Homelessness is not a symptom of laziness

Opinion.

Last week’s article by Andrea Scott split the readership of the Nicaragua Dispatch like a social axe. Some applauded and praised her for speaking her mind; others attacked her views and mocked her for comparing the situation in the United States to that of the second poorest country in the Americas.  

One of the common threads of criticism was that the author was attacked because of her age.

I too am young, only 22; however, unlike Scott, for the past four years I have had the opportunity to work with the homeless on an almost daily basis as a worker for numerous organizations in my native Britain. Over time, I have learnt that most commonly held assumptions or criticisms of the homeless are at best untrue, and at worst malicious and detrimental.  

Scott must not be blamed for the opinion she holds, since every person has the right to believe whatever they want to believe.

However, when you write about something of which you have little knowledge and make sweeping accusations, then you must own your words. Journalism is about discovering the truth and not peddling old lies that are incredibly harmful for combating homelessness and incredibly insulting to the people who suffer from it on a daily basis.

The question of whether handouts actually help anyone in Nicaragua is a misleading and egoistic question. What is really means is: “Do I have to give my money to a beggar, or can I think of a justification to ease my guilty conscious?”

The conclusion drawn by the author of the aforementioned article is not surprising; if the individual is homeless because they are work-shy and lazy, then it is their fault they are poorer than me. So I, the tourist, can see that the absence of a “thank you” is caused by some moral failure instead of sheer embarrassment at having to plead with open hands to another human being.    

Instead the real question that any socially conscious tourist or Nicaraguan should be asking is: Why are there people homeless and begging in Nicaragua, and what can be done?

My four years of working with the homeless has taught me that hardly anyone becomes homeless and begs because they are lazy.

Indeed, the belief that the homeless are in that condition because they are work-shy or haven’t got enough intuitive is deeply offensive to the individuals themselves and to anyone who is interested in understanding how people can escape homelessness.

Homelessness in general is caused by five things: being born into poverty, a lack of an education, physical or sexual abuse (usually suffered as a child), unemployment and mental illness. Drug and alcohol dependency are other contributing factors, but these are generally caused by one of the five things mentioned above.

In my years of working with the homeless, in which time I met hundreds of people, not one of them was born with a silver spoon in their mouth, raised by wealthy parents, given a private education or a trust fund. Outside of literature and populist newspapers, no one goes from living in a mansion to living on the streets.

So what we have here are causes that the individual could have done little to avoid. One cannot be blamed for being born into poverty and being made unemployed.

Furthermore, any attempt to describe the homeless as lazy or without initiative displays a flagrant unintelligence about the life of the homeless. Whilst the woman sat on the step with her hand out might appear to be lazy, few people see what she has to do to find a decent place to sleep at night or how to make a miniscule sum of money last for days.

Walk around any Nicaraguan city and you will see homeless men and women slogging along with burlap sacks collecting plastic and glass bottles for recycling, for which they will receive a pittance. Follow them and you will see how they dip into each shop to plead for spare bottles. Follow them stagger down street after street. They will be walking far more every day than the average Nicaraguan; and probably hundreds of times further than the tourist as he wanders from a table to the bar, and then back again with a bottle of beer.

Anyone who has seen just a minute of the life of the homeless knows that without initiative and get-up-and-go, they are doomed to an early death on a door step.

On a side note, any attempt to introduce the American Dream into the debate is laughable. Apologies, but to my European ears talking about the American Dream goes side-by-side with talking about The Easter Bunny or Santa Claus. The rags-to-riches story is great for Hollywood, but is stomped on with extreme aggression in the real world. In other words, if it is true for perhaps 5% of the world’s wealthy then most of these people would have jumped the ladder through corruption and crime, and these are not things to condone.

So back to my final point: If homelessness is caused by things such as poverty, unemployment, childhood abuse, a bad education and a chemical dependency, then what can be done to combat it? The odd coin or note by the passer-by is not going to be enough.

Indeed, certainly not for Nicaragua, which is the poorest country in Central America and second poorest in Latin America after Haiti?

What are needed are strong homeless organizations to help alleviate the immediate problems of accommodation and hunger.

Then it is the responsibility of the government to eliminate poverty and provide a quality education and sufficient employment. The current government of Nicaragua has been making improvements in these areas since they returned to power in 2007: it was announced several weeks ago that extreme poverty has been cut in half in the past five years, from 11.2% to 5.5%.

Indeed, any talk of homelessness being caused by too much dependency on the state is simply unintelligible. European countries, in particular the Nordic ones, have a far bigger state and less problems of homelessness. That’s because the state ensures its citizens have a decent education and a reasonable job; and in the occasion that someone nears homelessness, they are given assistance so the individual will not suffer.

