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Homelessness: An Empathy Gap – An Opportunity to Collectively Do Better!


Author:  Dr. Matthew Wong, a Clinical Psychologist in South Lake Tahoe, CA. “Dr. Matt specializes in therapy, assessment, and consultation. He helps children, adolescents, adults and families” 


Sometimes there are topics in our lives and in our community that feel so big and difficult to solve that we throw our hands up because they feel hopeless to change. Hopelessness is an interesting topic to us mental health folks. This feeling is usually a reflection of how other people feel both about these situations and within them. As South Lake resident, I hear the coffee-shop conversations about the homelessness “problem.” Often the conversations reflect the hopelessness that many of us feel to some extent. I ride my bike behind Motel 6, I see the effects of homelessness first hand, and I know I’ve felt hopeless myself. Sometimes in the face of hopelessness we get angry, we blame, and we chastise because we don’t know what else to do. Sometimes we go even a step further and we dehumanize through name-calling and even fear-mongering. We use terms like “bum” or “drunk” or worse still to draw a dividing line between “them” and “us”. I work hard and I am able to have stable housing so naturally it would be easy for me to assume that the equation is just this simple. If I didn’t have stable housing it must be because I didn’t work hard enough or I simply made poor choices.

What we forget is that the choices that feel easy for some of us to make are actually incredibly difficult for others to make. We forget this because we don’t see the hidden battles that others face and rationalizing is a shortcut that leads to nowhere on this problem.

But let’s say we continue to rationalize in this way. What does that get us? How does this help us fix a clear problem in our community? Is someone supposed to accept their title of “bum” and therefore pick themselves up in the way we expect them to? More likely, this expectation makes things worse and frustrates us all. We are social creatures and we flourish when we feel accepted within a community and only then can we begin to accomplish difficult tasks. When we are cast aside, we feel pain and we get stuck. These diving words are painful for all involved and I think we can do better.

I’d like to propose that we begin to solve the problem of homelessness by recognizing that we have an empathy gap in our town. This idea of a gap is especially interesting to me since we live in a town that delights in seeing gaps as opportunities for creativity. The Bijou bike park has some gaps that honestly scare me, but yet there are some talented folks on bikes who dazzle with their acrobatics. Sierra and Heavenly have whole teams dedicated to building gaps to see allow the creativity of their guests to flourish. We can do the same with homelessness but we must shift the conversation from blame to one rooted in a desire for understanding.

I’d propose we look at homelessness as a gap in our understanding of what problems people actually face in their lives. There are so many reasons other than willfulness for a person to become homeless so let’s listen to the stories collectively and as a caring community. Instead of blaming, let’s practice remembering that most folks who are homeless would probably prefer not to be homeless. Let’s focus our discussion creatively and without resorting to name-calling. Let’s remember that there are no levels to suffering – it is only a yes or no question. Let’s see people who are homeless as suffering community members who need our help. Let’s remind each other that we can do better in addressing this gap through our collective efforts. Let’s try a different approach because who wouldn’t like to see this problem solved? Stay positive about this gap, and we might just to the other side.

Dr. Matt

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