Burbank, California; February 24, 2002; Joan Marques, MBA, Doctoral Student
Every time I see a homeless person, I wonder what brought him or her to this wandering point. Family-problems? War-trauma?s? Drugs? Oh, I know; the reasons are as diversified as the American population. Rosenheck, Bassuk, & Salomon (2001) state that ?homeless Americans are exceptionally diverse and include representatives from all segments of society?the old and young; men and women; single people and families; city dwellers and rural residents; whites and people of color; and able-bodied workers and people with serious health problems.? Comparing the homeless people in Los Angeles, my new home, to the ones in Suriname, my old home, I have to say that there isn?t much difference in their patterns. They all walk around dirty, some with obvious signs of mental illness, others as desiccated as if they were mummified, and others just filthy and quiet, staring into nothingness with a look that expresses so much, yet nothing?.
When you drive through areas where there are concentrations of homeless people, whether it?s Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles, or ?The Waterside? in Suriname, you can?t help but feel uneasy. You may not be scared if that?s not your nature, but you still feel as if you are at a place where you don?t (want to) belong. You may get overwhelmed by very mixed emotions, varying from feeling guilty for what the circumstances have done to these people, to gratitude that this has not been your fate?. at least, not up till now.
A few years ago I produced a documentary about homeless people in Suriname. It gave me the opportunity to get to know some of these people fairly well. They came from different backgrounds. Some even from very distinguished families with names that represented dignity and power. And some were just crushed by ill fate from birth on. But they all had one thing in common: they realized that surviving was up to them. Some displayed aggressive behavior, and some were almost apathetic. Some would start yelling at you with no direct reason, and some would walk away without saying a word.
Have you ever considered the fact that being homeless is not an impossibility for any of us? That we can be well off today, and be blown away by life tomorrow? That we can live in a mansion, drive an SUV, have money to burn today, and be caught by a mental smash tomorrow, leading us to choose for the wandering life?
So what is it about these people and their tragic life-style that embarrasses society? Why do we look the other way? Because that?s what we do, admit it or not. No one wants to be confronted with homeless. It?s a part of life we want to block out if we can. These are the fellow human beings that we regard not-so-fellow. These are the people that confront us with the reality of life?s pitfalls. These are the fallen elements of humankind. Many of them have once given their all for their country, their company, or their family. But then something went wrong, and they weren?t good anymore. Agreed, sometimes it?s just impossible to keep them around, because, in their anger and disappointment, they have become dangerous. But oftentimes they are simply rejected because the ?better? members of their environment feel hindered and embarrassed by them. And then they are ?deported? to places like Skid Row or the Waterside, where they can meet others of their kind and fall even deeper in the downward spiral. Then we count on Good Samaritans as churches and other non-profit organizations that distribute food and old clothes in those troubled areas at a regular basis. And we can console our conscience that we did what we could, and that it?s better this way. ?At least he/she is being taken care of,? we say. And then we proceed.
That?s life. And life is hard. Isn?t it funny, though, that we preach we are the most organized and responsible species on earth? If we consider that wild animals only leave their weak members behind when they smell danger and have to save themselves, while humans simply dump whatever doesn?t fit their sophisticated pattern anymore; how organized and responsible are we? Yes, indeed: wild animals don?t get confronted with weak members as often as we do, so it?s easier to deal with the few that go astray. But that may raise another interesting issue: can we really call this condition we live in, ?civilization,? if there are so many of us wandering around, dazed by what our own species have made of it?
Rosenheck, Bassuk, & Salomon, Special Populations of Homeless Americans,