply for jobs, which is yet another impediment that anti-homeless rhetoric fails to take into account. Seeing this, others claim that providing support in the form of shelters and food pantries only fosters a state of perpetual homelessness, as it would naturally attract those in need; this is again rooted in societal aversion to those suffering, in viewing these populations as ‘lazy, drug-addicted freeloaders’ and nothing more. Behind each person is a story, and choosing to disregard the existence of impoverished persons as inhuman reinforces class division and prevents effective poverty reform.

On a less direct level, there exists unconscious discrimination against homeless and poor persons specifically which trivializes their suffering and further dehumanizes the demographic. I have so many times heard the phrases, “You look homeless today,” in reference to someone’s appearance, or “We’re [playing] homeless today,” spoken by individuals unable to find a table to eat. I’ve also heard, “I’m poor” used to describe one’s lack of access to sought after luxuries — all used in taunts, self-deprecating remarks and on social media. The way that financially-privileged individuals throw around these terms is dehumanizing in itself, and yet another consequence of internalized discrimination against those in need. As someone who has lived through these situations, it pains me to hear such a mockery of the trauma that people must fight to overcome on a daily basis simply to survive. These signifiers not only damage those that suffer from homelessness, but they reinforce the aforementioned misguided stereotypes and prevent a true understanding of the homeless experience.

As a collective and on the individual level, we need to recognize the ways that we have been conditioned to discriminate against and criminalize those at the lowest rung of the social ladder. While it is compassionate to give food or money to an individual on the street, being an ally in this fight extends beyond these actions. In many cases, this also tokenizes the homeless and leaves the systems in place that compound both institutional and societal class discrimination. We need to challenge these stereotypes with the understanding that poverty nor homelessness is a choice, while fighting for the existence of those long seen as invisible, at which point we will be better equipped as a society to equalize a largely discriminatory and rigged economic system.

Timothy Scalona is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected]