Ask Lionel : Compassion or Anger? Conflicting Emotions About Homeless People

2018 April Columnists Editions Health & Fitness Lionel Shockness

Witnessing the plight of the homeless is heartbreaking. But on days when the concerns of my life require my full attention, I can find myself becoming irrtated and then mad at the people in tents, on the sidewalks and offramps, or living in cars and RVs. One day I wish I could save them and on others, I wish they would just go away.

When this happens, I remind myself that faced daily with the suffering of the homeless, I’m bound to feel what clinicians call “compassion fatigue,” a condition encountered after 9/11 in caregivers who were helping client cope with insurmountable grief and loss. It happens when caring begins to feel burdensome and overwhelming. Compassion fatigue creates tension and stress. It’s as if the stress of caring for others makes it increasingly difficult to care at all.

I think something similar can happen as homelessness spreads and worsens. The unrelenting misery all around can overwhelm us and wear us out.

No one can simply “get over” compassion fatigue, but it can be recognized for what it is and coped with so that we can get on with the real work of ending homelessness. One sign of compassion fatigue is thinking that homelessness is “their problem.” The language we use places the entirety of the problem on “them.” This is a form of what psychologists call “depersonalization” and it’s an indication of compassion fatigue.

  It helps to recognize the true nature of the homelessness crisis: It’s an epidemic, like the flu or the opioid epidemic. And that makes it not just their problem, but our problem.

How do we solve our problem? My mind goes to showing support – at election time, at community meetings – for building strong social safety nets for housing and health. Today’s catchment areas for the less fortunate are obviously grossly inadequate. Many people have other ways of becoming part of the solution: Witness the turnout of volunteers for the recent homeless census in Los Angeles or the recent hard hitting series on homelessness in the L.A. Times.

Of course, we all have to see to our own emotional health, through self care, setting boundaries, cultivating friendships and hobbies. But to be emotionally healthy adults, we also have to confront, not duck, the problems we are faced with. As James Baldwin wrote, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”


Lionel Shockness is a psychotherapist. If you would like to submit a question for Lionel to answer in this column, please write to

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