Attacked and abused: Why do we dehumanise homeless people?

Do we treat homeless people differently? Photograph from the front cover of the Crisis report ‘I was all on my own’
Do we treat homeless people differently? Photograph from the front cover of the Crisis report ‘I was all on my own’

While working on a study for Crisis, Richard Bryan interviewed many homeless people about their experiences. It left him asking some big questions

At what point does one person stop regarding another as a human being? When do people feel able to abuse others, apparently in the belief that they are without worth or have feelings of their own?

Because it happens – and not just in some dystopian novel, but here in Britain, week in, week out.

As part of Qa’s research for Crisis, we had conversations with homeless people of all ages and from many different backgrounds. They had very different stories to tell, but common themes kept emerging.

One was of their feelings of loneliness. As Crisis revealed in their report published in December 2015, one in four homeless people were spending Christmas alone. They are among the most isolated people in our society.

What also came through time and again was the extent to which they had been dehumanised by their experiences.

Our interviewees told us horrific stories of being abused by the general public – some were regularly spat on, urinated on, kicked and verbally attacked.

“Well you get pissed on, you get abused, ‘get up or I’m gonna piss on you you tramp’…they judge you…nearly every day…especially round rush hour…it’s really horrible”

– Jim, one of our interviewees, Crisis report

Rushing to judgement

Why are people driven to treat others that way?

One answer must be the way we regard those who are living on the streets. There is a widespread perception that they have somehow brought this nightmare on themselves, through laziness or some other supposed flaws in their character.

In this way, they are ‘deserving’ of society’s contempt and even mistreatment. The people we talked to felt they were being judged like this every day, and it left them ashamed and withdrawing further from the world.

And yet, another message that came through loud and clear was this: it could happen to any of us.

The line between being one of the lucky ones with a job, a family and a roof over our heads, and being homeless, destitute and desperate is narrow. Staying on the right side of this line is largely down to good fortune.

Vicious circle

Negative attitudes to homeless people are reinforced by the way they look and behave. But this, too, is dictated by circumstance. How do you keep clean and smart when you have no regular access to a bathroom or washing machine?

There is also a ready association between homeless people, drink and drugs. But from our conversations, it became clear that many of those now on the streets had no problem with either – until they were made homeless.

Then, living with no basic comforts, cold, alone, and with hours of deadly boredom to kill before finding a doorway to sleep in, or a hostel if they were lucky, they sought an escape from this utter misery through alcohol or drugs. When reality is too harsh to bear, oblivion is sometimes the preferable option.

The wider picture

One of the Crisis graphics hitting the message home
One of the Crisis graphics hitting the message home

Dehumanisation doesn’t only happen to homeless people, of course. We can see it in other arenas, often when there is a perceived threat to our own comfortable society – see the more extreme attitudes to refugees, for instance.

So how do we confront it, and help to change perceptions?

There isn’t an easy answer. But we can begin by listening to those who have been dehumanised.

Our interviews with homeless people gave them a rare opportunity to tell their stories, and explain how they had been affected. At the end, many said that they felt better for having done so.

Once you start a conversation with someone, and hear their experiences, hopes and fears, it is impossible to think of them as anything other than a fellow human being.