The last couple weeks I’ve suffered from intense writer’s block. My mind has been focused on something more important than this site (sorry, frequent readers!): graduate school. Part of my role as a doctoral student requires gaining experience counseling others. This year I’ve acquired a spot at the local homeless shelter. It’s forever changed my understanding of homelessness and the financial concerns/distress they face.
Prior to working at a homeless shelter, my perspective was naive and simple. Generally, I felt for them and wondered how I could most help. Whenever I spoke with friends, I talked about how we should help people like this. Sometimes I gave pocket change or a cup of coffee to someone on these streets. But despite a couple moments in high school as a soup kitchen volunteer, I had never taken the time to serve/help the most vulnerable in America. That bothered me.
I’ve been at the homeless shelter for about a month now. The experience is different every day, and because it’s related to the practice of counseling psychology, I can’t say much about it due to confidentiality. What I can speak to is that the people I’ve met smashed my preconceived notions and gave me a framework for understanding how someone gets there.
This great country heralds a flawed understanding of success and path to achievement. Basically, we oversimplify the rules of society and deliver a soundbyte to a highly complex idea: work hard and you’ll succeed. This is a disservice to everyone; the fortunate and suffering, alike.
We have resources in this country that help young adults, but they don’t guarantee success. The world needs to receive this message — not only our country. This meritocracy claim is flawed. The importance and reliance on hard work, self-motivation, and personal responsibility are beautiful aspirations, but they don’t adequately account for the many variables that attack individuals’ abilities.
Trust me. There are cracks in society, and people fall through them. I’ve seen it in the flesh. Medical bills from horrific accidents can pile up, leaving someone unable to work or transport themselves. The financial burdens can quickly engulf any hope for personal dreams. When I ask most people what they’d like to do if they could choose something, most answer that they just want a decent job — that pays the bills. That’s all.
See, the American dream is dead for many in this disenfranchised group. They’ve been kicked around from home to home, job to job, bill to bill, with little support. When I ask this privileged question about dream vocations, they can’t answer. It hurts to hear, but I can empathize with how they got there.
Hard work, self-motivation, and personal responsibility don’t account for death, abuse, domestic violence, psychological illness, and disabilities (to name a few). Each of these unaccounted for variables are swept under the rug, and personal finance websites often miss this target population entirely. Hell, most homeless people have severely restricted access to computers. Many need to go to public libraries to access the Internet — and only for short periods of time. Moreover, I can’t imagine many of them venturing on to personal finance websites because their problems are more fundamental.
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs was introduced in 1943. The pyramidal structure postulated that individuals move through a process of needs, ultimately getting to “self-actualization.” If all your needs were met, you could feel secure, safe, and self-confident. Unfortunately for the most vulnerable, creativity, critical thinking, and problem solving skills are reserved for states in the highest level of the hierarchy. When basic needs such as food and shelter are of concern — worrying about where the next meal comes from — it can be challenging to imagine personal finance questions or plan for that dream job. Despite the psychological understanding and history for the hierarchy, society largely ignores it.
Boasting on and on about complex ideals in American society, we can become inured and desensitized to the struggles of these people. I’m a firm believer that we naturally want to help others. But with homeless people, we seem to make exceptions. For instance, I’ve heard many say, “I would donate or give change, but they’ll probably just buy drugs and alcohol.” I’ve seen parents squeeze their children tighter, as they pass a homeless man. Most people that see a sign and cup pass without glancing — purposely avoiding eye contact. Society allows this dehumanization. That’s considered normal and okay. Who else in society can be so easily cast aside?
With psychological dissatisfaction directed towards the most vulnerable, society can sometimes get creatively disturbing. For instance, The Guardian recently profiled a horrific rise in anti-homeless architecture:
“…stainless steel ‘anti-homeless’ spikes…appeared outside a London apartment block recently, the benches are part of a recent generation of urban architecture designed to influence public behaviour, known as ‘hostile architecture’.”
That simple quote doesn’t do justice for the medieval constructions. From silver daggers that prevent curb-sitting to park benches with added breaks to prevent laying down, this design destroys comfort for those with nowhere else to go.
Today, I’m here to say that it’s not okay that we tell people, “You get what you deserve.” We need to deconstruct these faults and create an inclusive, collective, supportive society. It hurts everyone when we demonize and destroy the most vulnerable. In fact, it’s cheaper to give homeless people shelter, food, health care, and job training, instead of doing nothing.
As an avid writer and reader of personal finance blogs, we have a ways to go before we meet this population’s needs. How can you make a difference?