The Poison of Apathy

August 19, 2013

The Poison of Apathy

If someone were to ask me what the biggest problem facing the homeless was, I would have to give an answer that may not be a popular one. The greatest problem that I’ve seen, not only in the “homeless community” but in a number of areas is an apathetic acceptance of the situation we find ourselves in. I could tell you countless stories of people who have shifted from one homeless shelter to another, who have gone from jail to the street to jail again, who have grown used to sleeping on the street and begging for money and cigarettes. Homelessness isn’t just a problem of economics, it is also a problem in the way the homeless think and the way they are treated.

There is something in the way humans think and behave that allows us to get used to any given situation. It’s a coping mechanism of sorts and at times it is a good thing. However if you get used to a negative situation like not having a place to live then you are not going to try to get out of it. I know this from personal experience from my time in the mental hospital. When I first got there I was terribly depressed and suffered from a myriad of disorders. As treatment went by I gradually grew better able to cope with my problems, however I was developing another one at the same time.

I was getting “Institutionalized.”

The doctor I was working with warned me about this early on. He told me that even though I wanted to be in that place for help that on paper this was involuntary treatment. By law, mental patients are supposed to be treated with the least restrictive measures possible, and that kind of care was far from that. He told me that people who stay in settings like this for extended periods of time become dependent on the institution and in some cases cannot function outside of it. I thought that would never happen to me, and then two months in I was having anxiety attacks at the thought of leaving. It wasn’t that a mental hospital was the most wonderful place on the planet, it’s that I had grown used to that lifestyle and I was afraid of dealing with things on my own. What if I messed up again? What if things got worse when I walked out the door? That is what dependence on that system does to you, and the doctor had to work me out of that thought process as well as deal with my initial issues. I commend him for saving my life in a number of ways.

From what I have heard Prison inmates deal with the same problem. When they hit their release date they leave the only world they knew for years and they had grown used to it. So they end up committing more crimes just to get back to what is most familiar, prison.  Similarly the biggest reason that people go back to the mental hospital is because they stop taking their medication and have a relapse and an exacerbation of their initial symptoms until they truly cannot function any more.

But this idea that you can just accept your surroundings no matter how bad or unhealthy it is does not just extend to the mental hospitals or jails. Homelessness is, in a sense, an institution without a building. You get your three meals a day not from a cafeteria but from volunteers who feed crowds of homeless every week. If you ask an “experienced” homeless person he can tell you were food is being served within a mile radius with ease. Not only that he’d tell you what they were serving and what you had to listen to before you got it, such as a sermon. Between begging, hopping from one shelter to another/sleeping on the street, and frequenting these volunteer meals a person can grow dependent and used to this lifestyle.

However instead of trying to help homeless people get out of this mentality and situation people are either enabling or persecuting them. The police in Columbia seem to make it their business to arrest homeless people simply for being homeless. Businesses in the Columbia area are stricter about so called “loitering” than I have ever seen before. When I am waiting for my parents to meet me in McDonalds and an employee walks up to me and rudely points at no loitering sign that says 30 minute limit when I had been there 10 there is something wrong. The only place a homeless person can really go and not get harassed by over active cops are the shelters, the library, and the park. This in essence separates these people away from the so called working people and makes them think that this is all there is for them.

Between the stick of the law and the carrot of the good intentions of volunteers you are conditioning a group of people into a damaging unhealthy mentality. A mentality that makes it difficult to reintegrate  into society. When you add in the rampant push for drugs and the easy money of prostitution and soon one’s criminal record is so bad that even if they did want to get straight and live a productive life they have burned too many bridges to do it.

This situation reminds me of the time my parents and I first moved to South Carolina. They had just bought a double wide and two acres of land. It was a bit of a “fixer upper” as they like to call these kinds of properties, but that is why they could afford to pay for it out right. Now in this community they had a pond which ours and other properties connected to. Our neighbors appeared to think that this pond was the perfect place to toss pretty much anything in. Case and point, in our part of the pond there was a broken trampoline and a swing set poking out of the water a good ways in. Now of course when they first saw this my parents were saying “we need to deal with that” because it was a bit of an eyesore looking out onto the pond and seeing those things poking out. However the stress of moving in and working at their new jobs they didn’t get around to it for a few weeks.

Then something starting happening. I noticed my parents were becoming less and less perturbed at these things being in the pond and in their view. They started saying things like “you know that makes a nice bird perch out there” and other stuff they would later find laughable. It wasn’t until my dad hunkered down one day and said that he is going to deal with this that anything happened. when he wadded out and grabbed these items and came back he was covered in whatever slime was growing in those nasty waters, however when all was said and done and he had showered a few times he was happy that he had done it.

My parents could have kept that swing set and trampoline out there if they had wanted to. They could have left it there and just saw it as part of the scenery and nothing would of changed. Ignoring the problem is only going to make it worse. I know, I’ve been down that road and I am wading through one big pond right now to get that proverbial swing set out. Thankfully I have found people who are presenting actual options that will help me get back on my feet. The other day my case manager  told me about a program called “Work in Progress” which helps those with a mental illness diagnosis find work and also a person on staff tasked with helping me through my specific problems and developing the coping skill necessary to sustain employment on my own.

Frankly that is the most promising idea I’ve heard yet and it gives me hope that I can get out of this situation. I do not want to get used to this, I have things I want to do with my life and being homeless is not one of them. However there are a slew of other people out there who have been done a disservice and now believe that being homeless is the only way for them to live now. I am going to get out of this, but what about them? Are you going to just volunteer and give them food for a day without helping them get to a point where they could get the food themselves? Are you just going to report them to the cops? Or are you going to go about your day and say its not your problem?

What I think needs to happen is an emphasis on the steps towards independence. More than just getting a job, it is getting out of the poisonous mindset that being in situations like this develops. I know there are some people out there that if given the tools and a better outlook they could get out of being homeless, and that is worth something to me.


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