There is a Salvation Army billboard locally which shows a picture of a young child (perhaps 2) with a caption along the lines of “The homeless are not who you think.” While this is very true in some ways, there is an overall problem with this ad’s message or perhaps with people in general.
At the heart of the problem is the idea that we should help the homeless because there are little children who are homeless. Basically, it suggests that, if the homeless are exactly what you think, feel free to not help them. But when I child is involved, boy do you need to get out there and donate.
I spent quite a bit of time this summer working at a homeless facility. Our clients there were exactly whom you would think of. Single men and women, drug and alcohol users, living on the streets or in cars without much prospect of anything else. Yes, many of them desired improvement (we had full time case workers trying to get jobs and housing for anyone interested) but many were content where they were or were simply unable to improve their situation. Despite this, they all are fully human and have a fully human dignity. They deserve just as much access to help as anyone else.
It is hard to tell if the billboard was representing something of a Salvation Army philosophy (children deserve more help) or a response to popular support (people will help children but not adult men). Either way, there is a deep problem in our approach to the chronically homeless. They have been essentially removed from a place of dignity, not being worthy of our attention. As long as I don’t have to see them, the problem is gone.
We need to remember that even the drug addled mental patient is a person made in the image and likeness of God. The child may need more immediate help, but all people deserve – even demand – the same respect. Only then can we truly address homelessness.