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Illuminating homelessness stereotypes

Published: February 7, 2014
Section: News


On Monday, Feb. 3, Tatjana Meschede, senior lecturer at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management, contributed her knowledge and experience of homelessness in the conference titled, “A Focus on Homelessness in Local Communities” for ’DEIS Impact.

Members of Habitat for Humanity and Hunger and Homelessness, active clubs under the Waltham Group, held the conference. Meschede prepared a presentation regarding the pressing concerns of homelessness. Following, Meschede answered questions from the audience and then the audience broke into groups to explore the different misconceptions and stereotypes that surround homeless people, while groups discussed ways to get involved in their communities to help combat homelessness.

Three main concerns were found to be associated with homelessness. The first focus inquired into why there are homeless people. The second aspect defined who they are. The third concept explored what policies the United States has passed to assist homeless people.

Homelessness occurs for many reasons, including an increase in housing expenses, reduction in social services, redevelopment and gentrification in major cities in the United States and deinstitutionalizing mental-health hospitals. Altering any of these four areas can impact many people in the country.

Although a large segment of individuals are homeless, many families are becoming homeless too. On any given night in the United States, about 250,000 people in families are homeless. Most of these families are young parents with young children, resulting in homeless youth. A large segment of homeless people are individuals under the age of 18 who lack parental, foster or institutional care. Without an adult figure, these young children lack support and a safety net. Insufficient nourishment, lack of education and a lack of residence contribute to these families’ struggles. As Meschede mentioned, along with young adults and youth, there has also been an increase in elderly homeless people. Age is not the only factor. Government policies also have a large effect on the homeless.

Homelessness became recognized as a social issue during Ronald Reagan’s presidency. The McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act of 1987, signed by President Reagan, allocated funding to the direct service of homeless people. This bill provides homeless shelters with federal funds to help those in need, as well as to soup kitchens and food pantries. Though other bills have been passed, this particular bill paved the way for service. The most effective way to address homelessness involves housing. Providing homes and rehousing families as soon as they become homeless is the best approach for combatting homelessness. Moreover, providing homeless individuals with training for employment gives them an opportunity to search for and maintain a job. By having a job, individuals can bring home an income, which can assist them in paying monthly expenses.

During the presentation, Meschede brought in her first encounter with homelessness when she arrived to the United States from Germany. She realized that homelessness was a social issue although it was not widely discussed. The state of Massachusetts is a “right to shelter” state, meaning that everyone should have access to housing. Other states will give people experiencing homelessness bus tickets to go to a different state for guaranteed shelter.

After the presentation, the audience listened to a list of stereotypes read by Kateri Spear ’15, Habitat for Humanity coordinator. Some misconceptions are that homeless people are criminals, mentally ill, too lazy to work or became this way as a result of poor choices. Following, each audience member shared his or her interaction and contact with homelessness. Some shared anecdotes of their work with homelessness in Washington, D.C., New York and even in France.

While discussing this, groups also explored ways to combat the stereotypes associated with homeless people. They examined ways to reduce the negative impressions of homelessness. Individuals presented different opinions on how to make a difference in society in regards to this social problem. By acknowledging the homeless as human beings – giving spare change, food or a drink – society moves a step forward toward helping these individuals.

Perhaps the most important factor the audience took away is how essential it is for individuals to make their own contribution and help in any way possible to create a stronger community.