“I feel bad for them, I just don’t want to see all of the trash,” a friend stated to me, the other day, during a conversation regarding homelessness. I bristled at the statement, then admitted to myself that seeing garbage cluttering the streets and the grass medians of the Bay Area is, in fact, a disturbing scene. Of course, more heartbreaking, is seeing a camping bag mound along the sidewalks of downtown Berkeley. At first glance, you aren’t sure what you are looking at, and then the mound shifts, and you see a left arm emerge from the pile of fabric. Soul crushing is one way to describe the feeling associated with the realization that the concrete is someone’s mattress and the balled up t-shirt doubles as a pillow. The nurse in me considers the damage to the skin, underlying muscles, and the possibility of damage to the spinal cord. We know long term exposure to the unforgiving elements of the weather is not friendly to many of our organ systems (i.e., immune, musculoskeletal, renal, etc.), but I couldn’t help but also pay consideration to another side of the equation.
Abraham Maslow was an American Psychologist, and in the early 20th century, he postulated a theory of human drives and desires that is called Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. His theory, although not empirically validated, is applicable when considering the drives, needs, and desires of the average person. His idea was that one must satisfy the lower rungs of the hierarchical pyramid in order to attain Self-Actualization which is the greatest aspiration of every person. Application of Maslow’s ideas are interesting to look at in the context of the plight of a homeless person. At the very basic (bottom rung) of the hierarchy, is physiological needs including but not limited to: food, rest, warmth, and shelter. I couldn’t help but put this information into context of the homeless individual. How can we expect a person that has no stable housing structure, no bed, and no stable access to a meal to be concerned with environmental impacts of littering? Would you care about the next gubernatorial election in your state if you were constantly preoccupied with how to keep your personal belongings safe when your home is the sidewalk in front of the local pharmacy.
I don’t have a definitive response to the complex conundrum that is homelessness in America, but I’m not sure that’s my point in writing this article. Although I’ve heard stories of various US cities attempting to provide housing to the chronically homeless coupled with expanded access to regular meals as well as case workers that provide vocational rehabilitative services, I am not an expert on how to adequately address this problem. This conversation was a reminder to me of the importance of empathy. Contextual considerations are essential when trying to understand complex issues related to social justice. We would all be better off in exercising a little more compassion and consideration, and I include myself in this directive.