Earlier today on Twitter I saw someone talking about how a panhandler’s possession of a cell phone informed their decision not to give any money to them. This person has since blocked me for pointing out the shittiness of that sentiment, so I won’t go into detail on them (and it’s the message we’re debating, not the messenger), but the issue at hand is an important one.
If someone is homeless and if we assume that it’s because they’re jobless (which is only true in about 55% of homeless, thanks American poverty wages!), how exactly are they supposed to obtain a job without a cell phone? We think of cell phones as luxuries because most of us use them to check Twitter and play games, but we ignore their fundamental usefulness in our every day life. And if your criteria is simply “thing that makes calls” you can get a cheap phone and prepaid minutes for about $20. There are probably a lot of programs that allow you to get one for free.
Even a more expensive smart phone has its uses in an era where e-mail is common, where employers increasingly use online applications, and where there are numerous places online to peruse a variety of jobs. We like to think that a homeless person can simply make use of a public facility like a library for these things, but how much of an advantage is it to have a smart phone and be able to reply to and peruse job listings at any time? Probably a substantial one.
I later found that it wasn’t just the cell phone, it was the panhandler’s “designer jeans” and “manic panic pink hair.” There are plenty of places you can get nice clothes for little to no cost like thrift stores or increasingly common Buy Nothing communities where members gift things to one another. And at-home hair dye is like $10 in most cases so we’re not exactly talking luxurious expenses here.
There are a few points that I think are more important than that though, the first of which being that we have no idea why this particular individual is panhandling or homeless and how long they have been so. As the link above shows, many homeless are only so for a short period of time, and as many as 40% of homeless youth are LGBT and while I’m stereotyping here my first thought on “pink hair” is ‘holy shit this kid was just kicked out of the house for being gay.’
We don’t know that of course, and there are a lot of different ways to stereotype the disadvantaged but we always default to the ones that elevate ourselves as “better than them” because we didn’t waste our money on nice jeans or hair dye or whatever. Which is ridiculous; how is this person supposed to obtain employment without looking nice? Are they supposed to look destitute enough to validate our stereotypes and then magically clean up in their nonexistent shower for interviews?
We have this notion that if a destitute person doesn’t look sufficiently miserable then they’re undeserving of our sympathy because they’re gaming us while somehow ignoring the fact that literally every person on the planet would try to keep as many luxuries as possible if they were in a similar situation.
The problem overall is that we largely view poverty as a series of poor individual choices instead of a product of the semi-capitalist system we have built in the U.S. that allows the privileged to step on the less privileged with little to no consequence. With strong hiring biases existent against several marginalized groups including but not limited to; the unemployed (ironic), people of color, LGBTQ individuals, transgender individuals and protection for only a few of groups once they’re hired it’s very easy to find yourself in a bad situation through no fault of your own.
The average homeless person looks a lot less like someone whose drug use cost them everything and a lot more like someone who found themselves with no options because they’re gay or black or transgender or because their company’s executives wanted to marginally increase their profits at the expense of a few fired workers.