Do the Homeless Deserve Dignity?


By Nia Asante

There are 10 million residents in Los Angeles County. At least 45,000 people are homeless. I was one such person.

Can you remember your first encounter with a homeless person?  I can.

It was 1974,  I was 4 years old.  Our family vacation that summer was spent in Philadelphia and while strolling downtown I noticed a man lying on the sidewalk.

I tugged on my mother’s sleeve and asked and asked, “Why is the man sleeping on the street?” Her response was to pull me closer to her, to shield me from viewing him.

My young mind didn’t know what homelessness was but I knew that I slept in a bed, so it was very alarming to me to see someone sleeping on the street.

Fast forward 43 years and I find myself there – not lying on the street, but still I am homeless all the same. And in a strange way I also still find the travesty of homelessness being shielded from my view.

The title of this article changed many times before I finally decided on naming it, “Do the Homeless Deserve Dignity?”

It seems that the obvious answer to that question would be a resounding yes. However looking at the way many people and institutions treat this segment of society, it makes one wonder…

During my own homeless experience, I’ve noticed the various types of homeless individuals and the circumstances that propelled them into this dire situation, whether due to financial reasons, incarceration, previous foster care, domestic violence, physical or mental illness or being ex-military. This vast array of individuals still have one thing in common: the need for shelter.

Speaking from my personal experience, I found a major obstacle to obtaining safe affordable housing was the failure to meet me where I was.  No matter how much I tried to impress upon a case manager what my situation was, I felt like a square peg being forced into a circular hole.  For instance, I let them know that I had a physical disability. That piece of information would be completely ignored, and I would be told the quickest way to get housing would be via a mental diagnosis and medication.

So many have traded their mental health for a housing voucher only to find that the voucher can be lost but the label of being mentally ill sticks and stays forever.

Who benefits from that system or practice?  Definitely not the person in need of housing.  Because there was so much emphasis on me declaring a fraudulent disordered mental state to ‘qualify’ for benefits, my immediate physical needs were not met and worsened so much that I felt my life was in danger.  While exposed to the elements I developed a type of edema for which there is no cure.  My blood pressure reached dangerous levels and now I have to take medication and I am unable to work for the time being.

How long was I homeless?

For only six months.

I don’t drink, smoke or do drugs of any sort.  I joke that I am only addicted to Kit Kat candy bars.  But my situation speaks to the difficulty of living day to day without shelter.  For those who have been living on the street for a much longer period of time, some for decades, in a country as ‘great’ as the U.S., it really is a most unfortunate reality.

So, do the homeless deserve dignity?  Please email your comments and questions to changelinks2@gmail.com. Please put “Response to Nia” in the subject line. Thanks!

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