Do we notice the homeless around us?

This afternoon, I watched this video, and it really made me question whether I would have spotted any family member had I been in that situation.  I know that I’m guilty of having a single-focused mind at times as I don’t always hear people talking to me if I have something serious on my mind.

Homelessness is a serious issue here in the US, whether people want to acknowledge it or not.  On April 19, a homeless man was found dead in a porta-potty in St. Clair Shores, Michigan.  He had been homeless since his house was foreclosed on in 2010.  His cause of death was hypothermia as he was living in that portable restroom based on the conditions observed when he was found.  With the harsh winter Michigan just went through, he tried to insulate the porta-potty with newspaper.

Our military veterans are no stranger to homelessness either.  According to the National Coalition for the Homeless:

Far too many veterans are homeless in America—between 130,000 and 200,000 on any given night—representing between one fourth and one-fifth of all homeless people. Three times that many veterans are struggling with excessive rent burdens and thus at increased risk of homelessness.
Further, there is concern about the future. Women veterans and those with disabilities including post traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury are more likely to become homeless, and a higher percentage of veterans returning from the current conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq have these characteristics.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that 131,000 veterans are homeless on any given night [1]. And approximately twice that many experience homelessness over the course of a year. Conservatively, one out of every three homeless men who is sleeping in a doorway, alley or box in our cities and rural communities has put on a uniform and served this country.

Approximately 40% of homeless men are veterans, although veterans comprise only 34% of the general adult male population. The National Coalition for Homeless Veterans estimates that on any given night, 200,000 veterans are homeless, and 400,000 veterans will experience homelessness during the course of a year (National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, 2006). 97% of those homeless veterans will be male (Department of Veterans Affairs, 2008).

The New York City Rescue Mission slapped me with a dose of reality today.  I’ve read about the homeless before, and I’ve even donated to groups that help the homeless.  Looking at that video made me think that I probably could not remember whether I actually knew any homeless person that I have come across or not.  I’d like to think that I’ve looked at them and not completely ignored them.  However, after seeing this video, I’m beginning to second guess myself now.


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4 thoughts on “Do we notice the homeless around us?

    • I think we all have to do better… Government, charities, churches, and individuals. I’ve taken family in several times when they had no place to stay. I’ve also given a complete stranger the jacket off my back. However, that video was like Mike Tyson punching me in the gut.

      Thanks for posting this. Even though the video is a New York City thing, I’m sure that it applies everywhere.


  1. I know the conclusion we’re supposed to reach here is that we don’t even see the humanity in homeless people. While that’s true, and we should certainly do better, I don’t think this video is a fair demonstration. There are several other reasons why we overlook the homeless, and they don’t all have to do with lacking compassion or not seeing the homeless as people.

    The first is that when we walk in public places, most of us don’t look very clearly at anyone around us. What’s important is finding a clear path, respecting other people’s personal space so we not only avoid running into them, we avoid crowding them if we can. Generally we don’t look anyone in the face.

    The second tendency is that it’s hard to notice people out of context. Your minister may be like a father to you, you may have seen him in the pulpit every Sunday for the past 20 years, but you might not recognize him as the football fan walking into the stadium at the same time you do. If you live in Atlanta and your brother lives in Denver, you might not notice him on the street if you don’t know he’s in town. Especially if he’s not dressed and groomed the way you’re accustomed to seeing him.

    The third thing is that we tend to give people a little privacy about where they live. You don’t walk down the street peering in your neighbors’ windows, and you certainly don’t if the neighbors themselves happen to be in view and you know they can see you peering into their homes. I think that’s true of homeless people as well. They live on the street and we tactfully grant them a small zone of privacy. We don’t stare at their clothes, their blankets, their pushcarts.

    Probably the most important reason is that most of us don’t want to make eye contact with homeless people for fear of being panhandled, or worse, for fear of triggering a violent response if the person happens to suffer from mental illness.

    There’s no question our society needs to do better by people so down on their luck or so devastated by demons that they can’t even manage to provide a home for themselves. If this video guilts people into action, fine. I hope it gets a wider audience. I just don’t think it proves its point very well.


    • I agree with you about there being several reasons for overlooking the homeless, but at the end of the day, they are almost invisible to many people in our society.

      For most people, I don’t think it’s done with malicious intent, but I think it’s mostly because we’re all self-absorbed with what’s going on in our own lives. Only in the last decade or so have I began to really pay close attention to what’s going on around me. Most of that is due to my profession, but in high school and college, I got caught up in the middle of shoot outs because I wasn’t really paying attention to my environment.

      That’s not quite the same as looking out for the homeless, but since I am much better off now than I was growing up, I’ve tried to give a helping hand to others whenever I can. My wife and I have adopted families for holidays in years past to help those who are not quite as fortunate as we are. I do that with the mindset that, all it takes is one bad event, and that could probably be us living in dire straits.

      I think that we can do better as a society. However, as long as we’re focused on “self first”, I don’t see anything significant happening.


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