In American society, people who experience homelessness are portrayed as a distinct type. They are ascribed identities on the basis of their homelessness.
And the identities they are given are fundamentally different from “us.”
Social scientific research has found the following stereotypes of the unhoused:
- Homeless people are lazy and will not work.
- Homeless people are all mentally ill and dangerous.
- Homeless people are all drug addicts and criminals.
- Homeless people are dirty and smelly.
- Homeless people are a massive drain on society.
- Homeless people choose that ”lifestyle.”
- Homeless people are from somewhere else and are here to exploit our resources.
To be clear, each of these assertions is wrong. While a small amount of the unhoused population does fit each of these traits, it is wrong to generalize those traits to the whole population.
There are many people experiencing homelessness who are just like everyone else — hardworking citizens who stay sober, have good hygiene and are psychologically stable.
I call the composite of these negative stereotypes “the crazy bum mythology.”
American society highly values hard work, lawfulness, cleanliness, and clear and rational minds; the crazy bum is just the opposite of all our most cherished values.
To understand the origins of this negative stereotype and inaccurate generalization we can explore the social psychology of stereotypes.
Our human tendency to stereotype comes from our cognitive need to categorize, simplify and process our complex world.
Four mental processes that contribute to the creation of negative images of others include:
- Social categorization: Based on the information we have we attempt to place individuals into groups, including age, race and sex (the so-called “big three” social categories).
- Comparison to ourselves: We often compare ourselves to others, and this can lead to negative stereotypes if we perceive the other group as being better or worse than us in some way.
- Idealization of our self-conception: We also tend to idealize our own self-conception, and this can lead us to view the other group as being less than ideal.
- Demonization of the other: In some cases, we may even demonize the other group, attributing negative qualities to them that they may not actually possess.
These mental processes can be influenced by a number of factors, including our own personal experiences, the experiences of others that we are exposed to, and, critically, the media messages and cultural discourses that we consume.
Moreover, we can imagine those who are different from us as inferior.
Othering is the process of creating stereotypes of the out-group. We sometimes imagine the other as the polar opposite of all our cherished values, what the late UC Santa Barbara sociologist Tomatsu Shibutani referred to as “contrast conceptions”.
This “us / them thinking” becomes extreme in racist propaganda in which racial Others are not just imagined as inferior but are dehumanized into subhuman beasts.
Collective definitions of “the Other” become fantasies of marginalization that are critical to the maintenance of a society structured in dominance and hierarchy, and help sustain the hatred inherent in racism, sexism and other forms of structural violence.
As we lift ourselves up, we push them down.
It is important to note that not everyone engages in these mental processes to the same extent. Some people are more likely to stereotype than others.
Additionally, the specific stereotypes that people hold can vary depending on their individual characteristics and experiences.
Even people who serve the homeless and policy-makers can buy into the crazy bum mythology. Advocates of anti-homeless legislation often rely on stereotypes of unhoused people to advance their criminalizing measures.
Imagining unhoused people as a distinct type of person creates situations in which they “need to be cared for,” robbing them of their autonomy. The result can be a “bureaucratic paternalism” in which programs are made with rules that most ordinary people would reject.
While outwardly benevolent, these programs can be condescending and controlling.
There are a number of reasons why we create negative stereotypes of the unhoused.
- We are often afraid of what we don’t understand and may create stereotypes as a way to make sense of homelessness and to distance ourselves from it.
- We may have been exposed to negative images of the unhoused in the media that often frame homelessness as a nuisance.
- We may be rationalizing for the severe mistreatment of people experiencing homelessness in our society.
- We may be generalizing from the visibly homeless who tend to be those who are chronically homeless with more issues and complex lives.
While homelessness is clear evidence of societal failure, American society insists on seeing it as a personal failure. The “crazy bum mythology” reinforces the notion that homelessness is the outcome of individual choices and / or qualities of being.
Most American believe that our economic fate is determined by individual traits, such as handwork, thrift or talent (“individualism”) and that those who have wealthy lifestyles have earned that right (“the myth of meritocracy”).
Both of these beliefs support the cry of neoliberals to dismantle the welfare state.
In truth, poverty is largely the outcome of the structural features of our society beyond the reach of any individual.
The “crazy bum mythology” allows people to believe that unhoused people deserve to be homeless because of the poor decisions that they have made. It allows people to imagine that we have a fair society in which each personal gets what they deserve.
Negative stereotypes of the homeless can lead to discrimination in employment, housing, and health care. The resulting stigma can make it more difficult for homeless people to access the services and support they need to get back on their feet.
While homelessness is a complex issue with multiple causes, the stigma associated with it can be one of the largest barriers to overcome.
The most important way to eliminate our stereotypes of unhoused people is to get to know them as individuals. When we learn someone’s name and hear their story, we begin to see them as real people and can no longer put them in some prefabricated box.