Stereotype #1: Homeless People are Lazy
Laziness is defined as unwilling to work or use energy. It’s a word that is used to describe Netflix-binge-watching millennials, mindless scrollers of Instagram and Facebook, or people who sit on sidewalks with no job. These are people described as not having enough willpower to resist temptations in order to reach their goals.
While there is some truth to these stereotypes, they point only to a group as a whole and never to the individual. The Netflix millennial or mindless scroller may have had a long day at work and are relaxing with a good movie or catching up on photos of their family. That may not be laziness or a lack of willpower.
When we think about these individual actions, none of us want to be reduced to just this point in our lives. We see the stories behind our ways of coping and know we are much more complex than that.
Many Layers to Homelessness
There are many layers to homelessness, and yes, for some it is a choice. But for most, living day to day without safety, a job or sobriety is often the last thing someone would choose for themselves.
One of the main similarities amongst the homeless, for example, is exposure to trauma. This could be childhood trauma or something that happened later in life, but it is trauma nonetheless. And that effects the way people see the world and respond to it.
Like all of us, people experiencing homelessness not only have to trudge through their own personal obstacles, they also have to navigate through the obstacles outside themselves, like discrimination, or high rent prices making it hard to find housing, even with a job. These outside obstacles can be difficult for even the average person to navigate, but for those who are already struggling, they can seem insurmountable. Especially when trying to navigate these systems all on their own.
So, like us, their stories go deeper than laziness or lack of willpower.
The Truth about Willpower
We all struggle in some way to get to where we want to be in life. And rarely does the “pull yourself up from your bootstraps” mentality change that. Experience tells us that, and so does the research.
“Willpower is not actually the best way to achieve our goals and to change our behavior,” said Wendy Wood, Professor of Psychology and Business at University of Southern California. “People are most likely to repeat actions that are easy for them and actions that are fun. So, if you really don't like going to the gym, then you're not going to do it very often. And you need to figure out something to do to make it more fun. Making it easy is also critical.”
Psychology Today expands on this when it states that using your willpower to resist temptation is draining, facing temptation is draining, and “being mentally drained from experiencing temptations correlates directly with making less progress.”
Simplifying the cause of homelessness to a lack of willpower, laziness or poor choices is therefore deeply incorrect, and far too simplistic. What the research shows when it comes to reaching for a goal, the best way to go about that is reducing the friction between where we are and where we want to be. And for many of our homeless friends, this friction is high.
Our Friend Walter
“Getting somewhere outside your comfort zone for help, you feel uncomfortable because you’re around different types of people, plus you’ve got other things on your mind like where you’re going to sleep," Walter, one of our homeless friends, shared. "People look at you differently and treat you differently, and it makes you feel kind of low.”
Having to face possible criticism or people who may not be able to see past differences would be difficult for any of us to deal with. And for our homeless friends, this is one of the many barriers they experience when seeking to get the help they need or the job they need.
It can be dangerous, discouraging and bring a lot of shame for them to step out and ask for help. It's something that takes guts, hope and friendship to do. And it's something we want to help our friends on the street walk through in a way that makes them feel safe and empowered.
If mustering up our willpower isn’t the answer to getting to where we want to be, there’s another way. For us, that’s relationship. Relationship with Jesus and with others. As messy as relationships can be, the healthy ones can help make the space between where are and where we want to be a little smaller. Because we need each other and are not meant to do this life alone.