Lose Your Apathy Towards the Homeless

While changes and reforms to these public homeless services are still being implemented and debated over, what we can do now is address the collective apathy we have toward the homeless.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

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By Katherine Lwin

The subway door opens, and an unbearable stench envelops you. You wrinkle your nose and take a cursory glance at your phone screen. It is 7:40 a.m., and school starts at 8:00 a.m. You cannot afford to miss the train, so you hastily walk into the stifling train car, pulling your backpack in behind you as the door closes. The stench has amplified, and it's leaving a burning feeling in the back of your throat. Then you notice the source of the smell: a homeless person asleep in the narrow two-person seat at the end of the car. Other passengers shake their heads at the sight, some sighing or frowning. Something inside you feels off, but you figure you’re not in a position to help. What a way to start off the long day, you end up saying to yourself. Couldn’t the homeless person just sleep somewhere else? With at least 62,166 homeless individuals wandering the streets of New York City, these situations occur far too often. But this mentality is more than just a personal issue—it also promotes collective apathy toward the homeless.

B​y excusing ourselves from our obligation to help, we distance ourselves from the reality of homelessness. We lose our sympathy in order to ignore the reality of the homeless ordeal, where there are no choices of help available. Instead, we hope to remain blameless by pushing that responsibility toward others and choosing to believe that there must be other choices of aid possible for the homeless. Therefore, we suppress our sympathy by turning our heads away on the train, continuing to walk down the street and refusing to acknowledge the existence of the homeless.

This collective apathy stigmatizes the homeless experience. In adopting such a stance, New Yorkers have become unaware and desensitized toward the plight of the homeless. According to a study by the NYC Department of Homeless Services under Mayor Bloomberg, the homelessness rate surged by 61 percent. Surprisingly, only 28 percent of New Yorkers surveyed noticed an increase in the number of homeless individuals.

Shelters and nonprofit homeless programs are pointed to as possible alternatives to homelessness. However, these programs are largely ineffective in combating the surge of homelessness in the city. The New York Times cites The Clarkson Avenue Building as an example of one such ineffective program. Due to the increase in homelessness, the city had established cluster-site programs—including private apartment buildings like The Clarkson Avenue Buildings—as an alternative source of temporary housing for the homeless.

However, these apartments are often neglected and are found to be in unsanitary, with a “dead rat in an apartment, garbage strewn in hallways and stairways, and a puddle of urine in the only working elevator of one building.” Poorly maintained cluster-site programs like Clarkson Buildings also pose hazardous living conditions with fire hazards, broken window guards, and a general state of disrepair pervasive throughout. A lack of maintenance of the radiators led to an explosion that killed two toddlers living in these cluster-sites provided for homeless families earlier in December 2016.

Shelters in New York City have the same problems, including overcrowding and a lack of safety. Accounts from individuals who lived in shelters often describe the uninhabitable conditions: “People will steal your shoes, and there [are] bedbugs and body lice.” Overcrowding in these shelters also contributes to the spread of diseases and general uncleanliness among residents. Oftentimes, disagreements between the residents lead to raging fights. The lack of proper heating during the winter and functional air conditioning units during the summer, combined with overpopulation, have led to deaths within shelters. Many homeless individuals have expressed that the uninhabitable conditions within these shelters have made sleeping in the streets and train cars a more preferable option, despite the risk of hypothermia and frostbite in the frigid cold.

Moreover, these housings and shelters are only temporary residences. Due to overcrowding, shelter stays are generally limited to around 90 days. However, homelessness often isn’t temporary. According to the Bovary Mission rescue center, an overwhelming 60 percent of New Yorkers do not have the resources to cover rent and food under emergency conditions, and 20 percent of New York City residents live under the poverty line with an income of less than $24,300 per family. Most New Yorkers without a stable well-paying job will have to resort to homelessness simply because they will not be able to support the high cost of living in the city. And for those 63,000 homeless individuals already struggling to find stable jobs and affordable housing amidst high rents, they have no choice but to return to being homeless after leaving their temporary shelters.

If there are long-term alternatives to homelessness, it would be less of a problem. Homelessness is characterized by instability, inability to find permanent residency, and a lack of choice. In believing that there are better alternatives or choices of help, we do nothing to alleviate the struggles of the homeless, which are more than just not having a roof over their heads.

While changes and reforms to these public homeless services are still being implemented and debated, we can still address the collective apathy we have toward the homeless. We adopt apathy toward the homeless largely in order to distance ourselves from the reality of homelessness. To lose the apathy, we need to recognize the reality of their struggles. Through acknowledging the presence of the homeless, we can develop a feeling of sympathy which will help us progress in our war against homelessness. Moreover, since many of the shelters and cluster-site programs provided are only temporary and do the bare minimum in attempting to reduce homelessness, providing a more permanent housing solution for homeless families with affordable rent would assist in the transition out of homelessness. Because temporary solutions lead to overpopulation and eventually disorganization, a permanent residence for homeless families would better address these issues by providing a place of security for the homeless until they are able to recover and obtain a stable job. By tackling the root of the negligence at these temporary shelters and attempting to establish permanent homes to ease the transition out of homelessness, New York City will take a step forward in reducing homelessness.