Community should avoid overuse of labels

Syndicated ColumnistFebruary 17, 2014 

As humans, we spend a lot of time organizing things. Order helps to make things predictable, and predictability is frequently a component of successful endeavors.

A parking lot is a good example of good organizing, so is a library or grocery store. If any of those examples were randomized, people would freak out.

My side of the garage at home is a good example of bad organization or no organization at all. Defense mechanisms, being what they are, prevent me from addressing or even acknowledging the problem.

My dad, on the other hand, likes to put things in envelopes, the envelopes into a box, the box in a container, onto a shelf of similar containers, labeled, and probably alphabetized. If I were to suggest that he may be going a bit overboard, he would probably suggest that I should go jump overboard.

Organizing, however good it can be, also has a long history of going overboard. This seems to especially occur when it’s people that are being organized. Think: King Herod; Cabrini-Green; lines at Disneyland; Maoism; the Warsaw Ghetto; Korematsu v. U.S.

Korematsu was a legal case where the imprisoning of 110,000 Americans in WWII based upon common physical appearance and geographic ancestry was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1944. Ironically, this was one year after the Warsaw Ghetto was pulverized at the cost of 300,000 humans.

Protections eventually evolved in the courts to protect people who found themselves deprived of their rights due to suspect classifications imposed upon them. However, legal protections do not make a classification or label go away.

In fact, labels seem as prevalent today as at any other time in history, and that’s because organizing and classifying is something that we do as naturally as breathing.

Many of our problems probably come from this urge we have to organize and label everything we encounter. The ultimate goal of organizing is to sort, order, evaluate, and separate so that the items remaining are of maximum use to the intended operator. Your fridge or toolbox are good examples.

We also do this in social systems. The glitch occurs, however, when we come to the separation part. In society “to separate” can mean anything from having to live in a tent at the edge of town to you and your family being exterminated. The separated become the “other.”

In the world within which I have worked for the last 20 years, the “other” has most often been the woman or man or child without a house. The label they bear, “the homeless,” is also their classification. In our haste to organize and affix a label, we have neglected to note that the lack of a home is but a single condition of their lives but, unfortunately, the primary circumstance by which they are recognized.

If I were to label people living in homes, “the housed” would I really be speaking for you? Is that what you call yourself? Or, are you the gardener, the sports fan, the runner, the father, the muse, the mechanic or the writer?

Today, we find ourselves as a local society in the midst of a discussion regarding the organizing and serving of numerous people of differential needs under a common banner of “the homeless.” And as convenient as it may appear to address widely divergent populations under the same roof, we should probably ask if we are making things easier for us or those we serve.

Does a recently released inmate, homeless because of a lack of ID, benefit from the company of a person homeless due to addiction?

Does a 25-year-old homeless woman with mental illness have the same needs as a 55-year-old chronic inebriate who lives on the street?

As a community, we should be thoughtful about the effects, and suspect of classifying, congregating and isolating persons based upon a single characteristic.

Curt D. Andino is the executive director of South Puget Sound Habitat for Humanity and a member of The Olympian’s 2014 Board of Contributors. He can be reached at curt.andino@spshabitat.org.

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