Opinion | Homeless men aren’t the threat many people think they are

By Sofia Uriagereka-Herburger, Staff Columnist

While working a food service job, a lecture on the dangers of feeding the homeless is almost as common as being paid poor wages. 

While each job adds its own spin on the issue, the underlying message is identically apathetic — don’t give “those people” anything or they’ll keep coming back. Don’t give them anything or else something terrible will happen. 

The permanence of this argument in most workplaces is incredible, given how quickly it falls apart once you realize that it relies on an image of homeless men as potential thieves, murderers or rapists. While the constant fear of assault and murder is a depressing aspect of daily life for everyone made vulnerable by patriarchal dynamics, this wariness reveals confusion in how gendered violence really plays out. Namely, that people believe homeless men are likely to be perpetrators of it, despite evidence to the contrary.

I’d like to believe that most of the condescending lectures are motivated by concern for my safety as a young woman. That doesn’t make the portrayal of homeless men as sexual predators any more accurate or acceptable. 

The truth is that 93% of young sexual assult victims personally knew their attacker. Data from the Violence Policy Center in 2019 also reveals that 91% of women killed by men were murdered by someone they know, such as intimate partners. Additionally, the fact that domestic violence rates sharply increased during the pandemic makes one thing evident — women are not safe, ever. Not even in their homes with men who are supposed to love them. 

The concept of “the male aggressor” as a homeless man lurking in the dark waiting to attack young women is misleading. It shifts the blame onto drug addiction and mental illness instead of “normal” men who exploit and abuse the women they interact with. This isolates victims who suffer at the hands of men they know, and casts doubt on their testimonies because they don’t fit into a comfortable image of gendered violence — one that is rootless, and unpredictable, with a convenient perpetrator. 

This concept is also rooted in and sustained by racism. Black men are disproportaionately portrayed as sexual predators in order to justify their mass prosecution and abuse at the hands of the police and the legal system. This might seem like it has nothing to do with the ongoing homelessness crisis, but it is crucial to remember that African-Americans make up 13% of the total population, but 40% of those experiencing homelessness. 

Why then must we, as employees or as young women, be treated as if we are naive or irresponsible when we express any modicum of empathy to homeless men, particularly homeless men of color? Why are we never given similar warnings about our boyfriends, our husbands, our fathers, our friends, our coworkers, our teachers or any of the “acceptable” men with much greater potential for violence?

Today, publicly callous opinions on the homeless are not as frequent as they once were. Most people would object to outright brutality if they witnessed it or disapprove of anti-homeless architecture if asked. The apathy toward the homeless is subtler, more careful. It’s less about insinuating that money given to them will go to drugs, and more about completely ignoring them all together. Often, people will turn away a homeless person because they find their behavior erratic and suspicious, despite feeling “terrible” about it. People don’t think of it as their job to help, perhaps believing that acknowledging the economic hardship homeless people face is solidarity enough. 

By now it is a given that homelessness in the U.S. is a direct result of the disastrous, hostile economy we are forced to live under. A variety of factors come into play here — overwhelmed shelters, LGBTQ+ children facing prejudice at home, medical debt and the housing crisis, to name a few. We know that homeless people cannot be held responsible for their living conditions. Knowing that is not enough. Waiting for the state to supply adequate aid or a change in material conditions is not enough. 

It’s crucial to accept that while the government should be providing everyone with housing and access to medical care, they aren’t going to anytime soon, and they won’t feel guilty when you also refuse to help people. The state doesn’t notice you avoiding eye contact with people on the street who need help. The only people who notice are those that are hungry and cold and waiting for help that rarely comes. Obviously, because the blame for this crisis rests solidly on the shoulders of the ruling class, it’s not your job or your responsibility to help, but it is your opportunity. 

The 2023 Federal budget allocated $8.7 billion in aid for the homeless — a 10% increase from 2022. While this seems like a step forward, it’s worth noting this is only a proposed allocation, and that waiting for the state’s aid to materialize leaves approximately 21 homeless people to die from preventable causes every day. 

Every privileged American has a responsibility to push for structural change, but we also have a responsibility to respond to immediate requests for help. I have not yet heard a good enough excuse for turning someone away from a restaurant, or for calling the police on someone sleeping on a bench, or for refusing to look someone in the eye when ignoring a plea for money. It is bewildering to be reprimanded at work for offering food to hungry people, because “they might come back” as if that is a bad thing, and not just a tiny, pathetic attempt at solidarity with people left for dead. 

I can only hope that the majority of people who ignore this problem are doing so to avoid a sense of impotence at their inability to do more. 

But there are things that can be done, and need to be done every day. Most urgently — don’t call the cops. Then, give people what you can, and give them what they ask for. Offer to buy them something yourself if you don’t carry cash. Close your eyes if you see them stealing and it bothers you. Treat homeless people like the human beings that they are, and not obstructions or aggressors. 

I understand that it might be hard to not let discomfort over erratic behavior take precedence. But consider what you would do if people consistently ignored you, expected you to be violent, if you had nowhere to sleep, nothing to eat for days, one set of clothes, a constant threat of police, sexual violence and theft, no place to shower or use the bathroom, no hygienic items, or water, no privacy, no safety and no peace, ever. How calm and gracious would you be then?

Refusing to aid people who need immediate help does not send a message to the state. All it does is add to the incalculable death toll, the daily ignominy, and the intense individualism that pushes privileged people further and further away from the potential for community. 


Sofia Uriagereka writes about politics and international and domestic social movements. Write to her at [email protected].