I was never an actual street person. Every bit of time I spent on the road was because I wanted to. The fact that I might not have wanted to if I’d been happy at home is not the point: the point is that I had a home. I hated it with a passion, but I could have stayed there. I had a choice. Many of my friends didn’t – or, if they did, it wasn’t a real choice. Would you rather sleep on the street and risk getting treated like shit by strangers, or stay at home with the certainty of being treated like shit by relatives?
However, people you bump into don’t tend to ask you for your résumé. They will take you at face value. And if you look like a street person, you’re pretty much guaranteed to get treated like one, which means you’ll get othered. You’ll be treated like a vermin or a potential criminal or a poor unfortunate or a easy prey or a trick; you’ll be scorned or chased off or avoided or molested or pitied, but you won’t be treated like “one of us”.
This sort of response is not always inappropriate. A lot of street people do engage in extralegal activities. Hell, if you’re an underage runaway you’re essentially prevented from engaging in legal activities. You can’t get a job, approach charity organisations, or in fact do anything that could get you reported to the authorities and carted back home. You’re pretty much left with scavenging, stealing, trafficking, prostitution, or black market work. Depending on where you live, you may be incapable of accessing medical care. You can’t report crimes against yourself without getting caught, which makes you an ideal victim.
Some people see the existence of street people as an affront; they blame them for not only for their condition, but for their presence or even their existence. Street people make the place look untidy. They are essentially sub- or even non-humans, who ought to be exterminated for everyone’s good.
“We” are better than that, obviously. We hear about the murders of Brazilian street children and are horrified and aghast at the extremes of human cruelty. We like to imagine that we would never stoop to that, and maybe most of us wouldn’t. But the problem doesn’t affect most of us as severely. I strongly believed that, if it did, some of us may think/feel/act differently. When it comes to the crunch, most people try to protect themselves, their loved ones, and their property first and foremost.
It give us all a nice warm glow to think that “we” would all act much better, be selfless and giving and kind… but most people don’t. Most people don’t engage, one way or the other. They don’t do evil, but they also don’t do good, and when they do it it’s often more about “doing the right thing” or “making the world a better place” than about helping a fellow human. Good deeds don’t undo the othering.