Home / abject wankery / What’s disgusting about homelessness – Ooo, that smell update

What’s disgusting about homelessness – Ooo, that smell update

A biweekly paper written by people who are or have been homeless

As one might imagine, D.C. has a large population of people who are homeless. There are many who live right in the heart of this nation – where the monuments and museums and Big Gubbermint buildings are scattered between the Capitol and the river – but they live in the suburbs as well. Any clump of trees and undergrowth that is dense enough to conceal a tent and close to a public transportation route probably contains an encampment.

What I find disgusting about this is that people – many of them suffering from at least one untreated illnesses – have to live outdoors because paying to house and care for them is seen by many other people as a waste of money. People who also bitch and moan about homeless people.

But according to Mr. Drum, my disgust is pointed in the wrong direction, and this means I’m crazy.

A pair of researchers conducted a survey on homelessness and claim to have been surprised at the results:

We uncovered a strange pattern. On one hand, majorities support both aid (60 percent) and subsidized housing (65 percent), with only a small percentage opposing these policies — by 19 and 17 percent, respectively. On the other, a majority supports banning panhandling (52 percent) and a plurality supports banning sleeping in public (46 percent) — while only about a quarter of the public opposes these policies, by 23 and 30 percent, respectively.

This does not seem strange to me at all. Most people don’t like being accosted by panhandlers and don’t like their park benches being taken over by potentially dangerous vagrants.

I never liked being accosted by shitheads who seem to think their purpose in life is to shout at passing women. Especially the shitheads who become abusive when they are ignored or given a very polite center digit salute. And a look at crime statistics indicates men are potentially dangerous. However, I would never suggest men ought to be barred from walking around in public.

As for the park benches, I disagree with the assertion that they are the exclusive property of those who aren’t homeless. It’s also worth noting that Drum provides stats about mental illness and substance abuse rates for the homeless, but the statistic to back up his claim that they are potentially dangerous never appears. However, I do realize he is attempting to rationalize the irrational and that means taking as many logical fallacies as possible out for a spin.

The researchers solved their conundrum by suggesting that most people are disgusted by the homeless. No kidding. About half the homeless suffer from a mental illness and a third abuse either alcohol or drugs. You’d be crazy not to have a reflexive disgust of a population like that.

You have to be crazy, ad hominizes the man who seems to be on the verge of leaping around shouting Outcast unclean!

But so be it. If my refusal to assume all homeless people are dangerous and suffer from untreated illnesses, or to be disgusted by them for being sick means I’m crazy, then to hell with Kevin Drum.

None of this means we can’t or shouldn’t have empathy for the homeless. Of course we should, if we want to call ourselves decent human beings.

A couple of problems: First, it is impossible to see people as a clot of stereotypes and have empathy for them. That would be like trying to have empathy for a man’s shadow or his fun house mirror reflection.

Second, decent human beings aren’t disgusted by people who are extremely vulnerable.

Even if one claims a learned hostility towards people who are unfortunate and powerless, is really natural and uncontrollable.

In fact, overcoming reflexive feelings is what makes us decent human beings in the first place. There’s just no need to deny that these reflexes are both innate and perfectly understandable.


Update: People keep bringing up the way some homeless people smell as a defense of Drum and/or being disgusted by the homeless. A few thoughts.

First, Drum never mentions smell as a cause of disgust. He mentions mental illness/substance abuse, panhandling and calls homeless people potentially dangerous vagrants. I think if one feels he is worth defending, it would help to stick to the points he makes.

Second, trying to bundle reaction to an odor into a reaction to an entire group of people is at best, incredibly dishonest. Here’s a little story to help illustrate why this is so:

Every day when I take the train home, there are always a few passengers who have gone to the gym after work. Normally, they smell bad. When the train car is warm, they fucking reek. The smell of post-Zoomba armpit, foot and groin is disgusting. But I would not say people who exercise after work are disgusting. That would be ridiculous.

Third, what’s really disgusting is some people can’t bathe regularly because they don’t have homes.

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