Next time you pass a homeless person, whether it is in Nicaragua or elsewhere around the world, try to show a little compassion and empathy for what they might have gone through in their life. Unfortunately not everyone is born on an equal plateau, so do not look down with menace on those who are trying their best to climb up from the gutter. Yes, I think the problem with Andrea Scott is that for someone so young, there is too little compassion, understanding and empathy and too much condemnation and moral judgment. 

I would recommend you volunteer with the homeless back in the United States for a few months and then write about your thoughts after the experience.

 

David Hutt is a freelance writer from London, UK, who will be on the trail of Latin America during the next year and will be working as a tour guide in León, Nicaragua. Follow his travels and misadventures on his blog, and follow him on twitter @davidhutt1990

 

  • http://nicaraguadispatch Ana

    There’s not other way to say this,your way of exposing this theme is so human and prefessional, i am Nicaraguan, and I were one of these homeless people, and i have found that people who has never seen such poverty like that don’t understand, and is sad because, they don’t know how hard is living like that everyday is a sacrifice, they don’t make long terms plans because is more like one day “at the time” People don’t know is necessary to walk in there shoes to understand it, too sad there judgment.

  • http://www.retirenicaragua.wordpress.com Debbie Goehring

    Thank you, David! Your sincere, truthful words have touched my heart. :-)

  • Nero

    Very good David, you hit the nail in the head. But I think being physically handicapped should be added to your list. Its also a problem here since the government can not provide assistance and regulation to get these people to work as in developed countries.

  • jimmycoffee

    To really understand the problems of homelessness anywhere in the developing world, the most important thing is to educate yourself. In the culture, the history, the language and the living/working conditions of that country. also to realise that you have never had to survive on so little or to suffer those conditions, and if you had to you wouldn’t last 5 minutes. The context is everything, and the level of empathy one should have as a relatively priviliged foreigner living or visiting should never be below the level of very high. Never assume you know how things are fixed easily, because they never are. David I applaud your article.

  • Helen Devries

    Miss Scott is a product of her society and reproduces its attitudes…but it’s hard to be aware of that when you’re young.
    As Ana says, when you’re homeless, for whatever reason, you can only live one day at a time, doing whatever you can to get through to the next.
    You might be ashamed to put your hand out when you’d rather work…but if that’s the only option then you have to take it until something better turns up.
    It doesn’t mean you are lazy…it means you are desperate.

  • John Shepard

    A couple of things: The American Dream is not Santa Claus or some made for Hollywood fantasy. It’s a social compact, a covenant if you will, that offered a good life in exchange for hard work, a contribution to the social fabric of the neighborhood and community, and adherence to some simple rules. It wasn’t perfect, and it was unfairly denied to some people for too long. It still exists, and many live the American Dream. Now the divide in the US is not by color, but by education.

    Ending homelessness goes beyond providing shelter and food. Some will respond to the help, many others will not. Mental illness, and drug and alcohol addiction contribute to the problem. Good solutions are hard to come by. Anyone working towards these solutions has my respect: they certainly are not in it for the money.

    Ultimately, individuals as well as countries have to take some responsibility for their actions. The fact that some quit abusing drugs and alcohol and go on to live productive lives shows that others could too.

    Nicaragua is a rich country. I do believe that poverty is much less now than it was. Some of this poverty reduction might be due to the current government’s policies. Clean water, electricity, and good roads go a long way towards alleviating poverty. A robust education would help even more.

    Part of helping has to be the awareness that the help will foster dependency. That is the problem with handing beggars coins. We saw this dependency in the multi-generational welfare culture that developed in the US during the late 60′s and 70′s. Some posters claim that they see this dependency in present day Nicaragua. I’ve seen it too. My personal feeling is, once given the resources they need to succeed, most Nicaraguans would prefer self-sufficiency.

    • Rebecca Ore

      John, why don’t you wait until you’ve lived here over a year before making pronouncements? The American Dream doesn’t work for everyone. In fact, there’s currently less social mobility in the US than in Canada.

      Nicaragua doesn’t have oil, coal, iron ore, and a chunk of the farm land is over-used (much of the pasture I see near Jinotega is poached and eroded) or was contaminated by agricultural chemicals. It’s really not rich compared to Mexico, the US, or the UK. If there’s oil under the Caribbean side, then maybe oil royalties will help.

      Most Nicaraguans are self-sufficient. And my crazy homeless neighbor isn’t going to be able to hold down a job anytime soon, but her neighbors take care of her.

  • Aurora

    I really like how you have a more realistic understanding of the situation in developing countries. Obviously there are people just like to keep talking about poverty and homeless people and so on. Now it is necessary to think about SOLUTIONs to this situation. And the first step is to give education to this people and to start with vocational schools, and college education. This is an issue of the government and aptitude of our society. because still nowadays the stratification in our the society as extremely poor, poor, middle class and high middle class and rich people have different perspective to this problems. However, everyone needs education and worthy job in order to have a better perspective of life.
    Unfortunately the public education system in Nicaragua is depressing. Apparently it is one mechanism to create by the government of Nicaragua to keep mediocre the next generation. For example, take the student look a football game instead to be studying.

