What Our Reaction to Poverty Says About Us

NEW YORK, NY - JULY 24:  A client of the  West Side Campaign Against Hunger food pantry fills up a box with food on July 24,
NEW YORK, NY - JULY 24: A client of the West Side Campaign Against Hunger food pantry fills up a box with food on July 24, 2013 in New York City. The food pantry assists thousands of qualifying New York residents in providing a monthly allotment of food. In an anticipated speech today in Illinois, President Obama tried to re-focus the nations attention back onto the economy and the growing inequality between the rich and the rest of America. As of May 2013 the unemployment rate in America was stuck at 7.6% with many more Americans having given up on looking for work. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

The biggest observations about how people react to poverty came from watching how my relatives behaved once I told them I have been homeless for several years. Once I learned to expect other people's assumptions and judgmental attitudes, I began to see that this is a common reaction to poverty that comes from living in a society that attaches its worth to ideas of wealth.

Why should talking about poverty make people uncomfortable when it's a growing reality in this country? This is even reflected in our government! I thank Nancy Pelosi for saying the word "poverty" several times in her floor speech on the house GOP Farm Bill.

Poverty in this country is not accidental, it's a direct result of funneling wealth upwards to the elite and no one feels that pinch more than the people directly affected by bad policies. It's also policy to under report the true numbers of people living in poverty and the reason behind those policies is politics. Even more exasperating is not knowing when help is going to arrive because some groups get priority status over others, which leads to a lot of frustration due to programs having policy goals to meet.

From my own personal experience with homelessness, I have seen everything from apathy to compassion not just from relatives but from schools, health care professionals, service providers, city officials, church leaders, acquaintances and people I've known since childhood. I have watched people shirk and smirk away from homeless youth begging for money to buy food. I have watched homeless vets kicked out of local libraries because they made the mistake of falling asleep in public. I have seen police officers sweep through parks to remove homeless people from sight because the city couldn't have obvious poverty in sight during tourist season. I have watched my girls suffer heartbreak every time a friendship disappeared once a friend's parent discovered we were homeless, as if associating with us might infect them with poverty. Peer pressure and bullying are very tangible realities for kids and for homeless kids, the stigma of their situation can lead to tragic outcomes if they don't get the support they need when they need it.

Sometimes well-meaning folks say or do things without realizing how callous their behavior is to folks living in real-time homelessness but the solution to that is actively listening to a person's needs rather than assuming you already know what they need or what's best for them. One of the best examples I've seen of giving folks the specific help they need when they need it is through Homeless In Seattle started by a man I'm proud to call my friend, Rex Hohlbein!

The last thing needed by people living on the edge is other people's vitriol. Having an educated opinion goes a long way in building an accurate understanding of today's poverty. The only way we're going to change poverty is to change our attitudes about poverty. What does yours say?