african american homeless man

Survival is necessary. Sometimes it is all we have. Last week I stumbled upon a short documentary highlighting the invisibility of people experiencing homelessness in New York City. In “Have the Homeless Become Invisible?” family members agreed to pose as homeless, while their relatives unsuspectedly walked past them on street corners. Despite each relative discussing how much they appreciated their family members, be it mothers, sisters, brothers, or spouses, not a single one recognized they were overlooking a person they see nearly every day.

Living in our nation’s capital, it is apparent that homelessness is a real problem. So blatant that many people have become desensitized to a person asking for change, pleading for a next meal, or simply desiring a “hello”. Oftentimes, people experiencing homelessness are treated as a nuisance and a distraction to ‘us’ living our life. Sadly, this became transparent the other day.

On Cinco de Mayo, as many were preparing to indulge in the first of many margaritas, a man experiencing homelessness was on the corner of 13th and U Street, a fairly busy intersection in Washington, DC. His placement was discomforting not only because people were celebrating around him, but because he was in the middle of the sidewalk. In fact, the only way around him was to step over his body – and that’s what people did.

Most people gawked at him like a new exhibit at the Smithsonian but never checked on his well-being. After witnessing his body lay frozen, I stopped to ensure he was breathing. He barely responded, so I called 911 for a medical professional to assist. While communicating with the operator, my phone disconnected. No one returned the call, so I called back, explained the interruption, and asked if anyone was sent to help. Notwithstanding being assured that an ambulance was sent, no one had arrived.

The longer we waited, the more groups continued walking past. One group repeatedly looked back in a vein of bewilderment. The next group laughed and pointed at the man proclaiming “he is okay!” and “it is not that serious.” And one of the members in the last group exclaimed “get the fuck out of the middle of the sidewalk!”    

When the ambulance and police arrived, the first question was related to his level of sobriety. This seemed interesting. I asked the police officer if I should stay to write down any information, he smirked, and happily told me no. I then watched as the paramedics put this man in the ambulance as I wondered what was next for him.  

I am not sure what shocked me most about those twenty minutes. Maybe it was the lack of disregard for a motionless body in the middle of the sidewalk. Perhaps it was the aggressive manner by which a police officer touched this man to “check on him.” Or imaginably, it is because people experiencing homelessness are impoverished and do not have consistent shelter, yet some pretend ‘they’ don’t exist. And what’s worse, the very act of their existence and ability to survive is criminalized.

In Louisiana, for example, policymakers are attempting to pass legislation that would criminalize solicitation by making it a misdemeanor punishable with a maximum fine of $200 and up to sixth months in jail. Surely if a person experiencing homelessness, or a person asking for money on the street, cannot afford daily expenses, then certainly they will be unable to afford a $200 fine for fighting to survive. But there is logic and then there is law. According to the bill’s sponsor, State Rep. Austin Badon, people experiencing homelessness are not in actual need, saying, “they’re paying their cell phone bills, they’re paying their computer bills. It’s a racket.”

And I suppose Shanesha Taylor wasn’t in actual need when she made a “choice” to leave her children in the car while going on a job interview because she could not find childcare. In all of the discussion surrounding her zealous prosecution, the intersection of poverty, race, housing insecurity, single motherhood, homelessness, and lack of access to (affordable) childcare has been missing from some of the conversation. It’s because our society was taught to shame different experiences as opposed to help, and we have been constructed to judge while not recognizing the privilege of not having to make these “choices”. We fail people like Shanesha by refusing to have this discourse, and we failed that man on the street while enthusiastically enjoying shots of the nearest Jose Cuervo.

While homelessness is generally decreasing in frequency nationally, Washington, DC and other metropolitan areas have experienced an uptick of people experiencing homelessness. The solution to this problem is not ignoring it. Criminalizing people for “acts of living” such as sleeping, eating, sitting, or panhandling is counterproductive, and so is disregarding someone’s livelihood because we perceive them to be an interference to our own life.

Homelessness is not the result of individuals refusing to work hard. As many people still fight for the so-called American Dream, reality strikes often leaving people in economically vulnerable situations. The truth is: homelessness, like many other social ills, is inextricably linked to poverty. Frequently people who are in poverty are unable to afford food, housing, childcare, and healthcare, and are forced to make decisions that many of us are privileged enough to never encounter.

But in a society where many people are living paycheck-to-paycheck in a system that seems designed for people to fail, particularly marginalized groups, it is vital that we remember that homelessness can strike at any time. We must act accordingly.

Preston Mitchum is a civil rights advocate and legal writing instructor in Washington, DC. He has written for The Atlantic, Huffington Post, theGrio, Think Progress, and Role Reboot. Follow him here