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Do the Stigmas Given by Society to Homeless Individuals Contribute Further to Their Loss of Personal Identity, Individual Purpose and Relevance in the Societal Structure?

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Do the Stigmas Given by Society to Homeless Individuals Contribute Further to their Loss of Personal Identity, Individual Purpose and Relevance in the Societal Structure?

Stigmas have been prevalent in Societal Structures throughout history. Some have perpetuated through years and generations and continue to be prevalent in modern-day society. Conventional wisdom has it that for as long as there have been societal structures, there have been individuals in these societies that acquire the means to meet basic human needs such as: Food, water, shelter, and companionship. In addition, to these individuals, it is commonly known that there have been individuals in societies who acquire the means to not only meet basic human needs, but also indulge in human wants and desires such as: Designer clothing, exotic foods prepared by others, innovative technologies, selective education, and selective companionship. Both of these groups of individuals have existed in societal structures since their inception. It is also the standard view that as long as those individuals have existed in societies, there has been a tendency by both groups to create stigmas and socially reject and individuals who do not, or cannot acquire the means to either meet basic human needs, or indulge in human wants and desires. These individuals are labeled ‘homeless’ members of society. The Stigmas placed on homeless members of society by various social groups over time have furthered these individuals’ acceptance of their social rejection, and perpetuated their personal perceptions that they have no individual social purpose, human relevance or identity in a society.

A multi-volume work entitled, “The Stigma of Homelessness: The Impact of the Label ‘Homeless’ on Attitudes toward Poor Persons”, published in Social Psychology Quarterly by a group of four Columbia University public health professors, presenting their findings from their research on the effects of the stigmas associated with homelessness and poverty, describes the characterization of a Stigma as, “An attribute that is socially defined as deeply discrediting, spoiling one’s identity and disqualifying one from full social acceptance” (qtd. in Phelan, Jo et al. 323).

As explained in the volume, the stigma placed on homeless people by a society can be seen throughout American and English history as a label created to reject and shame others that are less fortunate. The Social Psychology Quarterly volume further states that “Between the fourteenth and eighteen centuries, English Poor Laws and similar policies in the United States enforced a variety of harsh and stigmatizing measures” (qtd. in Phelan, Jo et al. 323). As described in the volume, throughout this time period, “… destitute persons were separated from society and were relegated to work houses (which sometimes combined with jails) in which rights of citizenship were withdrawn, families were separated, and work was difficult and demeaning” (qtd. in Phelan, Jo et al. 323). The authors point out here, that throughout American and English history, societies have cultivated and perpetuated the homeless stigma with early practices of ostracizing destitute individuals through social rejection and shaming.

The lengthy historical prevalence of shaming and socially rejecting the homeless, as pointed out by the Columbia Professors in their Social Psychology Quarterly volume, can be attributed as well to further theories the authors describe as a society’s’ tendency to socially reject and shame others as a stratification hierarchy, or a means to justify disqualifying another human being from society by dominant members of a society to maintain a societal balance, and avoid blame to the society’s structure as a whole. In this theory, the authors explain, “the survival of stratification hierarchy depends on systems of beliefs, values and attitudes-disseminated by dominant groups and internalized by most members of the society-that justify the existing social order” (qtd. in Phelan, Jo et al. 325). The authors go on to further explain, “…if those at the bottom of the economic heap are viewed as having arrived there because of their own shortcomings, responsibility is shifted from the structural components of the stratification system to the individual, and the status quo is legitimized.” (qtd. in Phelan, Jo et al. 325). By citing this statement, the authors urge us to understand that a stratification hierarchy allows a society to blame the less fortunate individually for negative impacts, to avoid the blame falling on their own structure as a whole for making the homeless and poor less fortunate in a society. If the authors who point out this theory are correct, as I think they are, then our modern society needs to reassess the popular assumption that the stigma associated with homelessness is not given by fault of an individual, but rather created by a society’s historical practices and a social justifications to blame poverty on an individual, instead of facing a reality that there are faults in the structural integrity of the society as a whole that perpetuates homelessness and poverty.

Have these societal stigmas allowed homeless members of society to further individualize the blame and shame given to them by a society for being homeless, and furthermore shapes the way a homeless people will negative identify and view themselves? Acclaimed photojournalist and author, Becky Blanton, recounting her personal experiences with the damaging effects of the homeless stigma on her psyche affirms that the homeless stigma does, in fact, perpetuate a further blame, shame, and confusion of identity of an individual. In her TED Talk Podcast entitled, “The year I was Homeless”, Blanton recalls for her audience the negative internalization the effects of the homeless stigma imposed on her during a particular year in her life that she became homeless. Blanton likened her homelessness feeling invisible. In the beginning of her journey Blanton decided to quit her job, travel and live in her van doing free-lance writing work in various parts of the United States. The accomplished photojournalist explained her intention in doing this was to enjoy being free and writing creatively. She went on to explain that she was well versed in camping, so she felt confident that she had the experience to embark on such a journey. Blanton then describes how her initial experience living in the van felt more like a period of travel and reflection. She then goes on to tell us that living in the van quickly became uncomfortable when the weather became very warm, and there became a great difficulty finding a suitable place to park. Next, her free-lance job ended and she did not have any work, nor could she find any due to her living circumstances. Without work, Blanton could not find an apartment.

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