Diane cautiously slid her fingers along the edge of the worn, hand-me-down cafeteria table. For years she was held hostage as a victim of domestic abuse and although she had escaped, the long winter of her past still lingered in her periodically frozen gaze. To an outsider looking in, one might only see a somewhat frail and distant woman; kind in her smile but possessed by narrowly withdrawn eyes seeming to always be looking for a way out.

“Trauma.” The word falls through her lips to the floor like a dart before she lifts her head level with mine and assuredly repeats, “everybody here is dealing with some type of trauma.”

Diane had been coming to a local food kitchen for many months after having spent all of her money to escape Minnesota. She never thought she’d be homeless— she had a pension, a savings plan, and had lived financially sustainably for most of her adult life. But after having her social security card stolen by her violently abusive ex-husband, trying to rebuild her life in D.C had taken a downward spiral.

The reality for many people in our communities experiencing homelessness is that trauma becomes another layer in an already complicated process of recovery. Though the resources are abundant, the often nebulous and seemingly invasive bureaucratic process— that requires handling sensitive information like social security cards— is an additional hurdle for those who come from a life of trauma.

Shedding the Layers

Diane’s experience is only a drop in a sea of people out on the streets living with trauma. It’s also a story that requires a good deal of vulnerability to hear and an even greater one to share. The problem is that this type of relationship is impossible to form when we listen to the stereotypes surrounding homelessness.

Our country has always been one of divide, despite what the old songs and history books tell us. If it isn’t overtly racist then surely it's divided in wealth, justice and opportunity. But one of the manipulative tools used to keep people separated from each other are stereotypes; the projection of characteristics onto an individual just because they look a certain way or believe a certain thing. Stereotypes stop empathy dead in its tracks because it reduces souls to ideas and most people can’t emotionally relate to an idea. Stereotypes entertain the notion all people of x, y, or z are somehow destined (or doomed) to be what they are. It’s a breeding ground for hate, mistrust, and fear.

Over the past several months, I have been engaged in creating vignettes to demystify the stereotypes that inhibit people from engaging with homelessness in the Washington Metropolitan area. In my work, I’ve learned that stereotypes come from a social form of automation that’s largely influenced by context and environment. In essence, the act of stereotyping someone is a reductive process by higher cognitive functioning that helps us compartmentalize information and assess our safety. When we see someone on the street begging for money, we flip into automated judgement (generally stemming from some sense of fight or flight), cut off our feelings and continue on our way. Over the course of time, it stops being automation and starts becoming instinct.

One of the redemptive powers of storytelling, however, is its ability to crack the shell of stereotype. Our way of seeing, our way of moving throughout the world is largely tuned by habit. But when we experience an image that shatters the pre-existing condition of our casual existence, there’s a breath of a moment where all our balls of existential precedent are just as existentially tossed in the air. And in the lingering milliseconds of their absence, some new seed of perspective makes itself known. Thats why, for me, exposure to art is so crucial to breaking my cadence in the swirling universe before me.

However, if we never break our rhythm we never change. We never grow, we never listen— we exist in an echo chamber of algorithms that make every opinion, every decision about our world for us. But by deconstructing the ideas we have of who people are, we push past the forces that keep us divided; we recognize that the system we live in is broken and we understand that if we don’t act, no one will.

*names in this piece have been altered to protect the identity and confidentiality at the discretion of the person(s) mentioned above.

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“Back in the day they called us ‘hobos’ now they don’t call us anything.”

Chris Earnshaw reflects on his nearly 40 years weaving in and out of unstable housing.