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Opinion: Look them in the eye — people experiencing homelessness deserve empathy

Many people living on the streets have experienced some form of sexual trauma. Instead of looking away, how can we help?

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Jose Alejandro Vargas Nocelo, 54, is pictured outside of the Weigand Homeless Resource Center in Salt Lake City.

Jose Alejandro Vargas Nocelo, 54, who has been staying at shelters in the Rio Grande area for six months, is pictured outside of the Weigand Homeless Resource Center in Salt Lake City on Monday, March 7, 2022.

Mengshin Lin, Deseret News

Imagine walking around downtown Salt Lake City. There’s a woman sitting on the corner. Wrapped in a blanket, she looks disheveled. Her sign reads, “Anything helps, God bless.”

You’re uncomfortable, you avoid eye contact, mumble that you don’t have cash and rush past. 

I’ve done this dance many times, I’m ashamed to admit. As someone who grew up religious, I was taught to have compassion for others, to care for them in times of need. I was told that tithing and fast offerings were given in lieu of donations to people on the street. And so I continued to, and still do sometimes, look away when I encounter someone asking for help. 

People experiencing homelessness are subjected to all kinds of trauma, especially sexual trauma. Mistreatment and sexual abuse can begin at a young age and drive young people from their homes onto the streets. Many might be forced to engage in “survival sex” which is something of a misnomer, because this is considered coercion. And when seeking help, especially if one belongs to a minority group, homeless people may be subjected to sexual harassment and retraumatization. 

PTSD from sexual violence creates uniquely profound vulnerabilities. People experiencing homelessness and sexual violence deserve empathy and recognition. There’s a problem when we don’t look homeless people in the eye. Why are we so afraid of homeless people? Is it because we don’t like to acknowledge trauma? Are we trying to make it easier to walk away? 

Anna Salvania

Provo