There is nothing more heartbreaking than seeing a person curled up on a cold winter night in a business’s doorway- yet we keep walking. Why is this? Most often we forgo moments of connection and understanding out of fear and preconceived judgments. We instead offer sympathy, but sympathy does little to truly help or understand the complexity of homelessness. Trading sympathy for empathy is one way in which we can change the narrative of these interactions and bring about real change.
Empathy is a word we all know, and according to Merriam-Webster, the official definition of empathy is the “action of understanding, being aware of, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and lived experiences of another person without having actually gone through them ourselves.”
According to New Story Charity, it’s estimated that about 2% of the population, or 154 million people, are experiencing some kind of housing insecurity. Despite what some may think, this is not a small or insignificant number of people. This is an entire population of people that is in a situation many of us could be put into at any moment. Empathy helps us humanize each other and relate to those in situations such as homelessness whereas sympathy keeps us at arm’s length from what is really happening.
Often, people experiencing homelessness express feelings invisible to society. This is because as a society, we have placed labels or preconceived notions on this group as a whole. We label these individuals as lazy, mentally ill, addicted to drugs, criminals, and just about anything else that allows us to distance ourselves from them; thus, excusing the inconsiderate treatment those experiencing homelessness receive.
The reality is that unhoused people are people. They are someone’s brother, aunt, sister, cousin, neighbor, best friend, or partner. They are not invisible. They are real and raw humans who are suffering right in front of us. To ignore them and act as if they don’t exist is a blatant denial of their reality and lived experiences.
People who struggle with housing insecurity also have a host of other issues just like you and me. They have personal issues, family issues, health issues, and financial issues. These individuals are trying to survive, having to do that on the streets or in shelters or from a friend’s couch can leave them feeling incredibly vulnerable. According to the nonprofit Father Joe’s Villages, 70% of unhoused people experience mental health issues, and 58% have some kind of disability. A very significant type of trauma is left behind when we, as a society, treat unhoused people as if they are invisible.
Exchanging sympathy for empathy is one way we can change the narrative of how we interact with individuals dealing with homelessness. When we use dehumanizing language and unconscious bias, we automatically deny that an unhoused person’s experiences are similar to our own. We must begin by saying, “I see you, I hear you, I acknowledge the pain that you feel, I will share this burden with you, and I will allow you this space to exist without fear or judgment.” That is how we establish a new way to perceive and connect with people experiencing homelessness