Growing up in Seattle and going to school at the UW, I have been constantly aware of the problems facing the impoverished peoples in our city, and indeed our country at large. All one has to do is simply walk down the Ave to see the terrible conditions that some people have to live through. It is an unenviable one, yet instead of having pity, many of my peers show apathy or even contempt. But I have to ask myself why? Why do my peers feel either nothing or anger towards such a disadvantaged group of people? I wonder about this and have wondered this throughout this course, and I believe much of it has to do with the culture at large, how uncomfortable it can make the persons feel, and their own ingrained prejudices.

Over the recent years, the comedy central TV show South Park has become ever more political with its episodes and messages, dealing with issues such as 9/11 conspiracies and global warming. The views presented generally span both sides of the political spectrum. However, a recent episode with a political message that I took issue with is called “Night of the Living Homeless.” This episode is a parody of many zombie movies, Dawn of the Dead ostensibly, but instead of zombies, the monsters are homeless people. The homeless people in the episode are depicted as mindless zombies who have taken the town hostage. The only thing they can say is “Change?” The main characters disrespect them, doing things like spitting on them and seeing how many they can jump over with a skateboard. At end of the episode, the solution they come up with to the homeless “problem” is to simply send them to California, and in their minds ruining a town there.

As I watched this episode, I became particularly offended. Maybe not specifically because of the episode itself, but because of the reactions of the people I was watching it with. They agreed with the views being presented! Versions of the phrase “that’s exactly how it is” were thrown around a number of times, and it made me sick. But this episode underlines the problem: this is how many people actually think of homeless people. They are something less then human; brainless organisms that can only articulate the word “change,” and then be ungrateful if you actually give them any. It might be shallow to look for meaning in “South Park,” but I think it demonstrates a huge problem in our society: many people simply see homeless people as subhuman, and that particular episode made that view explicit.

It is a nice thing to tell myself that here in the 21rst century, most of our prejudices are subsiding and on the way out, but as I was reminded a few weeks ago, they are clearly not. This particular night I was walking home on the Ave with a group of people, most of whom I had met that night. We walked past a homeless man at one point, and he asked us for change. Usually for me this leads to a feeling of shame as I look away and say “sorry man,” but for a member of my group his reaction was much stronger. He actually began yelling at this man! It was a drunk and mostly incoherent rant, but the key phrases “why don’t you get a job!” “…just going to spend it on alcohol” (he didn’t see the irony) and “…you’re a burden on society” could be understood and heard. It’s sick to think that at a College University you could find a person who thinks these things, but sadly its reality. But not only that, his reaction highlights a key problem with how many people view the homeless: that it’s entirely their fault. The homeless person is lazy, or stupid, or a drunk. They do not see the structural roots of homelessness, or how lucky they are to be born into the situation they have. Instead, they see it as entirely the homeless person’s fault, and for reasons I can’t understand this brings out feelings of hatred and rage.

But my reaction too reveals a huge problem with our culture in respect to homelessness, in that many of us just shamefully look away and do nothing. Maybe is fear, maybe it’s the feeling that you can’t make a difference, or maybe it’s that you don’t want to. But either way, there are many of us who do not hate and fear homeless people, but nonetheless we do nothing. Many of us know how high the rates of mentally illness in the homeless community are. Many of us know how disproportionately high the rates of minorities in homeless communities are. We know that there are many factors that lead to homelessness and many more that keep people homeless and impoverished, but still we do nothing. Whether it is due to laziness or apathy about aspects of society that do not directly concern us, we do nothing. When we are confronted with these problems, we simply look away, ashamed of ourselves.

And that would be the main lesson this class has taught me: that something has to be done. In order to make changes, someone has to have the will to do what is necessary. Homeless people are just that: people. People who had a lot less luckier life than me, and for one reason or another ended up where they are. But it is not enough to just let them be stuck there, because there clearly is a vicious cycle that occurs in the poorest rungs of society. When someone screams at them “get a job!” how can they expect these people to get jobs if people treat them that way? If people are afraid of them or hate them? These are the problems we must actively address. These are the ideals we must fight for and garner the will to create change for.