On Any Single Night: The stigma of homelessness

Discarded homeless sign on the streets of Nashville.  Photo: © 2017 Jeb Johnson

Discarded homeless sign on the streets of Nashville. Photo: © 2017 Jeb Johnson

By Rev. Julie Irene Morrissey

Since working with people without homes, I have learned that my empathetic attitude towards these individuals seems to be an outlier rather than the norm. The term “homeless” is no longer just a word defined as “[a person] having no home or permanent place of residence,” but instead embodies a pejorative ‘way of being’ used to label and shame people without a place to live. 

When we make assumptions about someone's dress, look, or behavior it makes it more likely that the person will be singled out and socially excluded, along with labeled as strange or dangerous. This is what we call stigma. And treating someone differently from how we treat others because of stigma, whether consciously or subconsciously, is discrimination. In this way, people who experience homelessness often experience stigma and discrimination that can be worse than any illness, and can cause serious setbacks to a person’s treatment of and recovery from homelessness. 

Rev. Julie Irene Morrissey

Rev. Julie Irene Morrissey

You might guess that I know all this only because of my training in clinical psychology, but it’s not just my professional training. My understanding of homelessness is experience-informed. I understand the stigma of homelessness because I am a former “homeless”. For the first 12 years of my life, I grew up in an extremely abusive home. At 12 years old, I decided it would be better to run away than continue to experience the trauma at home. Little did I know that this decision would start the beginning of years of dealing with homelessness, substance abuse, mental health issues, and incarceration. I remained homeless until almost my 27th birthday when I was finally able to get “back on my feet.” I attribute my success to overcome homelessness as a team effort. I cannot say I would be alive today if not for the help of a few caring friends and dedicated health providers.

Now, I help others by offering the same empathic, positive regard that I feel helped me. I make sure I consider how my judgments and biased thoughts might affect how I treat others; because I know, firsthand, the struggle of homelessness, and the great need that so many people have in our country. Only we can stretch out the hand of hope and inclusion in our society.

We must act on the desire for change we would like to see in our country. In this way, consider your beliefs about “the homeless,” and how those beliefs might be making it harder for people without homes to get better.