‘We can and have to do better than this’

Once people perceive people on the street as less than human, they can give themselves permission to take out aggression

BRATTLEBORO — Josh Steele recently shared a story of a near miss in a supermarket parking lot - a story that made it clear to him that he was almost deliberately hit by a pickup truck because the occupants presumed he was a panhandler.

Steele lives on a side street off Fairground Road, an easy walk to the recently rebranded Market 32, still known as Price Chopper, on the other side of Canal Street.

On June 29, as he made his way through the supermarket's parking lot, “a car (with a man and a woman) came very close to me and very fast,” he wrote in a post on Facebook. “They had zero care in the world that I was there and seemingly wanted to hit me.”

On the way into the store, Steele encountered the woman.

“Your husband makes me nervous driving like that,” he told her.

“Well, why are you walking through the parking lot?” she responded.

“'Cause that's what you do,” Steele said. “Is there something wrong with that?”

She asked Steele if he was panhandling. She used the phrase “bumming.”

“I asked her, 'If I were, would that be a problem?' She said nothing,” Steele wrote in his post.

* * *

Megan Hustings, interim director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, says that the national context for these issues is not simply a matter of housing and wage policy, though she argues strongly that our current situation is driven by four decades of scaling back support for the poor and increasing economic inequality.

For her, the problem is also the us-versus-them divisions that make scapegoats of people in their most vulnerable moments.

“Within our organization, one of our key program areas is public education as we try to break down those stereotypes and try to break down those barriers [between people with secure housing and people who are housing insecure],” she said.

“There's still quite a number of folks who've always been housed, and they've never experienced homelessness, and they either are not aware, or they don't have any friends or family members who have been homeless,” Hustings continued. “So they've heard a lot of myths, a lot of stereotypes about homelessness that are easy to grab onto. It boils down to a lot of 'us and them' language.”

“In the last few years, we've seen some steps forward in terms of racial and gender equality, there is more discussion about it. But there's not the same kind of movement or discussion about economic equality,” Hustings said.

“To put it into perspective, another one of the things that we've worked on for a long time is hate crimes against people who are homeless,” Hustings said. “For over 20 years, we have been tracking violent attacks on the homeless folks for no apparent reason other than them being available because of their housing status.”

Since 1999, when the National Coalition for the Homeless started tracking the numbers, the organization has tracked more than 1,700 acts of violence against people without housing, including 476 fatalities.

Hustings talked about the ways in which people who are homeless are dehumanized and seen as “the other” in a world where most people have stable homes.

“If we don't have the political will to end homelessness, or if we're not investing in housing, basic human needs, and human services, then we start to resent homeless people, or they make us feel scared, or feel uncomfortable,” Hustings said.

“And so we start this process of criminalization, like cities banning panhandling or banning camping in public spaces,” Hustings said.

Or, she added, “like law enforcement in various cities harassing folks, telling them that they can't be there, or the constant pressuring of folks who have nowhere else to go and who are forced to live their daily lives in public.”

Hustings said that it all comes back to the question of the political will, and that when people take the attitude of “we don't like you, you don't belong here, we're asking for these rules so that we don't have to see you,” homeless individuals are dehumanized.

Once people perceive people on the street as less than human, they can give themselves permission to “feel some aggression” and “take it out on them,” she said. And with marginalized populations, “no one's really going to care.”

“It's the same kind of psychology behind any kind of hate crime,” she said.

* * *

With groceries in hand, Josh Steele walked back through the parking lot, stopping to take some photos of the man who tried to run him over in the vehicle that almost hit him. In the photo, the man glares at Steele through his windshield with contempt.

On the way out, Steele approached a person at the four-way intersection of Canal Street, Fairground Road, and the plaza entrance. He gave the man $5.

“I told him the story, and reminded him what he is doing is not wrong, [that] he is a valued member of this community, and I appreciate him for being there,” Steele wrote.

“He reassured me that he was not spending the money on drugs. He wants to do his laundry and clean up 'cause he has a job interview on Wednesday, and I believe him.

“I now have a direct experience of what it's like to be disenfranchised in my own town,” Steele wrote. “I feel horrible.”

“People, we can and have to do better than this.”

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