The story is not new. An employer discovers the guy he hired a few months ago lives at a homeless shelter. He’s been doing great work but now the employer is scared and the employee must go.
When I worked at a homeless shelter we would ask clients if we could film them to include in different advertisements and videos we created to tell the stories of the shelter. Several times a year I would get a request from someone asking me to please pull the clip from our latest video or advertisement where their face appeared. Their explanation inevitably went something like this,
“I’ve got a job now. I’ve moved on and I don’t want anyone to know I was there.”
“I’m looking for work and I don’t want a potential employer to google my name and find me connected to that place.”
I’m grateful for everything you’ve done for me, but people don’t trust homeless people and I’ll never get a job if they find out where I live.”
At the Foundation where I now work, we present annual awards to those who have demonstrated excellence in the homeless serving sector. As part of their recognition we include a booklet that lists the names of the nominators and award recipients as well as a brief story about the recipient from the nominators.
Last year, we changed our policy from including full names of nominators to just first name and last initial after one woman phoned me in a panic. “I googled my name and found the article I wrote about (name of person she nominated) and why I believed she deserved the award. I’ve been shortlisted for a job and I can’t risk the company finding out about my past.”
We pulled the booklet off the website, (it was from an awards ceremony five years ago) but could not promise the woman that Google would not have stored it in a cache somewhere. It was the best we could do.
And our best was not good enough.
Not because the employer ‘found out’. I’m thinking they didn’t because the woman did not contact me again.
Our best was not good enough because that woman, and so many others, live in fear that people will find out they were homeless. That they live or lived at a homeless shelter. That they used services designed for people experiencing homelessness. That they are somehow, in the views of many in our society, not good enough, broken, lacking and even, because they are homeless, criminals.
Most of us don’t spend our days worrying too much about the judgements of others. We’re not really impacted by the person behind or in front of us at the checkout. We know we won’t see that stranger in the elevator again so don’t really pay much attention to them.
We live in our bubble of ‘normal’ and move through our days without giving much thought to what others are thinking of us.
For someone experiencing homelessness, judgements come fast and furious.
They are heard from strangers walking by who hurl words at panhandlers that pierce like daggers to the heart.
From kids driving by in a car who think it is funny to hurl eggs at the woman pushing the shopping cart, or the man picking up empty pop cans from the street.
They are visibly homeless and thus, somehow do not deserve our respect or that we behave as decent, caring human beings.
For that man who lost his job because of his address, there is not much we can do. Discrimination of this sort is not illegal, and, even though we created a Homeless Charter of Rights, they are an idea, a beautiful wish for all mankind. They are not enshrined in our legislation.
And so, he will move on. He will chalk it up to another strike against himself, another let down, another put down that is just the way it is.
It doesn’t have to be. It can be different.
If we change. If we decide not to see people experiencing homelessness through eyes of condemnation and fear. If we decide not to equate poverty with lack of ambition, smarts or ability. Vulnerability as weakness. Homelessness as criminal.
If we change the way we see those whose lives have lead them into homelessness not as victims of their own doing, but rather as fallout from a social system that does not have the resources, affordable housing and supports people need to make their way in life, perhaps we will change our minds about who ‘the homeless’ really are. Perhaps we’ll see, ‘they’ are not us versus them. They are you and me, all of us. Together.