When ignorance is not bliss (or how to keep yourself from becoming homeless!)
The following letter to the editor appeared in the Sentinel last week.
“People who feel they are entitled to free care and comfort burn city vehicles in retaliation when the services are withdrawn. I point out the obvious, that none of the homeless were born predisposed to be homeless. Yet they expect us to provide care and comfort for the bad decisions they have made. I ask the bleeding hearts to think on this.”
For such a short, concise letter, it’s impressive that the writer was able to display a good bit of ignorance. Though one might assume I intend an insult when I use the word ignorance, that is not correct. I mean it in an objective way.
Webster’s Dictionary defines ignorance this way: “lack of knowledge, education, or awareness”. No insult there. Just a description.
So let me sort through the big bowl of wrong contained in the letter.
1) The writer assumes that the person or persons responsible for burning the city vehicles are homeless. She might be correct, and she might not be. It seems to me there’s a reasonable chance that the person responsible is a housed person who has stupidly and criminally acted to protest the city’s policies. Maybe it was a housed person and an unhoused person working together. Someday the police, the writer, and I might know the facts - but the letter was written without actual knowledge on this.
2) I know (yes, real personal knowledge) that there some folks - both housed and unhoused - who feel entitled to free care. But the letter-writer assumes that withdrawal of care was the cause of this terrible arson when, in fact, the slogans painted next to the burned trucks referred to “sweeps” and being left alone. Applying legal consequences to sleeping outside and creating encampments is not the same as providing free care. We don’t need to be sympathetic to the cause to be concerned about ignorance leading to an inaccurate description of what happened.
3) Because of her ignorance, the writer points out something “obvious” that is, in fact, a falsehood. She states, “none of the homeless were born predisposed to be homeless.” She is clearly ignorant of the fact that many children are born to parents who are homeless. This seems pretty much a guarantee that these children will be homeless at the moment of birth. A fairly basic "predisposition." But beyond that point, we also know from data that a child born into poverty (especially with precarious housing) is much more likely to experience homelessness than the child born in a stable, middle-class family. And a child born to parents incapable of raising a child will almost always end up in foster care. Statistics and research on homelessness consistently show that children that grow up in foster care have a much higher likelihood of becoming homeless. People from demographic groups that are systematically discriminated against or economically disadvantaged are more likely to experience homelessness. There are other statistical examples of predisposition - but enough on this for now.
4) Then there’s this one: “they expect us to provide care and comfort for the bad decisions they have made.” Recalling that we don’t even know yet whether or not the arsonist was homeless, let’s still explore the assumption here about homelessness and bad decisions.
a) The writer does what so many people ignorant about the realities of homelessness do: she assumes she knows the story behind the current situation of every unhoused person. She doesn’t. Every single person out there has a unique story. A combination of circumstances, decisions, accidents, mistakes, health problems (and more!) make up each person’s story. So it is undoubtedly true that some bad decisions are part of the homelessness story for some people. It is equally true that bad decisions are NOT an important part of the story for others. (I’m going to go out on a limb and say we’ve all made some bad decisions in our lives and not all of us are homeless.)
b) The writer also seems to miss something that truly is obvious. Note that many of the folks who are homeless made the following decisions: decided to be forced out of the home because their partner or parent was beating them; decided to be born to an impoverished family; decided to have parents throw them out of the house because the parents didn’t accept their sexual identity; decided to have a debilitating accident (at work or while driving); decided to be born with a significant mental illness; decided to make rental costs in their home town rise astronomically. Ignorance might lead one to lump these into the “bad decision” category but, as one of the “bleeding hearts” the writer spoke of, I decided to think on it and came to a different conclusion.
I invite all writers of letters to the editor to think before writing and sending in letters. Dig a bit deeper. Examine your assumptions. Ignorance doesn’t look good -- and you can avoid a “bad decision” by not sending in an ignorant letter. Avoiding that bad decision might just keep you from becoming homeless!