"You know, some people just choose to be homeless."
If I had a dollar for every time...
Honestly, I have been told this more times then I can count. Sometimes it is framed as a question by well meaning people, who honestly want to know how many of the folks I have encountered on the street actually choose to be out there. Often, though, people want to remind me that some people just choose to live on the street. And the underlying sentiment in this statement is that some people are less deserving of resources, or even our compassion, because hey, they made a choice.
I read an article saying pretty much this very thing. But it even went a step further, saying not only do some people choose to live outside, but even those who made choices in their past that led to them living on the street have also chosen this lifestyle due to the poor decision making. It makes me even more angry when I realize how prevalent this belief is in our society. So let me reiterate what the author of that article ridicules as jargon from homeless advocates, but which I believe: Almost no one sits down one day and chooses to be homeless.
Let me clarify, as I am already anticipateing all of the "but..." responses. I do not believe anyone sits down one day and chooses the life of isolation, marginalization, and disconnect that comes with living outside in the US.
Now, I have met people who have tried for years to get a job, and have finally just given up. I have met people experiencing mental illness, who are unable to take the steps to get off of the street, even if they really want that to happen. I have met people who have been so discoouraged by trying to navigate the social services' system that they finally just give up. I have met people who have simply resigned themselves to being on the street, because they cannot see the light at the end of the tunnel. They cannot see how to get from the street to a bed. And I have met people whose home life is so unstable and dangerous that they choose to live outside because if is safer.
And yes, I have met people who have made choices that led to them being on the street. I have even met people who say they are just fine, and have chosen to resign themselves to living outside. But I have yet to meet someone who, given all of the other options they could have had in life, would have chosen to live on the street. (Now, somewhere out there, they may be someone who defies all of this. The person who is the reason why I say “almost no one” rather than “no one.”) But even if someone chooses to live outside, so what? Why does that mean that they should be treated any less? If feeds into the awful idea that is ingrained into our culture that people must be deserving in order for us to care.
Even if someone, in their full agency as a human being, when they have other options available, fully knowing the reality of living on the street, does choose to live on the street, they still deserve to be treated like a human being. They still deserve to not be criminalized for living outside. They still deserve to be treated like a neighbor and a citizen.
I leave you with perhaps my most often used quote on social media:
“The Gospel takes away our right forever, to discriminate between the deserving and the undeserving poor.”
― Dorothy Day