My thoughts on the Homeless in America

Six months ago I went out to eat with a friend in the Gaslamp District in San Diego. I’d been here for a year so we were celebrating with some wine and a nice dinner.

We were sitting at a table outside people watching as we waited for our food. A few minutes later, a homeless black man appeared outside the restaurant wearing a jester hat, shorts and no shoes. He pulled a large trolley behind him, and started dancing with it, weaving unsteadily on his feet. This was sad enough to witness, but what happened next made me so furious it ruined the night for me.

A white guy with his bald spot, loud mouth and pot belly walked past with his friends. He shall be referred to as the fat white guy.

As the fat white guy passed the homeless guy he turned so he was walking backwards and pointed (actually pointed!) at him. “Man am I glad I went to college,” he announced, laughing uproariously.

This is when I nearly got up and punched him in the face.

You shouldn’t be glad you went to college, I wanted to say. You should be glad you had the bloody opportunity to go to college you smug, self-righteous prick.

That poor guy is a victim of his circumstances and call me naiive, but I think if you’re not going to help the guy out then the least you can do is walk past without opening your big fat mouth.

Who are you to judge another human being? As if being high and homeless was the life he envisioned for himself when he was a kid.

How dare you-with your upper-middle class American upbringing, and ignorant, sheltered lifestyle, judge a man who even high and homeless is twice the man you are. In this situation the homeless guy has my sympathy. But you? You have my pity.


Homeless in America
This guy just wants a job


Don’t get me wrong, I know there are some “homeless people” who are just running a big scam. On my last night out in Chicago I was standing outside of a bar giving some money to a homeless man when the police pulled up. “Don’t give him any money” one of them said to me. I frowned and told him that was a typical American attitude, and the cop rolled his eyes and pointed to an apartment down the street. “See that place?” he laughed, “this guy lives there with his mother.”

So yeah I understand why a lot of people over here are pretty cynical. When I first got here I was going broke giving money to all the homeless people. My host dad on the other hand, tells the kids that these guys are called bums and if they don’t do well in school they’ll end up like them.

My attitude towards the homeless has definitely changed since I first arrived here. In New Zealand you make a choice to live on the street. One of the reasons I’ll never live in New Zealand again is because I so resent being taxed so much for people who choose not to work, and I’m sick of dole bludgers sitting on the couch watching daytime TV while I’m working my butt off. So I do believe people should have to work for a living if they’re capable of it.

But over here 25% of people on the streets are mentally ill, a high percentage of homeless teens are gay and have been thrown out of home, and an estimated 20% are Vietnam veterans who have served their country and now live on the streets. But the most heartbreaking to me is that around 25% of those going without shelter every night are children.


It’s a complicated subject, and of course I’m aware that there are many countries around the world which have much more poverty and homelessness, but it’s hard for me to understand how a country as wealthy as America (one that continues to spend so many billions of dollars on war) can have such a huge homeless population. One thing I’ve noticed in America is the belief that homeless people are to blame for their own situation, and it could never happen to them. I may be a bleeding-heart liberal, but I struggle to accept the indifference shown to the homeless, when most Americans are only a couple of paychecks from ending up on the streets themselves.


These are just my observations after living here for a relatively short time, and who am I to throw stones? Having not grown up here, I can’t understand why the attitude of “they brought it on themselves” seems so prevalent, and of course there are many Americans who actually do care about others less fortunate, and are doing great things to help them. Living in the area that I do, and being surrounded by people who will never have to worry about where their next paycheck is coming from obviously gives me a one-sided view of the average American.

So have I got it wrong? Has grown up in a welfare country like New Zealand made me soft? Am I only now taking off my rose-tinted glasses and seeing the world for the way it is?






8 comments on “My thoughts on the Homeless in America

  1. Scott - QuirkyTravel May 27, 2012 @ 4:05 pm

    This is an interesting perspective. I'm a bleeding heart liberal but I never give to the homeless, for some of the reasons you mentioned. Here in Chicago, some do fake being homeless, and there are lots of shelters and food kitchens they can go to – no one in this city will die of starvation. Also, some homeless people use money not for food but for other substances, so giving them money may be unwittingly feeding their self-destruction. It's sad, but after a while you do have to get cynical about it. For those who want to help, the best solution I've come up with is to donate to reputable charities that feed and clothe the homeless (or volunteer your time there); that way, I know I'm not being taken advantage of and my money is definitely helping people who need it.

