“Why don’t homeless people just get a job?”

Some time ago, I was driving in a car with a few friends to a restaurant for dinner. We stopped at a light, and saw a young man panhandling for money. One of my friends pointed at him and said, “Look at this guy. Why doesn’t he just get a job, instead of asking for money? He looks fine to work.”

I have heard this kind of comment before, in various forms. Comments that “homeless people are just lazy” or “homeless people just need to work hard.” As I said in a previous status, someone working a full-time job may still not be able to afford housing, because the rent is so high. But putting that aside, I wonder if my friend can see the whole picture.

  1. Does my friend have X-ray vision? Can he see whether the man has any physical disabilities? A person who doesn’t have any visually obvious disabilities may well be physically impaired and unable to work. Does my friend have eyes to see whether the man has osteoarthritis, chronic heart failure, or epilepsy?
  2. Does my friend have psychic powers? Can he see whether the man has any mental disabilities? Mental disabilities can be severely debilitating, and dramatically impair someone’s ability to work. Does my friend have eyes to see schizophrenia, clinical depression, or an intellectual disorder?
  3. Does my friend have superpower criminal justice eyes? Can he see whether the man has a criminal history that prevents him from getting a job? A felony record can follow a person for life, severely limiting opportunities. Does my friend have eyes to see whether the man has a felony record from a nonviolent drug crime committed 20 years ago that’s still shutting doors in his face, even if he hasn’t done anything wrong since then?

It’s easy to make assumptions about why people are experiencing homelessness. But there’s so many factors that are hidden from our view. The only way to understand people who are experiencing homelessness is to talk to them. Listen to them. Share space with them.

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