Just Like Us

[Related: Empathy Isn’t Everything]

I have such mixed feelings about the “the homeless are just like us!” or “I am homeless but I have a law degree and speak 4 languages” (ie, this page) campaigns.

On the one hand, “people I normally ignore and resent are human like me*” is a fairly effective strategy. Expecting that the homeless guy you walk by has characteristics besides a ripe smell and modeling them as being like you—assigning them theory of mind—is probably going to mean you treat them better. You might be more inclined to think about them as a population in your city, consider them when forming opinions about public structures and funding, etc. If you see yourself, or people you value as being able to become homeless, you might be more concerned about social issues around homelessness.

But…the majority of people who are homeless are not like the picture at the link. They are not necessarily charming or have obvious high status components when you first meet them. And they still are homeless. I don’t think the system is suddenly fixed just because people who speak four languages are suddenly in houses. I anticipate that if people expect that behind everyone without a home is a story of brilliance or status with a plot arc that Hollywood would envy, they’ll be disappointed and uninterested when they find people who don’t have that. I worry that these campaigns are setting up a dichotomy between people who “deserve” to be homeless and people who are obviously homeless only because of a weird Princess Diaries style fluke.

A case I once worked on required filling out a lot of forms about smearing feces and urine with very little other known information. Whether or not that person also had a modelling career, they were going to be homeless and I would prefer they weren’t.

*see also: “women are our wives and sisters”

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