By Greg Winter, Chair, Whatcom County Coalition to End Homelessness

Can perceptions of people who are homeless be changed, or are we hard-wired to perceive them as sub-human?

Some of what I hear and read locally about homelessness I would characterize kindly as “base.” For example, describing supportive housing for people who were homeless as a neighborhood “dumping ground.” Or thinking it’s OK to exclude them from being housed in certain places where others are welcomed or invited.

It’s disturbing to hear people talking about other people like this. It’s as if they aren’t talking about people at all.

Recently, a fellow I admire visited Western to give a lecture about how he came to start the Seattle-based street newspaper, Real Change. During his talk, Tim Harris told us about recent neuroscience research that took place a few years ago at Princeton.

Scientists used MRI brain scans to see how various people were perceived by others. The research subjects were shown pictures of people representing different groups: celebrities, athletes, seniors, people with disabilities, homeless people, and drug addicts.

The MRI detects a part of the brain that’s energized when people think of others they are viewing as having a mind like their own. It’s a part of the brain that “lights up” when we recognize others as being human.

In this study, photos of elderly and disabled people energized a part of the brain that indicate pity. Photos of rich people and athletes signaled envy. These were all within the region of the brain that recognizes those people as human.

But the images of homeless people stimulated a part of the brain associated with disgust.  More specifically, photos of homeless people and drug addicts energized a region of the brain that indicated the research participants did not consider the images to be depicting human beings. This means that the participants in the study failed to consider the minds of people who elicit feelings of disgust, which, according to the researchers, “may be a psychological mechanism facilitating inhumane acts like torture.” We can do terrible things to those who we don’t recognize as being human.

I know how bleak this sounds, but there is a ray of hope shining through the dismal findings. While this research originally revealed the neural mechanisms of dehumanized perception, it is now being examined to reveal the building blocks of empathy.

In other words, dehumanization is not hard-wired into our brains. People’s thinking can be shifted from disgust toward empathy. According to Princeton University scientist, Susan Fiske, “The patterns can reverse when perceivers must consider the other’s preferences, that is, appreciate the other’s mind.”

We hope this holds true. And we hope that, over time, this new web site can help us see the humanity within all of our neighbors. We began this site and its companion videos to help elevate the community discussions about homelessness.

The video series, Homeless in Bellingham, is being produced to shift people’s thinking; to introduce them to people who are or were homeless, and to help them identify with people who have recognizable aspirations.

The introductory video is the trailer to Season One. It is the first installment of what we hope will be 12 three-minute episodes.

Some will focus on individuals who represent particular populations of people who are homeless. Others will examine the complex policy responses to homelessness. We’ll also give voice to people who our coalition may disagree with, but who do represent common perceptions and misperceptions that we regularly encounter.

Episodes #1 and #2 feature two very different views of what recovery and resiliency can look like.

We hope you enjoy the show. We’re fundraising now to produce the next 10 episodes, so stay tuned for more…