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Tuesday, 31 May 2016

The Homeless League

Ideas and Opinions | Milo

This is a short essay about the strangest stereotype in fiction, that being the fact that homeless people are all apparently extremely well connected and have secret talents and powers, and why it should be avoided by creators

I hate to break it to you but the homeless have been conning you this whole time, you see despite their ill-fitting clothes, poor hygiene and general lack of housing they are actually the ears and eyes of the city. In fact you could argue that the homeless and their “Homeless Leagues” runs the city.

This is, of course, absolute bullshit, but it’s an oddly persistent stereotype I’ve seen cropping up again and again, from video games such as the Elder Scrolls series and the Yakuza series, to Korean dramas like ‘Last’, schlocky action movies like ‘The Quest’ and many novels in the Charles Dickens tradition. Ultimately the homeless are represented as either belonging to some sort of network of other homeless people, having any number of secret or underappreciated skills, or simply living a life not too dissimilar from slightly abstemious working class people. For instance, in Oblivion and Skyrim (two games in the Elder Scrolls series) information gathering often starts with speaking to the homeless, as it does in many other fantasy games and novels. In ‘Last’ it is revealed that there is a hierarchy of criminals built from the homeless up, with a $30 million cache belonging to the man at the top. In both ‘The Quest’ and ‘Oliver Twist’ you have a motley crew of ragamuffins and street urchins led by a dangerous and charismatic leader (albeit in the former that leader is the hero, and in the latter the villain).  
I believe that this stereotype exists for two reasons: (1) because of a narrative need (2) because of a lack of exposure and awareness about homelessness.

The first reason is easy to tackle because it is the same reason why many spousal characters are dull and why many children’s TV show heroes are either orphans or on a journey. When you create a story you have a persistent need to explain away real life whilst simultaneously borrowing from it; let me clarify this with a few examples. If I’m reading a book with a 28 years old protagonist I’m going to be constantly thinking about his romantic life until it has been explained, because in real life emotional, sexual and financial needs make relationships an increasing necessity as you get older. So whether it’s important to the story or not, we need to know what recourse this man has if he is either lonely, horny or broke. In this same way if we want to believe that our 11 years old hero is really on a mission to save the world, we need a quick and easy reason to explain why her mother hasn’t yet called the police when she is missing for months at a time. To return to our focus, then, another problem that occurs in all genres of art is that of information gathering i.e. how does our protagonist know what they know, when we need them to know it? The homeless present an easy solution to this dilemma especially in the fantasy genre where a precedent has already been set, moreover they have no responsibilities that would inhibit their ability to appear and disappear as the needs of the narrative changes. Furthermore, in a story where you need your protagonist to “go underground”, the homeless are a fantastic option to contextualize this part of the story. This also helps to explain why they frequently have “networks” and secret talents, because you need somebody to give your hero the means to return to their struggle. In real life when most people go underground they become homeless, and who wants to read about homeless people? Am I right?   

That last sentence leads us onto the second reason for this stereotype and that is a lack of awareness about the homeless on behalf of the creator and their audience. Many people still look upon the homeless as ultimately being a nuisance who have brought trouble on themselves. They are alcoholics, drug addicts and criminals who are just as likely to rob you as spend your “donation” on plastic bottle booze. The reality is far bleaker, as across the world the homeless are more likely to be victims of crime than they are to be the perpetrators. I think that some successful people have a habit of believing that you are the sole engineer of your own success, and so if you are unsuccessful it is your fault for failing. The problem with this assumption, however, is most obvious when it comes to financial success. Wealth is only one indicator of success and one that hinges as much on your upbringing as it does on any specific skills you may or may not have. To illustrate my point let’s look at the many artists whose paintings sell for millions but whom died penniless and broken. What about the countless number of legendary boxers who were incredibly accomplished sportsman but often found themselves bankrupt? On the flip side let’s look at Donald Trump a man whose business successes are few and whose “successes” have more to do with his last name and hair than they do with his fiscal acumen. The point being that you cannot readily assume that the homeless are the sole architects of their poverty, as you are not the sole architect of your successes.

People in general seem to be unsettled by the hardship of strangers, it’s perhaps then no wonder that I can name more overseas relief charities than domestic ones. People oversees aren’t strangers they are less than that, they’re characters much like the homeless people in our games and films. People on our streets though are the worst kind of strangers, they are people who could become acquaintances and then dependents. We don’t, however, feel this same uneasiness around teachers, doctors or accountants; we don’t feel this uneasiness around strangers who give, only strangers who ask. Hardship is contagious, it doesn’t keep to one person it spreads whether that be through guilt, charity or mutual hardship. So in response to this we ignore the hardship completely and attempt to pretend like it doesn’t even exist. In the 21st Century, however, this is an impossible task because we are all too informed to feign ignorance.

This is especially true of creators because we actually have a need to understand our world in order to create plausible fictions and worthwhile aesthetic treatments. We cannot pretend as though “The Homeless League” is an acceptable stereotype to propagate, because it is so opposed to reality as to make it immersion breaking. This isn’t an attempt to say that you have to politicize your work or address social ills, whether you are sympathetic to homeless people or not, but that you have to realise that you cannot oversimplify their plight. To do so is little more than intellectual laziness and displays a lack of pride in one’s work. Work harder to create new fictions based on this world, do not instead borrow from older fictions in order to save yourself a bit of effort.   

Afterward: After writing this it occurred to me that saying nothing to directly benefit the homeless would be a severe oversight. Check out Passage for information on how you can help out at a homeless kitchen, or Shelter who are probably the biggest charity for the homeless in England.

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