Homelessness: can we look underneath the surface?

-5 degrees Celsius:

I walked to the campus bookstore, wrapped in a down jacket with a knitted woollen scarf clinging to my neck. Melvin was a heap of old, ragged black cloth, horizontal on the top step of the West Gate building. His belongings lay neatly by his feet in a small black plastic crate.

20 degrees Celsius:

I walked to Newbury Street, clad in a summery dress with a sling bag across my body. Melvin was now sitting upright on the black crate, a light jacket and a beanie on, with a rugged cardboard sign leaning against his legs: “Hi my name Melvin. Can you help, thank you”. His loyal coin cup lay firmly in front of the board.
 ©Max Pixel

 ©Max Pixel

Through three decades of Boston’s sun and snow, Melvin, a 53-year-old homeless man, reigned over those three steps of the West Gate building in Kenmore Square. Until October of 2015—when he left his small abode and never came back. On November 3, the Boston Globe reported that he had died of a heroin overdose, in a column that traced the fond legacy of the mononymous neighbourhood celebrity, Melvin.

Now, how often does the death of a homeless person occupy real estate of a coveted newspaper? How often does a homeless person transcend being just another statistic to an actual human?

Unfortunately, this is the consequence of the sensitizing cocktail of information overload and consistently sucky news that we are served almost daily. We have developed a transient attachment to external tragedy. We mourn the state of the world until we change channels, until we get off social media, until the next tragedy demands our attention. Social psychologists describe this phenomenon in fewer words: psychic numbing. And unless one is persistently exposed to homelessness, it, too, is sentenced to the recesses of your generic, passive social concerns. Alas, I am guilty of it too.

As an ethnically Indian girl, who has lived her 23 years of life as a cosmopolitan in metropolitan areas, homelessness has manifested itself in varying degrees.  Dubai has little to no homeless people; Singapore has identified around 300 persons; Boston’s 2016-2017 census lists a homeless population of approximately 2,397 people; Chicago’s 2015 census found 82,212 homeless people in the city and so, logically, the suburb of Evanston had much, much less. But the variant of homelessness that I saw in my five years in America was a far cry from what I witnessed every time I visited the motherland. India’s 2011 census alone puts the homeless population at a staggering 1.8 million people.  And as a visitor or a non-resident Indian, as I am, those numbers follow you around wherever you go. Homelessness leaves an impressionable dent in the sidewalks—it is a cruel, cruel reality. But, that’s as far as my interaction with the concept goes.

As an educated woman, with a fairly informed imagination, I can guess what brought them out on the streets.  I can collect a few coins to place in their tired palms so they may add to their bounty. I can rue the fact that such fate can befall human beings who mean well. But do I go up and talk to them? Do I try to hear their story? No. I have been conditioned to think that this is the state of the world and to know where to draw the line; some just get the shorter end of the stick. As much as I would like to deny otherwise, I have submitted myself to armchair activism. I can read for hours about innovative solutions that can change the world: whose brainchild is it? How did said brain rise to the challenge? What was its impact?  Occasionally, I may post a tweet about it or I may exfoliate all my hidden feelings in a blog post. But, at the end of the day, I had never really done anything on the ground.

Around the end of last year, fresh off a postgraduate degree and crafting how I would live out the rest of my years, I decided that I would no longer be passive about social change, if I could help it. The same New York Times article that spoke of psychic numbing also advised focusing on one problem rather than the other million, so you feel more in power of it. I have been privileged to always have a roof over my head and I cannot begin to imagine how disorienting it is to not have shelter—Maslow said it is a biological need after all. As much as I want to take steps towards solving the problem however, I am also somewhat risk-averse by nature. I need to learn as much as I can about a cause before I decide on how I can help best. So here, after 683 words, is why I joined the team of billionBricks.  I found the team’s mission intriguing and on gut instinct, I decided I would volunteer with the skill I knew best- writing.  Not only would I learn about the nuances of homelessness, I wanted to help dissect such a complex concept for other people like me who have only ever witnessed it on the surface and hopefully, help draw more willing accomplices to the mission. More hands on deck is never a bad thing, after all!

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About the author

Madhurya Manohar

Madhurya recently joined the billionBricks team as an volunteer to create beautiful content for our blog and social platforms. She has degrees in journalism and communications and is passionate about storytelling for social impact.