COLUMN: Homeless need policy changes, not Samaritans playing pretend
Last week marked the first full week an OU student and local pastor re-immersed themselves back into privilege. But after playing homeless for 10 days, one has to wonder if the privileges they brought to the experiment delegitimized their experience and invalidated their findings.
Music education senior Philip Nguyen and Grace Church lead pastor Dustin Buff began the social experiment Oct. 28 and lived on the streets for 10 days to experience homelessness.
While they may have experienced 10 days of discomfort, almost-but-not-quite satiation and Facebook withdrawals, they could not experience true homelessness within the context of poor physical and mental health. As individuals who assumedly visit doctors routinely — or who at least have reasonable access to care — they entered this experiment with extreme advantages.
Needless to say, it’s unlikely they entered homelessness in poor health to be on equal footing with their counterparts.
This week, both Nguyen and Buff have easy access to health services, while the people they shared a shelter with a week ago do not. People who experience homelessness have a mortality rate four times that of those who aren’t homeless, and they die decades earlier, often from treatable medical conditions, according to the Homelessness Resource Center.
Even after Nguyen and Buff held this 10-day social experiment, it is impossible for them to know the years and even decades of emotional trauma some of the homeless population experience as a direct result of being cold, hungry or shunned from the community.
About 20 to 25 percent of the U.S. homeless population suffers from some form of mental illness, while only 6 percent of Americans overall are severely mentally ill, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Since it is likely Nguyen and Buff identity with the 94 percent who don’t, they were less likely to be able to empathize with a homeless subject with a mental illness during the experiment.
Serious mental illnesses disrupt self care and household management and make forming stable relationships difficult. But after just 10 days on the street, it is unlikely Nguyen and Buff are having problems today performing the same tasks and allocating attention to the same responsibilities they had before their experiment.
In short: Nguyen and Buff did not truly experience the burdens and disabilities that prevent the homeless community from independently integrating into society.
Buff told The Daily he couldn’t completely understand every aspect of being homeless, because each person’s story is different.
No matter the story, each person in that situation is severely disadvantaged when it comes to obtaining adequate care. Various personal stories do not change how policy excludes this disadvantaged community.
Buff and Nguyen’s takeaways are very surface, as they could only be. 10 days cannot equip a subject with the hurt, trauma, disability and state of health of a homeless subject. Perhaps Nguyen and Buff’s clothes were soiled. Two changes of clothes spread over a 10-day period is nothing a college student doesn’t already know about — especially if he or she lives in a dorm.
Buff also said although there isn’t a "one-stop solution" to homelessness, he is passionate about instilling hope in people and “helping them make that transition into believing they can do better and that they do deserve better.”
While hope might help a few people sleep easier for a couple nights, public policy is where real change can be realized. Fluffy projects that present “the day in the life of the homeless” or, like Shack-a-thon, projects that exclusively exist to throw money at an issue will not change lives. These projects are disturbing.
The homeless community doesn’t need empathy or “True Life” versions of their situations — they need policy change. We must address social issues that are gateways to homelessness, not buy into and promote half-hearted attempts to show “what homelessness really feels like ... for ten days” without fixing anything.
Become aware of and involved in the Governor's Interagency Council on Homelessness — Oklahoma’s 10-year plan to end homelessness — instead of playing pretend.
Kayley Gillespie is a literature and cultural studies senior.