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Homelessness in America: The Problem Of the 'Ignorance is Bliss' Attitude Towards the Poor

Every day I pass the same two individuals on my commute to and from the Bethesda, Maryland, metro Stop. I see one man in the morning on the way to the subway, and a different man in the afternoon on the way home. Each one is in a similar financial situation, and every day they remind me of the more than 650,000 estimated homeless individuals in the U.S., and how often they are ignored by passersby. While the homeless face enormous hardships every day, their situations are often made worse by being ignored. Instead of adopting an attitude of “ignorance is bliss,” passersby should make an effort to respect the poor and needy, even if it amounts to a smile or short conversation.  

When I first moved to the Washington, D.C., metro area, a place far more populated with poverty-stricken individuals on its streets than any other place I had lived, I was struck by the reactions of people who walked by the homeless each day. I understood the reservations people had for giving money to someone they didn’t know anything about. There are certainly many who misuse the money that is given to them by charitable hands. But what I saw was far more troubling to me. The homeless in D.C. simply did not exist to most of the people passing by them each day. 

The U.S. tends to be a guilt-driven society, where people will often go to great lengths to avoid feeling bad about their actions, or inactions. The most extreme example of this is the “bystander effect,” where individuals fail to help in an emergency situation. There is a tendency to think that if we look the other way when someone addresses us on the street, we won’t feel nearly so bad about not giving away our food or money. 

But while we may not always have something tangible to donate, the alternative does not have to be a complete disregard of someone’s existence, but perhaps an uplifting smile or short conversation.

Months ago, I was walking to work when a man sitting down on the sidewalk looked up at me to say hi. I greeted him and he glanced at the book at my hand, asking, “What are you reading?” I told him about my “Policy Analysis” book. Before parting with him he said, “Keep reading those books - you look like someone who might make the world better someday.” I gave a heartfelt thanks, and as I left I felt extraordinarily humbled. This man, in his desperate condition, did not even ask me for anything, but was making me feel good about myself. I learned an important lesson that the very least I could do was acknowledge people who addressed me on the street.   

There are many political and social debates about the best practices for helping the poorer class of society – such as increasing the number of jobs available, expanding or contracting the welfare system, or just encouraging Americans to become more of a “volunteer society.” Recent innovative programs have been effective, like the Home for Good program in Los Angeles, or the Empowerment Plan, a non-profit that trains and pays recently homeless women to make coats for the homeless. But what is hardly ever addressed is our attitude towards the poor and the need for treating people with more respect regardless of their wealth.

Changing how we interact with the poor won’t do much in the way of directly fixing their financial situation and by extension America’s poverty problem. But the first step to solving any social issue is acknowledging its existence and recognizing the human component of the problem. Criminalizing sitting and lying on sidewalks during the day (as Gavin Newsom did in San Francisco) only further encourages people to ignore problems in society and exacerbates our “ignorance is bliss” attitude.

Once we realize that many of the people who live on the streets are not necessarily there because they lack skills or knowledge, our attitudes about programs to help the homeless might change, and our respect for others will grow.

I issue a challenge to all readers: the next time you see someone with a sign asking for help, stop and talk to them. You might come away enlightened.

Photo CreditKymberly Janich

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