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HANNAN: We can afford to change how we treat homeless people

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HANNAN: We can afford to change how we treat homeless people

Jack Hannan

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It’s near impossible to walk around Marquette’s campus for very long without encountering some of Milwaukee’s homeless. According to the Milwaukee Rescue Mission, each night, over 1,500 people are forced to sleep on the streets, clinging to makeshift beds and blankets in an often futile attempt to find comfort in frigid temperatures.

Almost all of us have been asked for money by these individuals. And though our human instincts may tell us to immediately give whatever we can afford, many people claim that direct monetary donations are not effective means of assistance and can actually make matters worse. So we are faced with a dilemma: to give or not to give?

Our physical proximity to Milwaukee’s homeless population might make us feel we are not detached from their hardships, but this couldn’t be farther from the truth. Whether it’s the closet-sized McCormick rooms or a cheap apartment that doesn’t quite seem structurally sound, we as college students have all dealt with less-than-ideal housing situations. But the fact that we complain about undersized rooms while so many people lack roofs over their heads shows how far removed from the issue we really are.

While there certainly are valid reasons not to donate money, the most popular arguments are simply untrue. Some refuse to give money to the homeless because they write them off as “lazy.” They see homeless people panhandling on street corners instead of working and assume they have chosen to panhandle over work 40 plus hours a week. What they fail to realize is how quickly living situations can deteriorate when people lose their jobs. A national study conducted by the Urban Institute found that 45 percent of homeless people interviewed had worked within the last 30 days. When this source of income is lost, people suddenly find themselves on the streets. And in that position, finding work becomes exponentially harder. In order to survive, one must begin résumé building, but even the most menial jobs are given to people in more stable situations.

Another common argument for not giving to the homeless is claiming they are “crazy,” and therefore cannot be helped. While some severe mental illnesses cannot be cured completely, they can almost always be treated. According to the Treatment Advocacy Center, almost one-third of the homeless population is living with serious, untreated mental illness. Without the luxuries of psychiatric treatment or family support, these people are left to fend for themselves. Loose change is in no way enough to pay for proper care, but it could be enough for food to sustain them until humanitarian organizations become involved or proper medical treatment can be provided.

Many people fear that the money they give homeless people will be used for drug and alcohol consumption. This notion is primarily based on the stereotype that all homeless people are addicts. Though substance abuse is widely accepted as both a cause and effect of homelessness, the proportion of addicted homeless is smaller than you might expect.

Of the homeless in the states, 38 percent are dependent on drugs or alcohol, as opposed to about 10 percent of the entire U.S. population, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Homeless people are clearly more prone to addiction, but the majority of the homeless population is living on the street for reasons out of their control.

Regardless of what caused their homelessness, comforting their needs goes beyond donated spare change. The common denominator in almost all cases of homelessness is the lack of a support system. Often, the most prevalent causes of homelessness can be addressed with family intervention. Millions of Americans suffer from mental illness, addiction and financial instability, but most of them have friends and family willing to help them get the care they need.

Some people dedicate their lives to this work and certainly make a life-changing impact on everyone they help. Still, there will always be people who slip through the cracks. The vast majority of us are unable or unwilling to put so much effort into helping strangers. Other than a handful of volunteer hours, our interaction with the homeless is limited to their pleas for money and our subsequent response.

You won’t be judged for not giving. Most people don’t do it. But please consider your reason for hanging on to your spare change next time. Fifty cents won’t buy anyone a house, but it could be enough to get them through one more day.

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