Fairy Tales Are Not For the Homeless

I have to admit that I look forward to the fairy tale wedding of Prince Harry and American actor Meghan Markle. I remember watching the wedding of Charles, Prince of Wales, and Lady Diana Spencer in 1981. Their marriage was the “wedding of the century.” It was watched by a global TV audience of 750 million people. We later grieved Diana’s death and enjoyed seeing her young sons grow into men. And, we can take pride in a British-American union. One of our own is becoming a princess. Let’s face it, American women are a bit envious of the English and their hats. When the Queen wears a hat, dress code etiquette states that all women wear hats for formal events.

A fairy tale extravaganza doesn’t happen magically. I’m reading that Windsor Castle prefers that guests and tourists not rub elbows with the homeless and potential panhandlers. It was suggested that vagrants and their belongings be “dealt with” before the wedding. This has stirred up controversy over the root causes of homelessness and the most effective methods of addressing the problem. Rather than sweep the homeless under the rug there should be public policy designed to improve the life and health of the homeless.

I get it. There may be safety concerns. And it is difficult to enjoy a party in the presence of suffering or smelly people. But to hustle them off the streets and out of sight seems morally wrong.

It is made easier to subjugate groups of people whom we deem different from us. It is a human trait to divide people into Us and Them, ingroup and out group, our kind and the others. We do it with remarkable speed. It is hardwired into our brains.

How do we stop making these dichotomies? One way is through prolonged contact. If we rub shoulders often with people who are different from us, long enough, our similarities start to outweigh differences. Another way is to make the implicit explicit, by identifying our biases through reflection. A third way is a cognitive tool called perspective taking. Imagine being them. Would your feet hurt if you walked in their shoes?

I was a youth minister in Cabrini Green housing projects of Chicago for several years in the early 1980’s. In 1981, Mayor Jane Byrne flattened the Us/Them dichotomy by moving into this low income housing where approximately 9% of the residents were employed. Mayor Byrne walked in the resident’s shoes. She demonstrated a commitment to safety and reform. By moving in she brought civic attention and city services to the buildings. I saw immediate change to the building that she inhabited. The grounds were cleaned of debris, flowers planted, elevators repaired, and security was increased. Her husband coached the local sports teams. I was pleased to see her walk from the projects to work. The experiment only lasted three weeks. And unfortunately, funds dried up when she lost her bid for reelection. Many people thought it was a political stunt, but I admire her investment in addressing a social problem. There was no sustainable change but I appreciated the effort.

Perhaps the Royals of England could learn a lesson here. They could rub shoulders with people who lack stable housing. They can reflect on their biases. And they should walk in their shoes. As a result, public policy is formed.

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