Saturday, January 7, 2017

Yes, homelessness can be a positive experience, and more people ought to know about it.

The following is a comment I left here, in response to another comment by one Ms. Lesley Haddock, development coordinator at the Coalition on Homelessness, who was in turn responding to this lovely article entitled, "Why I Became Intentionally Homeless in San Francisco" by one Ms. Kristin Hanes, which was picked up by Ms. Julie Bort over at Business Insider.  I am reposting my own reply to Ms. Lesley Haddock here because the topic is rather important to me. One Mr. Mike Zine also took a verbal shot at Ms. Hanes, Ms. Hanes apologized here, and I told her she had nothing to apologize for here.

I’ve been homeless too, multiple times, one of those times as an alternative to likely death (according to my doctor), and if I were the sort of person to get outraged over people misrepresenting homelessness, I would be outraged at you, Lesley Haddock, not at Kristin Hanes. Though actually, I don’t really feel much of anything besides mild annoyance, too many emotional callouses to feel more than that.

Being homeless is a very individual experience. There’s no one story that describes all homeless people. The standard way of determining if someone is homeless is to ask “Where did you sleep last night?” and if the answer is anything other than what legally qualifies as housing, that’s homelessness, regardless of the person’s reasons. (Expect a vague answer though — expecting someone to tell you exactly where they sleep is rude because keeping the location secret is a safety concern for many people. In fact, if someone doesn’t want you to know they’re homeless, they’ll most likely dodge the question or lie.) Kristin Hanes doesn’t represent all homeless people, and she’s not claiming too. No one represents all homeless people, least of all people like you. By pretending you are qualified to speak for all homeless people, or even just all homeless people in San Francisco, you demonstrate your incompetence at the task. A wise person is aware of how much he or she doesn’t know. What Kristin Hanes did is tell her own story, and that’s something everyone should be able to do. Sure she has privileges, but so what? White privilege, being systemic, isn’t something we can just give up even if we wanted to, but rather, something to be used to try to help those who are not white in the hopes that in the future, what we now call white privilege will become human privilege, and in her own way Kristin Hanes seems to be trying to do that.

Yes, some homeless people are spat upon, ticketed, arrested, robbed by police, etc. All those things happen, and worse. In some countries like Brazil and Columbia, it’s commonplace for police to simply shoot homeless people.(1)(2)(3) And all of these people deserve to be able to tell their stories (or have their stories told, in the case of the departed).

But stories like Ms. Hanes’ are important too. The first step for a person to get themselves out of a bad situation, is to believe that a better future is possible. That goes for both people who are currently homeless but in great danger of being harassed by police or others, and for those currently in situations worse than what homelessness might be for them. Intimate partner violence resulted in 2340 deaths, that we know of, in 2007, in the United States alone.(4) And intimate partner violence is only one form of violence or danger a person might be fleeing. People often stay in a bad situation longer than they might if they had cause to hope for better options. More positive stories from successful homeless people like Ms. Hanes are helpful for giving people that hope. Homelessness is neither the best nor the worst of all possible fates.

Ms. Hanes’ strategies are not nearly so uncommon as many seem to think. The number of employed homeless is, from what I have seen, much higher than official estimates, both because many are engaged in employment (including self-employment) of, shall we say, questionable legality if not outright illegality, and also because the employed homeless are often better at remaining hidden from police and others who might bother them, and are thus uncounted in official statistics. People really have no idea how many homeless people maintain gym memberships so they can shower, store clothing and other belongings in self-storage as Ms. Hanes did, and are good at finding hidden places to sleep (sometimes, the same self-storage where their belongings are), and generally appear to most of the world like perfectly ordinary people, so long as you don’t catch them sleeping or press too hard to find out where their “home address” is.

Thank you Kristin Hanes for sharing your story.
  1. Sandy, Matt. “In Brazilian city, homeless face ‘extermination.’” Al Jazeera, October 25, 2014. (accessed January 7, 2017).
  2. Kaplan, Michael. “Road To Rio: Police Sweep Away ‘Street Children’ Ahead Of Brazil Olympics.” International Business Times, April 18, 2016. (accessed January 7, 2017).
  3. Human Rights Watch. “BOGOTÁ.” Human Rights Watch. (accessed January 7, 2017).
  4. CDC. “Understanding Intimate Partner Violence.” CDC, 2014. (accessed January 7, 2017).

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