What is Dehumanization and How Does it Create Homelessness?

girls homeless

“The self-regulatory mechanisms governing moral conduct do not come into play unless they are activated, and there are many psychosocial maneuvers by which moral self-sanctions are selectively disengaged from inhumane conduct. The moral disengagement may center on the cognitive restructuring of inhumane conduct into a benign or worthy one by moral justification, sanitizing language, and advantageous comparison; disavowal of a sense of personal agency by diffusion or displacement of responsibility; disregarding or minimizing the injurious effects of one ‘s actions; and attribution of blame to, and dehumanization of those who are victimized.”

An excerpt from Albert Bandura’s Personality and Social Psychology Review

On any given night, millions of people have no safe place to sleep. We know the number is in the millions as opposed to the hundreds of thousands reflected through Point in Time Counts. Tragically, the reason we know this is because teachers across the nation have counted 2.5 million homeless school children. This means that even if we only counted those children, the number of homeless people in the United States would escalate well into the millions.

Homelessness is not an accident, nor is it a moral failure. It is the direct result of extreme wealth inequality, which manifests through things like:

  • Lack of affordable housing
  • Stagnant wages
  • Lack of affordable healthcare and more

The Harsh Reality is Homelessness Can Only Exist through Dehumanization

Empathy is the natural state of most people. As such, the only way that homelessness could exist is by way of dehumanization. Through rhetoric, we have been cognitively conditioned to accept unthinkable living conditions for select individuals within our own society.

Time Magazine reporter Nancy Gibbs described our national shock expressed at the recent siege on Capitol Hill in the following words:

“a failure of moral imagination, of grasping what people are capable of.”

I believe this to be true regarding the dehumanization of homeless people as well. We’ve been taught to believe that modern-day America is the epitome of moral compassion. When this modernist mentality works in tandem with our toxic brand of capitalism, we are able to witness gruesome, horrifying crimes against humanity, only to convince ourselves that these evils simply do not exist.

If we were truly honest with ourselves, we’d accept the fact that homelessness could not exist without dehumanization. Study after study continues to prove that the public perceives homeless people as possessing “no redeeming qualities”. One need only glance down at the scrolling scoreboard that is social media in order to see users refer to members of the homeless population as:

Dehumanization in the digital age is such a pressing issue that in December of 2020, Twitter introduced “humanization prompts” to test our level of compassion when we are reminded that the person on the other end of the screen is, in fact, a human like ourselves.

Far Too Many Social Justice Advocates See Humanization as Inhumane

The internet is abuzz with causes, too many for any one person to support. When people suggest anti-racism campaigns, these demands are met with rallies of support. The same is true of other anti-discrimination movements. But, as soon as someone brings up the idea of “humanization” as a campaign to counter dehumanization, the suggestion is shouldered, shutdown, even heavily criticized.


I suspect it’s because we refuse to believe that our modern-day, technologically advanced society is capable of subconsciously categorizing specific members of the human race as sub-human. But if that were true, if the public genuinely believed that human beings were:

we’d see protests and rallies rivaling other social justice movements.

These atrocities could never exist if the general population saw homeless people for who they are… people.

Oppression and Marginalization Can Exist Without Dehumanization

Herein lies an important paradox. It’s possible that the reason many housing advocates fail to recognize dehumanization and its role in perpetuating homelessness is that there are other groups who experience discrimination without dehumanization. A good example of this is the 55 and over population. This ever-growing group of citizens might find themselves discriminated against in one or more of the following situations:

  • When applying for employment
  • When attempting to rent a home
  • In social settings (particularly settings where technology is present, such as a younger person assuming a senior is unable to operate a smartphone or POS system)

As such, this group can be discriminated against and that discrimination can have long-term consequences, but they are still not stripped of their status as members of the human race. That said, just because discrimination can exist without dehumanization doesn’t mean it always does. There are plenty of examples throughout history where dehumanization was used as the main tool with which to normalize oppression.

In the examples below, dehumanization was necessary in order to create a setting where exceptionally barbaric acts would not only be tolerated, but would also seem justified.

Dehumanization Throughout History

Possibly the most famous example of the tactic can be found in the history of the Holocaust. During this infamous time, Nazis referred to members of the Jewish community as rats. During the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, it was common for colonizers to refer to African American captives as half human, half ape. Some even went so far as to construct horrifying “human zoos” around the concept. The aftereffects of these incidents are still heavily steeped in American culture.

Author David Livingston Smith concisely explains the phenomenon of dehumanization in the following quote:

“It’s what opens the door for cruelty and genocide.” He further expands on this topic by claiming it, “allows human beings to overcome the very deep and natural inhibitions they have against treating other people like game animals or vermin or dangerous predators.”

A Study Released by Colleagues at Invisible People Shows that Support for the Homeless Population Has Grown as a Result of the Pandemic, but Many People Still Hold Largely Negative, Dehumanizing Views

When researching the topic, an overwhelming 79% of people cited what they see on television or on the streets in their cities as their main source of information regarding the homeless community. As a result:

  • 54%-61% of participants associated homeless people with the word “danger”
  • 70%-77% associated homeless people with the word “drugs”
  • 52%-58% associated homeless people with the word “crime”
  • 40% to 47% associated homeless people with the word “nuisance”
  • The overwhelming majority associated homeless people with the word “mental illness”

When you consider the fact that lack of affordable housing remains the leading cause of homelessness, you must conclude that these perceptions are the result of misinformation coming from the press and people in authority. What would people in power have to gain from dehumanizing the poor? Well, one thing is certain – they can continue to ignore the ever-burgeoning homeless crisis, even now as 30-40 million renters face the threat of eviction in the very near future.

The Numbers Don’t Lie: Homelessness Has to Exist in America

Our current infrastructure illustrates the fact that homelessness is a system failure, but certainly not an accidental one. The running tally on affordable housing in America estimates that we’re short 7 million homes. With that statistic in mind, it’s clear to see how dehumanizing the homeless population behooves people in power. Under current zoning regulations and construction restrictions, homelessness has to exist. The only thing they can control is the way in which the general public perceives it.

This is why a counter-campaign is imperative to ending the crisis.

Talk to your representatives about the current state of homelessness and their plans to create non-punitive solutions.

Cynthia Griffith

Cynthia Griffith


Cynthia Griffith is a freelance writer dedicated to social justice and environmental issues.

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