Editorials, Opinion

Homeless people are still people, and we must treat them as such

We were disappointed by the comments made at the Sept. 20 Morgantown City Council meeting regarding the “loitering issue” downtown, particularly in proximity to the Morgantown Public Library.

One speaker and one council member said they no longer take their children to the library because of the presence of homeless (or “unhoused,” if you prefer) people nearby.

While the fact that people are avoiding the library is in and of itself is disheartening, the true disappointment was in the way the homeless individuals were talked about: Not as if they were people, but as if they were vermin — pests that needed to be expelled.

We’ll go ahead and say it bluntly: Encountering homeless people can be uncomfortable.

They may be unkempt and unwashed. They may be displaying behaviors associated with mental illness, such as pacing or talking to themselves, or drug use. They may be asleep in a public place (a societal taboo and etiquette faux pas).

They may not act or look like “normal” and “good” people should.

But discomfort is not the same as danger.

The woman talking to herself may make us uneasy, but she is not dangerous, particularly if she is minding her own business. The couple asleep on the sidewalk is not a threat. The man with the long, scraggly beard and greasy hair may be offensive to our senses, but his existence in a public space does not constitute a hazard.

What do parents accomplish by refusing to take their children anywhere they think homeless people will be? Do they hope to protect their kids from the harsher realities of life? Are they afraid the dirt and grime accumulated from life on the streets will rub off on their children?

Do they themselves want to avoid something that makes them uncomfortable, and they are using their children as an excuse?

Or do they view homeless people not as people, but as something else — a creature or a pest — and feel they must protect their kids from this someone they (perhaps subconsciously) perceive as a something?

Generally, when we address an issue in this space, we try our best to offer a feasible solution. But homelessness is such a complex issue that we’re not going to this time. Every individual’s situation is different, and we’re seeing in real time how blanket solutions don’t necessarily work. If they did, then the mere opening of Hazel’s House would have solved nearly all of downtown’s problems.

Instead, this time we’re simply going to remind the community that homeless and unhoused individuals are people, too. If we can do nothing else, we can at least treat them with the dignity and compassion they deserve as fellow human beings — by talking about them and treating them as if they are people, not vermin.