Last week’s article by Andrea Scott split the readership of the Nicaragua Dispatch like a social axe. Some applauded and praised her for speaking her mind; others attacked her views and mocked her for comparing the situation in the United States to that of the second poorest country in the Americas.
One of the common threads of criticism was that the author was attacked because of her age.
I too am young, only 22; however, unlike Scott, for the past four years I have had the opportunity to work with the homeless on an almost daily basis as a worker for numerous organizations in my native Britain. Over time, I have learnt that most commonly held assumptions or criticisms of the homeless are at best untrue, and at worst malicious and detrimental.
Scott must not be blamed for the opinion she holds, since every person has the right to believe whatever they want to believe.
However, when you write about something of which you have little knowledge and make sweeping accusations, then you must own your words. Journalism is about discovering the truth and not peddling old lies that are incredibly harmful for combating homelessness and incredibly insulting to the people who suffer from it on a daily basis.
The question of whether handouts actually help anyone in Nicaragua is a misleading and egoistic question. What is really means is: “Do I have to give my money to a beggar, or can I think of a justification to ease my guilty conscious?”
The conclusion drawn by the author of the aforementioned article is not surprising; if the individual is homeless because they are work-shy and lazy, then it is their fault they are poorer than me. So I, the tourist, can see that the absence of a “thank you” is caused by some moral failure instead of sheer embarrassment at having to plead with open hands to another human being.
Instead the real question that any socially conscious tourist or Nicaraguan should be asking is: Why are there people homeless and begging in Nicaragua, and what can be done?
My four years of working with the homeless has taught me that hardly anyone becomes homeless and begs because they are lazy.
Indeed, the belief that the homeless are in that condition because they are work-shy or haven’t got enough intuitive is deeply offensive to the individuals themselves and to anyone who is interested in understanding how people can escape homelessness.
Homelessness in general is caused by five things: being born into poverty, a lack of an education, physical or sexual abuse (usually suffered as a child), unemployment and mental illness. Drug and alcohol dependency are other contributing factors, but these are generally caused by one of the five things mentioned above.
In my years of working with the homeless, in which time I met hundreds of people, not one of them was born with a silver spoon in their mouth, raised by wealthy parents, given a private education or a trust fund. Outside of literature and populist newspapers, no one goes from living in a mansion to living on the streets.
So what we have here are causes that the individual could have done little to avoid. One cannot be blamed for being born into poverty and being made unemployed.
Furthermore, any attempt to describe the homeless as lazy or without initiative displays a flagrant unintelligence about the life of the homeless. Whilst the woman sat on the step with her hand out might appear to be lazy, few people see what she has to do to find a decent place to sleep at night or how to make a miniscule sum of money last for days.
Walk around any Nicaraguan city and you will see homeless men and women slogging along with burlap sacks collecting plastic and glass bottles for recycling, for which they will receive a pittance. Follow them and you will see how they dip into each shop to plead for spare bottles. Follow them stagger down street after street. They will be walking far more every day than the average Nicaraguan; and probably hundreds of times further than the tourist as he wanders from a table to the bar, and then back again with a bottle of beer.
Anyone who has seen just a minute of the life of the homeless knows that without initiative and get-up-and-go, they are doomed to an early death on a door step.
On a side note, any attempt to introduce the American Dream into the debate is laughable. Apologies, but to my European ears talking about the American Dream goes side-by-side with talking about The Easter Bunny or Santa Claus. The rags-to-riches story is great for Hollywood, but is stomped on with extreme aggression in the real world. In other words, if it is true for perhaps 5% of the world’s wealthy then most of these people would have jumped the ladder through corruption and crime, and these are not things to condone.
So back to my final point: If homelessness is caused by things such as poverty, unemployment, childhood abuse, a bad education and a chemical dependency, then what can be done to combat it? The odd coin or note by the passer-by is not going to be enough.
Indeed, certainly not for Nicaragua, which is the poorest country in Central America and second poorest in Latin America after Haiti?
What are needed are strong homeless organizations to help alleviate the immediate problems of accommodation and hunger.
Then it is the responsibility of the government to eliminate poverty and provide a quality education and sufficient employment. The current government of Nicaragua has been making improvements in these areas since they returned to power in 2007: it was announced several weeks ago that extreme poverty has been cut in half in the past five years, from 11.2% to 5.5%.
Indeed, any talk of homelessness being caused by too much dependency on the state is simply unintelligible. European countries, in particular the Nordic ones, have a far bigger state and less problems of homelessness. That’s because the state ensures its citizens have a decent education and a reasonable job; and in the occasion that someone nears homelessness, they are given assistance so the individual will not suffer.
Next time you pass a homeless person, whether it is in Nicaragua or elsewhere around the world, try to show a little compassion and empathy for what they might have gone through in their life. Unfortunately not everyone is born on an equal plateau, so do not look down with menace on those who are trying their best to climb up from the gutter. Yes, I think the problem with Andrea Scott is that for someone so young, there is too little compassion, understanding and empathy and too much condemnation and moral judgment.
I would recommend you volunteer with the homeless back in the United States for a few months and then write about your thoughts after the experience.
David Hutt is a freelance writer from London, UK, who will be on the trail of Latin America during the next year and will be working as a tour guide in León, Nicaragua. Follow his travels and misadventures on his blog, and follow him on twitter @davidhutt1990