When Dealing With the Homeless, Attitude Is Everything

Adjusting our perceptions of the homeless and other at-risk individuals just might improve our interactions with them.

Nearly every day I take a walk around my neighborhood, and I always take the same route. Without fail, I pass this really ugly wooden fence. You know the kind: its paint is chipped and the fence has several boards missing. Although most of my route is quite scenic, this one particular spot is the blight of the entire neighborhood… Or at least, that’s what I thought it was until recently.

Just a few days ago, for no apparent reason, I decided to walk the opposite way on the same street. As I approached the ugly fence, I noticed the other side of it was overflowing with beautiful, fragrant Jasmine. To top it all off, the flowers were adjacent to an adorable cottage that I had never noticed before. Had I not changed my approach to and my perspective of the fence, I would have missed all of this beautiful scenery.

I compare my perspective of the ugly wooden fence to our society’s perspective of the homeless and other at-risk individuals. If we changed our perspective of them, might our interactions with them be more positive?

Instead of considering homeless students to be a problem we have to solve, could we focus on the assets they have to offer? This is what Lincoln Public Schools Homeless Outreach Specialist Christopher Webster suggested when I interviewed him for “How to Help Homeless Students.”

When I interviewed Campus Safety magazine editorial board member and former Obici Hospital Security Director Linda Glasson for my upcoming article on managing the homeless in hospitals, she offered another interesting idea to consider. Could it be that hospital security professionals who anticipate that their dealings with homeless patients will go poorly are actually creating a self-fulfilling prophesy?

This suggestion rings true for me, especially since I’ve had my fair share of self-fulfilling prophesies. For example, when I bought a new car a few years back, this weird paranoia came over me that someone was going to crash into me, even though I had never before (or since) been in a serious car accident or even a close call. As I was driving home from the dealership, however, I almost got into three separate car wrecks.

I suspect all of the tension I was feeling at the thought of getting into a crash led me to drive unsafely, which put me, my car and other drivers in peril.

Could the stress from our fears of the homeless be putting them and ourselves in danger as well?  I suspect that even if we are doing all the right things on the outside but our attitudes stink on the inside, these individuals will sense our fear—and in some cases hostility—and be more apt to act out.

This is not to say that we should all just sit around in a circle, sing “Kumbaya” and not be prepared for the possibility of violence. There are times when at-risk individuals need to be restrained or experience the consequences of their unacceptable behavior.

Still, I think we would be wise to heed Webster’s and Glasson’s advice. Give it a try. You just might be surprised at the results.

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About the Author

Robin Hattersley Gray
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Robin has been covering the security and campus law enforcement industries since 1998 and is a specialist in school, university and hospital security, public safety and emergency management, as well as emerging technologies and systems integration. She joined CS in 2005 and has authored award-winning editorial on campus law enforcement and security funding, officer recruitment and retention, access control, IP video, network integration, event management, crime trends, the Clery Act, Title IX compliance, sexual assault, dating abuse, emergency communications, incident management software and more. Robin has been featured on national and local media outlets and was formerly associate editor for the trade publication Security Sales & Integration. She obtained her undergraduate degree in history from California State University, Long Beach.

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