Social Rejection Adds to Homeless People’s Suffering

by Jack Bragen

For 99% of human beings, rejection is a painful experience. It might not matter whether it’s actual or imagined, or if it’s intentional or incidental. In all of its forms, rejection undoubtedly hurts. And it’s the same for unhoused people. 

For some reason, many affluent people don’t get this. They may feel they can treat those less fortunate any way they want, and that it has no impact—but it does.

Homeless people seem to face a great deal of rejection coming from those they  ask for help: A little bit of spare change, a cigarette or a phone call on their behalf. But most housed people are looking out for No. 1, and they are afraid to get involved. Others see homeless individuals as less than people. 

When some people encounter another who appears unhoused, it can bring apprehension. Sometimes this is for a good reason. As with any person you don’t know, you don’t always know what you’re getting until you get it.

As I’m writing this, it is past 9 p.m. and it is dark out. By habit, I was exiting my building through the side exit, which is unlit. I wanted to go to my car and smoke before going to sleep. I’d fallen asleep earlier, which turned into a very long nap.

When I tried to open the heavy steel gate—the second locked door to go through to get to the outside—the motion to open the second gate was impeded. I realized I was pushing up against a man. It was dark and all I could see was a brown blanket covering a large person.

He offered to get out of my way. Speaking softly, he said he missed his bus and had been at Starbucks. I declined his offer for him to move aside, and he thanked me. He said he was trying to keep warm. I got my key, and I went back into the building lobby. I considered just going back to my room. Then I decided I needed my smoke, so I exited through the building’s front door to get to my car. If anyone wanted to beat me up or mug me many could easily do so, however unlikely. But the man also didn’t know me, and that could also be a deterrent. 

I had most of my smoke and drank bottled water. When I looked at my watch, the display was 9:11. Whenever I see 911, I erroneously think the universe is trying to warn me of something. So, I put out my one-third remainder of cigarette and re-entered the building through the front door. 

In different contexts, such as in an affluent neighborhood or one with intolerant community members, someone would have called the police. This is not a compassionate thing to do. As I have fears of what could happen to me in my future, it is not an extreme stretch to put myself in this sleeping man’s shoes. 

If I had been afraid, I could have forgotten about getting my cigarette and could have turned and went back to my unit without smoking. But I had to have my smoke, and the man I’d encountered was not threatening. 

I am well able to stand up to a threatening individual, regardless of how big and strong they are. You don’t need to be the biggest kid on the block to stand up for your rights. I have a right to basic human respect and to being left alone when I’m not out to do harm to anyone. 

Homeless people and/or panhandlers might feel rejection when someone ignores them or believes they are better than them. They may be upset when someone refuses to help. An aggressive voice in response to perceived rejection may paint homeless people as dangerous, but this is not usually the truth. Homeless people have probably experienced much rejection elsewhere in their lives. Receiving a stiff rebuff undoubtedly stings. 

Everyone has rights, and everyone wants to be respected. This can look very different from one person to another. Whether homeless people just appear threatening or pose an actual danger, they might be hurting on the inside because of too much rejection, especially from people who have plenty in their lives and who do not appreciate how fortunate they are. 

I have never been beaten by a homeless person. One of them recently raised his voice and said fighting words but I doubt that he meant any real harm. Many people just react. 

I know that if I fear something or someone, usually that’s me generating the fear, not the situation. Sometimes you just have to take a chance. Being in the presence of a man in a blanket does not rate very high on the scale of risk. A person could do things that are far riskier without being considered a fool.

Sometimes you must take a risk, even if it is only a small risk.

Jack Bragen lives and writes in Martinez, California. His work has appeared in many publications, and he sells indie books on Amazon.