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Why the Homeless Are Feared

Attitudes: Many view the poor as a challenge to their sense of virtue and self-esteem, and don't want shelters built in their neighborhoods.

September 21, 1997|ELIZABETH ADAMSON | Elizabeth Adamson is a graduate student and teaching assistant in the Department of Anthropology at Cal State Fullerton

An article in The Times last spring referred to research on "not-in-my-backyard" (NIMBY) attitudes and noted that the homeless suffer stigmatization out of proportion with their real risk potential. Researchers attributed such attitudes to a collapse of a sense of community, or mere intolerance.

The main researcher was quoted expressing the idea that the mentality was ultimately associated with a lack of education about the homeless, i.e., with a fear of the unknown. I would argue the opposite: The attitude is really an expression of fear of the quite profoundly known--that one's own conception of self is being challenged and intruded upon by means of shelters.

Americans tend to protect their self-boundaries. Conceptions are of shelters as representing the disintegration of an idealized self, and shelters are rejected in their backyards because they contaminate the self with negative attributes.

When the Puritans came to the New World to establish their "City on a Hill," God's Kingdom of the righteous on Earth, they brought the idea that only those elected souls endowed with grace would be saved. God had determined a certain number of the population to be reprobate. The Puritans were naturally concerned with discerning the presence or absence of grace in themselves and others, so they began to look for signs. One such "sign" was financial success. There was an economic barometer for one's spiritual health in early America: God allowed financial failure only for the damned.

In America, this idea has had staying power. Success is still seen as evidence of salvation: Financial solvency means grace. Those unfortunates who are homeless or poor are marked, by God, for damnation by that poverty.

It follows then, that if they are unfit to spend eternity in God's Kingdom of Heaven, then they must also be unfit to dwell with the righteous on God's Earth.

The possibility for evident damnation in the form of public poverty dwells within each American and causes discomfort. And so the NIMBY syndrome. Not in my backyard. To permit shelters in one's backyard is tantamount to the inclusion of negative attributes in one's own self.

In the Puritan tradition, the homeless and otherwise low income or less fortunate are not poor due to circumstances beyond their control but are poor because God wills that they carry their lack of salvation in their state of poverty, for all to see.

Fear of them springs from the fear of the projected graceless self. The fear of contagion by them, by means of self-recognition and reabsorption, is great. Those who are damned--the poor, the homeless, and others--are dangerous. They manifest danger by their lack of financial solvency.

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