  • http://puedoleerlibrary.com carol rea

    Thank you for a much more balanced article. I think it gave us much more to think about than the previous article on the poverty seen in Nicaragua.
    I lived in Nicaragua for a year in the nineteen sixties as a twenty-two year old and was devastated by the poverty I saw then. Of course at that age, straight out of middle-class Canada, I had never even seen poverty. It took me three weeks of crying to see beyond the poverty to the people. They were then, and are now, for the most part in my experience, a giving kindly people. They give their good wishes and humour; they help and protect each other and me as a foreigner to a degree I doubt I would find in North America.
    I am shocked to see much the same levels of poverty that I saw in the sixties but I know that receiving an education is one of the few things that will change the future for people. There was no public education where I lived in the sixties and, yes, the education system here leaves a lot to be desired. I have, however, met many young people born in poverty, some even doing drugs on the streets, when they were offered, unfortunately always by foreigners, the opportunity to get a better education. They took these opportunities and moved on into lives they would never have dreamed of before. TI know they will ensure their own children receive better too.
    I say it is unfortunate that they got their breaks through foreigners because I do believe there are enough ‘rich’ Nicaraguans who could be doing more to provide better educations for their poorer compatriots.
    I am often in the schools and talking to teachers here and I have seen many changes over the last few years. I applaud the present government for the changes they are attempting to bring about in the education system. However they will always need more support to bring the education system up to a level that will be more acceptable in the world at large

  • J B Call

    Yet another post on the “Homelessness is Not a Symptom of Laziness” found at http://www.nicaraguadispatch.com/news/2012/10/homelessness-is-not-a-symptom-of-laziness/5819.
    The article discusses homelessness and its causes, but also discusses the begging and panhandling of the homeless and our search to alleviate our “guilt” at not giving homeless people a handout.
    I sympathize with the plight of the homeless, but here are 3 “guilt alleviation” methods that I have found to work for me.
    1. For the truly faithful, the power of God is stronger than that of money. Tell the panhandler that instead of giving him money, you will pray for him. This works well on those that allude to Christian values in their plea. Some have cursed me after asking for help in the name of Jesus.
    2. Another for the faithful. Tell the panhandler the name of the local Priest or religious official to whom you donate regularly. Tell him or her to go to that official and tell them that sent you. Explain that they may have to “endure” some sort of religious rite or ceremony prior to receiving their food or money, but at least they will have what they need. Religious officials, through their more frequent interaction with the poor, are often better at spotting those who are truly in need and determining those who are not, so they are a more efficient way of dispursing your funds. Beware, I’ve also been cursed for using this method.
    3. Take the time to explain some basic accounting principles to the panhandler. For instance, if the panhandler has nothing but his clothing, but owns them outright, he or she is better off by accounting standards than you are. Think about it. You still owe $10K on your car and $150K on your house, so you are $160K poorer than they are. Explain that it is they who should be paying you, and ask for a dollar. Good luck on this one.

    • MichaelB

      Shall we include the fourth response the homeless hear on a daily basis:
      Gee, if I (we)helped you, I ‘d (we) have to help everyone…(so I will help no-one).

      Thank Jesus for Good Samaritans that actually live by the Golden Rule.

  • Nelson

    Interesting articule and commentator’s opinions; most of them oriented to analise the situation from a humanistic point of view, which is admirable, however, the root of the problem that affects the Nicaraguan society as well as many other countries in Latin-America and most recently to the so called “advance, first world countries” in Europe and in the US, rest in large in the unbalanced / unfair capitalistic system providing opportunities to a selected and privileged segment of the population congregated in large corporations controlling the finances and therefore, controlling the destiny of the world economy.

    Recent economics world events confirms just that. A corrupted and decayed system designed to create the most inhumane inequalities, where values of solidarity and compassion to others had been exchanged for the compulsive consumption of goods.

    Fortunately, Nicaragua like several other countries in Latin-America are gradually shifting to a more fair and socially needed system in the management and distribution of their resources to benefit the people as first priority with social programs and creating real opportunities, the question remains, up to what extend the US government foreign policies contrary to these interests will accept these changes by respecting the will of the people and their elected leaders. As we know, military cues are being discreetly replaced by “democratic maneuvers” such as the ones we’ll witnessed in Honduras and most recently in Paraguay.
    Without a doubt, as a result of the irresponsible treatment given to the planet, water resources will be the reason for future military conflicts and Nicaragua will continue to be in high degree in the interest to the US government as Venezuela is for oil and Bolivia for natural gas.

    The homeless situation unfortunately is much deeper than locking desire to build a roof for few families, it is problem engraved in the unfairness of the capitalistic system and it will never be cured as long as we accept to live in this fashion.

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  • Jorge Greco Rodriguez

    Well said David, well said :-)