Have you seen this video yet? I wouldn’t be surprised if you have. It went viral not long ago. As of this writing it has almost six million views. So lots of people have seen it, shared it, and, I would venture, watched it multiple times. I know I have.
The video, a promotional tool for the “Rethink Homelessness” campaign, depicts actual homeless people holding cardboard signs bearing startling facts about their lives. And while it’s tempting to criticize the video because it perpetuates a stereotype, the video also forces its viewers to acknowledge the humanity of the people many choose to regard merely as a disquieting fixture of urban life.
About 580,000 people experience homelessness on a given day in this country, and no, most of them are not standing on sidewalks holding cardboard signs, panhandling. Many are in shelters; many are living in their cars; many are depleting the savings they amassed while not homeless; and many more are subsisting on homeless services while working hard to lift themselves out of homelessness.
Still, it’s a stereotype that is based on the reality of a minority of homeless people in big cities resorting to this method of calling attention to their desperate situation. Here in D.C. I see it every day on my commute to the office: veterans, mothers, teenagers, and the chronically homeless with their cardboard signs, just blocks away from the White House.
It’s profoundly sad, and the image is a potent signifier, because even people who have never seen a homeless person or a panhandler (FYI: not all panhandlers are homeless) with a cardboard sign recognize it for what it is: a plea for help, and a symbol of a social ill that is currently devastating hundreds of thousands of lives throughout the country.
This video stands the stereotype on its head. The facts about their lives—one woman was a personal trainer, one man speaks four languages—shouldn’t be all that surprising to anyone. These are just people, after all. Why shouldn’t they have their own histories of achievement? Yet one can’t help but regard them in a new light and—as the message of the campaign goes—rethink homelessness.
Do you want to know why? I think it’s because this video challenges the chief misconception that most of us, even many of us working in the homeless assistance field, labor under: It can’t happen to me. Well, it can. It can happen to anyone—whether you’re an Olympic athlete, a rock star, a college student, or a single mom. Homelessness doesn’t discriminate.
Next time you’re walking down a city street and you see a man or a woman holding a cardboard sign, take a few minutes to talk. More than likely, you will find that the person you are talking to is not all that different from you. More than likely, he or she just hit a streak of horribly bad luck, suffered a financial crisis, and lost his or her home.
Ultimately, you will find, the only significant difference between you and the homeless person you are talking to is that you have a home, and the homeless person doesn’t.