    • onetravelsfar May 29, 2012 @ 10:04 am

      Thanks Scott :)
      You're right about people using the money for drugs etc, and it makes it harder for those who genuinely need help.I think it's always a better idea to give them food instead, but you can tell who wants the money to spend on alcohol or drugs because they're not very appreciative when you hand them a sandwhich.

      There are some great charities over here, and you're right about it being a better idea to donate to them. At least then you know you're helping people who actually want the help.

      I just feel so bad walking past people who ask me for money! I feel like a heartless human being lol. The worst is in places like LA where they all seem to have pets with them. I know sometimes I'm being played but I can't help hoping it'll at least put food in their dogs mouth.

  2. Kate Convissor June 4, 2012 @ 10:15 am

    I grew up in Detroit and lived in the inner city for 8 years in the 1970s (yeah, I'm that old). I spent last winter in New York City and faced the same inner struggle about how to respond to the poverty and desperation I saw. I tried various approaches, from ignoring people to giving them money to buying food for them. I agree with Scott-don't give money. It never felt good to do that.

    I described my struggle in this blog post:

    Amy, a longtime New Yorker, responded with the most compasisonate and wise approach to the poor that I've encountered recently, so be sure to read the first comment.

    Also, remember that the US is huge and diverse, unlike New Zealand. Social problems, as you say, are just more complicated.

    Interesting post. thanks for your insights. It's really interesting to read an outsider's perspective.

    • onetravelsfar June 4, 2012 @ 10:51 am

      Thanks for the comment Kate.

      It's a tricky situation, and I think a lot of travelers especially from Australia and New Zealand are a bit shocked when we first get here and see so many people having such a hard time. There's a feeling of hopelessness when you want to help these people out but ultimately know you can't do that much good.

      New Zealand is very insulated, and we're also a relatively young country with a tiny population-especially compared to the US. There's obviously a ton of politics and stuff behind the homeless problem that I have no idea about, and I'm not going to understand it after living here for only a couple of years.

      I'll definitely have a look at that post. Thanks for visiting :)

  3. crazy sexy fun traveler October 6, 2012 @ 8:11 am

    I do give money to some homeless people, but not very often. I even heard stories of some ”homeless” having huge villas and a lot of money with no work, jub begging :/
    crazy sexy fun traveler recently posted..TBU or TBEX? Travel Blogging Conferences

    • Stacey October 8, 2012 @ 6:15 pm

      That’s the thing-it’s hard to know who’s scamming you and who genuinely needs a hand.

  4. Knivesron November 12, 2013 @ 7:15 pm

    Very well written perspective. I Think there’s another side to this talk, Its that of choice. I think there may be some homeless out there that just enjoy the life style. In country’s like the USA there’s huge amount of money to be made from begging, its sort of a job in it self. So saying that, there would not be any amount of money that would stop them being homeless. Infact the less money given the less homeless.

    Homeless in itself is also a rather interesting concept. The streets could be considerd a home, one you don’t pay taxes for and have no emotional connection too. Many ancient human cultures (Nomads) had this same concept, they took there emotional values with them. As far as humans go back living in a “house” is a rather modern concept.

    Mental illness i think is a major reason most of the homeless are living the way they are. But i do think that is the same case in New Zealand.Its just Amplified alot more in the USA because of the large population.

    • Stacey December 15, 2013 @ 9:01 pm

      I agree with what you say, and sometimes it is definitely a choice. After traveling through Southeast Asia I’ve definitely revised my opinion about the homeless in America. It’s a huge problem but they do have access to services that the poor in developing countries can only dream of.

      I do know that a lot of the homeless are vets suffering from PTSD and I can only hope that the United States is providing much more psychological support for the armed forces now.

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