“Helper” Attitudes toward Homeless People Described by Staff and Clients

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No Homeless Allowed

November 20, 2014; Class Action, “Classism Exposed”

Published by Class Action, Classism Exposed has posted three articles this week that unsparingly address the mistreatment of the homeless by people and organizations who are supposed to be helping and supportive.

Kendra PeloJoaquin writes about her experience working in a homeless shelter for women, a local arm of an unnamed national nonprofit. The new facility, designed by the national parent organization, included transitional housing and three floors of apartments in addition to the shelter. PeloJoaquin reports that the organization really was about “building housing for homeless women who were no longer homeless…[rather than] to offer housing to women whose homelessness persisted.” She writes about the organization’s decision to stop providing the women with bathrobes because, as her employers indicated, the bathrobes “led to a lazy attitude” and that wearing regular clothing in the shelter created an atmosphere “more conducive to ‘getting things done.’”

The architects of the shelter failed to include water fountains on the first floor; the theory, according to administrators, was that the homeless “mostly bought water bottles.” As a result, women in the shelter would scoop water from spray faucets to wash down their medications. For taking naps, the women had asked for cots, but it seems that the shelter kept the women on mats for daytime naps, even though it was difficult for women who were ill or injured to use them, and the organization reduced nap times from two hours to one hour, leaving some of the homeless women generally exhausted.

One more part of PeloJoaquin’s story is worth mentioning:

“During the four-year process of building this facility, the all-female staff of our agency organized a union. The national organization with a mission of empowerment used every legal and illegal kind of fearmongering and union-busting to break up our efforts. Their tone-deafness and unwillingness to meet staff demands mirrored their ignorance of clients’ needs. We succeeded and negotiated our first contract as we moved into the new shelter.”

Niko Segal-Wright addresses the lack of trust displayed by authorities in Sarasota, Florida, to the homeless population. Among the specifics cited are Sarasota’s removal of park benches because “they might encourage bad behavior among the homeless” and the Salvation Army’s having been “supportive of the laws that criminalize homelessness.”

Classism’s Betsy Leondar-Wright got 500 people in Seattle, apparently many of them vendors of Real Change, Seattle’s street newspaper, to write down the most classist things they had ever heard (or had said directly to them), and the statements reflect plenty of everyday mistreatment of the homeless that one typically hears but often ignores or dismisses. Examples include the following:

  • “You can’t be homeless—you have a smartphone.”
  • “There is no reason for anyone to be homeless. There are plenty of resources out there.”
  •  “If they want to make more money, they should just get better jobs. They are so entitled.”
  • “Those people choose to be homeless.”
  • “Why are the poor allowed in downtown areas?”
  • “Those people will do anything to avoid paying rent.”
  • “How can you work with THOSE people?!”

What PeloJaoquin and the other Classism Exposed writers wrote rings all too true for those of us who have worked to provide temporary shelter and permanent housing only to find those efforts opposed by the nonprofits and community organizers working with the residents and by officials whose only solution for the homeless is to ship them someplace else. Attitudes toward the homeless and the treatment of them often reflect the least generous, least compassionate, least charitable instincts of communities. To be successful, nonprofits concerned about the very poor have to change public attitudes as well as public policies.—Rick Cohen

  • Terry Fernsler

    Well written! Too many of us are so embarrassed by the level of poverty here in the United States, that we want to make it disappear rather than actually do something to alleviate it. I once heard a board member tell another board member that he could not understand how anyone can live on less than $90,000 a year (I was paid well below that by his organization).

  • Donna

    Welcome to my world! Nonprofits who really seek to help people who have no place to live find that the large nonprofits who “pimp” themselves out to developers forming public/private partnerships receive most of the local and state funding, leaving nothing for us. We scrape by, one small donation at a time, borrowing from Peter and Paul to stall Mary, but we succeed in doing more good with less than the organizations who receive all the money. With almost no money, I have provided more decent permanent housing to those who are homeless than organizations who receive millions of dollars. It was evident to me some time ago that WE CAN NOT BUILD OURSELVES OUT OF HOMELESSNESS! And yet, there are some cities who are determined to try.

    Here in San Diego I am outraged every time I see another “low income” skyscraper begin construction. Developers must partner with a non profit to qualify for the program and they take all the money allocated for the poor. At a cost of $75 to $100 million dollars, roughly $400K per studio unit, they offer perhaps 5 units per building to people who are homeless. For those poor people who happen to have good credit and no brushes with the law, and who don’t have children, they might find a home. These builders can self certify their potential residents for section 8, and that means that all the available section 8 vouchers go to the developers and there are no vouchers left for the poor people who do not qualify to live in their buildings to enable them to find housing elsewhere.

    San Diego’s strategy for reducing homelessness appears to be making the homeless so miserable that they will simply move away. Our benches are designed to discourage sleeping. We even divide our sidewalks with fencing to keep the homeless on their side. Walking down the street with a shopping cart is an invitation for the cops to search you. If you are homeless and need to use the facilities, we just spent $187 million on a library right in the heart of homeless-land. Our homeless simply walk up from the concrete bed they make in front of the library and go inside to freshen up. To make sure that the homeless say close to the library, we relocated our Greyhound to the same street and we also removed all the portable potties in the area. There is some logic to this, I am certain, but I have yet to figure it out.

    In San Diego we tell citizens not to give money to the poor, but to instead place the money in a red meter to benefit the poor without mentioning that the salary of the person in charge of the program is $150,000 and the overhead costs ensure that the homeless receive nothing. For an incredible 18 years, we have provided the same nonprofit organization about $2000 a month per person to house about 300 of our 5000 un-sheltered residents for four months in a TENT. For 18 years we have not even attempted to find a permanent solution to our homeless problems. We assign caseworkers to the homeless for ONE MONTH, as if all the problems of the homeless can be solved in 30 days.

    Homelessness has turned into a golden meal ticket for the unscrupulous. Unfortunately, those who are now proving themselves to be the most unscrupulous are the very ones who are charged to help the poor. In my opinion, the worst thing that happened to poor people was the Faith Based Initiative. Churches started building empires and forgot about their calling. This article is so on point, it makes me want to cry. I thought that it was only happening here. I don’t know if the fact that it is happening elsewhere makes me feel better or feel worse. BTW, it was a homeless person who referred to the archaic homeless shelter organizations in our city as “pimps.” Our homeless might be poor, but they are not stupid.

    I too worked for the Salvation Army and my advice to people is this… if you want your money to help someone who is poor, don’t put it in the kettle, but it in the hand of the bell ringer. Once it goes in the kettle…As New York is now discovering, when the 40 years are up, all the HUD houses built with tax payer money are going up for sale to developers who convert them into condominiums and the poor…oh well.