Busting Up the Lazy Homeless/Poor Myth

Social Justice Superheroes the

Mythbusters Tackle the “Lazy

Homeless” Stereotype

by Rich and Elizabeth Lombino August 25, 2010 01:04 PM (PT) Topics: Working Homeless http://www.change.org

We’re on the train on our way home. We strike up a conversation with someone sitting next to us. He’s wearing a suit and has a Bluetooth in his ear, an iPhone in his hand and a laptop on his lap. He works for an insurance company in New York City. He asks what we do, and after we describe our careers, the conversation takes an interesting turn.

He tells us about his younger sister, who is living in North Carolina and has six children. One has developmental delays. Last year her husband lost his job and hasn’t been able to find work. He started drinking heavily six months ago. Three months ago he said he was going to Texas to find work because that’s where the jobs are. She never heard from him again.

This sister has only ever been a stay-at-home mom and only has a high school diploma. She’s been looking for a job, but so far hasn’t found one since she doesn’t have many marketable skills. Even her eldest son, who is 19, has been trying to work but also can’t find a job. She’s depleted her savings, maxed out her credit cards, and the landlord has begun eviction proceedings. She gets multiple calls from creditors each day. She’s depressed and anxious.

Our train companion then asks us what she should do. We put on our social work hats and proceed to give him a public benefits 101 overview and discuss the mental health services available, and he appreciates it greatly. Then he says: “It must be hard helping people in your line of work because most of them are just looking for a handout and trying to game the system. Then we pay higher taxes to pay for them.” We both looked at him in disbelief. He had just told us a story about how anyone can become homeless —even his own sister — yet he was holding onto one of the many damaging myths regarding those who are homeless and living in poverty.

It took a lot of effort not to say “Are you kidding me?” It also was difficult not to take out our soapbox and preach to him and the entire train. Instead, this was a job for the Mythbusters! Two social work superheroes who leap tall lies in single bounds and dispel myths with their logic-ray guns to fight for truth and social justice. (This is total satire and a figment of our over-active imaginations. We have a three-year-old, after all.)

We appealed to this man’s (hopefully intact) reason and pointed out that there are people who try to scam the system in all walks of life — lawyers, bankers, accountants, doctors, company executives, etc. — but that doesn’t mean that everyone in those industries are crooks. We pointed out that he works in insurance, and that AIG executives had a large part in bringing on the Great Recession. But that doesn’t mean that he is scamming anyone, right? “Well, of course not,” he said.

We then said that our experience over the past 10 years has been that there are very few people looking to game the system. And those that are, in our opinion, are just trying to survive. What are they getting anyway — $21 in cash assistance every two weeks? Is this anywhere near the damage that Bernie Madoff and Enron did to the lives of thousands?

But really, the point is that here is someone who has a sister facing many of the issues our clients do, and yet the power of the “lazy homeless” myth is so strong that he feels compelled to bring it up during the same discussion when he’s seeking help?

By the end of our trip on the train, we felt that we had given him some food for thought and he seemed to be a little bit more enlightened on the reality of poverty in America. But will it be enough to withstand the banter from the evil Fox News villains Glenn “the Joker” Beck and Bill “Penguin” O’Reilly?

Image credit: Rich Lombino

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