Vakil: We foster apathy, not sympathy toward homeless people


Caroline Vakil , Columnist

Oftentimes when we talk about homeless people, it’s in the context of a humanities course teaching us the effects of America’s inequalities or in our discussions of national politics. There seems to be a common theme to how these discussions usually go: We talk about the injustices in our society and government and how they contribute to issues like homelessness. Then we leave the classroom sympathetic, upset and disgusted at the world — inspired to change our country’s wrongdoings in years to come.

But when class is done, all our emotional outrage and sympathy dissolves once we walk down the streets of Evanston. We walk past homeless people on Sherman Avenue who beg for change, completely ignoring them and their troubles. More homeless people can be spotted around Church Street and we continue on our merry way, ignoring them, too. And the next day we’ll go to our humanities class and start the cycle all over again.

These occurrences did not bother me; they felt completely normal. Hearing people on the street ask for money annoyed me, and I made the sad assumption they were lazy people who were not trying to find a job or make their life better in any way. Everything I had learned in my humanities courses went out the door because the sad truth was that I was only buying the idea of it, but not the real problem itself.

The problem, though, with how we discuss these issues is that it requires us to not only see the concept of what it means to be homeless, but to also understand the humanity of it. Homelessness, among many issues, is not a problem where we can simply go to class, argue about all of its effects and assume that the situation will stop there. We need to make a connection between the concept and how it affects us in our daily lives, otherwise we will maintain a cognitive dissonance in how we talk about these types of issues.

That means maintaining a respectful and understanding attitude toward homeless people in our community. Many of us walk past them and act like they don’t exist because that’s easier than acknowledging their existence and their troubles. I’m not suggesting that we have to give them change every time they ask for it because that’s only a band-aid to the problem. However, we need to treat them with dignity and respect because it is vital to connect the issue of homelessness with the faces of those affected. Homeless people have just as much of a right to be part of our community as we do, and this sentiment is only meaningful if we act on it.

The truth is the only people that convince ourselves to change our attitudes on social issues is ourselves. However, I want us to challenge our community to rethink the discussions we’ve had in class and reevaluate how much of an impact these courses have truly had on how we understand inequalities and social injustices. Part of engaging in our courses is continually stepping outside of our comfort zone and going beyond philosophical arguments to actually engage in issues outside of the classroom.

At the end of the day, homelessness is not a social issue that we have in our class discussions, but a deeply emotional problem that affects so many people in the U.S. We need to treat these issues with the respect and thoughtfulness they deserve or they will continue to be only a concept and not an problem we engage in to solve for the better.

Caroline Vakil is a Medill sophomore. She can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.