Los Angeles is the newest addition to a growing and long list of American cities to ban groups from publicly sharing food with people who are poor.
Make that the newest addition to a growing and long list of American cities embarrassed by the existence of poverty and hunger.
Our qualm with a ban on publicly sharing food is Los Angeles would be obvious. What angry residents and businesses should be asking themselves is how their neighbor became hungry in the first place, not how they can best ignore someone who needs help.
That issue aside, this New York Times piece is an example of the standard lexicon that our society has built around people experiencing homelessness. Every single media piece we have read or watched about Biscuitgate uses the terms “the homeless,” “feeding site,” “feeding,” “feeding the homeless,” or some variant thereof. That lexicon, which obliterates any humanity and agency, is a direct result of othering. We see people experiencing homelessness as aliens, as objects, or as second class citizens who don’t deserve the same verbs that we do.
Hugh explains exactly how we use language to actively other, and push to the margins, people experiencing homelessness.
Well, we can start by not talking about “the homeless”. To me, “homeless” as a class descriptor is an othering term. It presupposes the idea of the other, that somehow, the person who is homeless is different from you.
For example, if I asked you for advice on how to talk to “the blacks,” you would be aghast. You would (hopefully) patiently sit me down and explain to me that you talk to black people the same way you talk to white people – that we are the same sort of people.
The reason we talk about “the homeless” as if they are a different sort of creature than we are and we treat them as if they are a different sort of creature than we are is because, well, we believe they are a different sort of creature than we are.
We say that we “feed” our pets and “feed” babies because we have power over them. We like to think that we can control the outcomes of their behavior. We decide what they eat, where they go, and what they wear. The things we “feed” have no agency– they make no decisions for themselves. “Feeding” a person experiencing homelessness communicates that the person has no agency, when in fact where a person lives, with or without a home, does not determine their ability to make decisions.
Instead we share food. You have breakfast. You make lunch. Because that’s what you do with friends. With equals.
But the media is not a scapegoat here. Governments, nonprofits, businesses, churches, and individuals are other groups that employ the terminology of “feeding” and “the homeless.” We need to teach each other that people living without a home are whole people with agency who are so much more than their housing status.
Let’s stop pretending that they have the same place in this world as aliens and puppies.
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