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“Humanizing the Homeless” campaigns and qualifying humanity

The views expressed in this article are the views of the author.

The recent upswing in “anti-homeless architecture,” has once again brought the issue of American homelessness into mainstream conversation, this time on social media. Many cities have adopted increasingly harsh anti-homeless measures, both physical, such as spikes, bars, or sleekly redesigned benches; and policies, such as “vehicle-dwelling” bans, criminalizing panhandling, and increased punishment for loitering and sleeping in public spaces.

As with any issue, activists have taken to social media to combat it. Many organizations, such as Habitat for Humanity, raise awareness and help those in need in concrete ways. Others seek to combat very strong and palpable stereotypes that exist against homeless people in society. These campaigns, including the “Rethink Homelessness,” feature real homeless people in a style that mirrors “Humans of New York,” featuring a pictures alongside quotes or an interview. And though this may do a good job of humanizing a population that society seems to forget are, in fact, people, the question begs to be asked: to what extent does this type of activism help all homeless people, not just the “undeserving”?

Movements such as these, which highlight the personal, educational, or professional achievements of those who now find themselves homeless, scream the message: these people do not deserve to be homeless. They are just like you. They were just unlucky, and they still deserve to be treated like people. Which is true. Everyone who is homeless does not deserve to be homeless. But that is the point. 

No one deserves to be homeless, not just the ones who speak four languages, not just the ones who graduated from an Ivy League, not just the ones who used to work for a bank, not just the ones who were personal trainers. 

I applaud the work of people who run these campaigns, the people who are “in the trenches,” fighting against homeless legislation, aggressive gentrification, and a society that just wants this demographic of citizens to disappear. They are doing their best to remind everyone else that homeless people are people, not “vagrants,” not “losers,” not “worthless drug addicts,” but people. 

However, in qualifying these people as “wrongfully” homeless because of their socially acceptable “achievements,” we leave behind a large demographic of people who are drug addicts, who are former (or current) criminals, who are hopeless and lost and who are no more deserving of homelessness than the richest 1%. 

The right to shelter is a human right. In qualifying certain members of the population as undeserving of homelessness based on their achievements, we diminish the value of those who are not able to accomplish the same things in life, which should play no part in qualifying their humanity.