How Can We Change the Stereotypes and Stigma Surrounding Marginalized Groups? (by Guest Writer Melissa Arnold)

First, read about Melissa Arnold here.  Then, read her culminating project.


MelissaPostI have been working with the MacDonald West group for my volunteer work.  My work has been so enriching and powerful!  I’ve been cultivating relationships with members as well as participating in in-home visits, in which I might continue on doing once a week moving forward.  The center works with homeless, mentally ill, impoverished, and disabled community here in Portland.  My research question has morphed a bit during the last few weeks.  After mulling it over in my mind I consistently came back to the question of what could we do different as a community in order to help this vastly growing situation?   There have been several efforts from our local government to lessen the homeless population yet nothing has sufficiently worked.  How can we change the general stereotype and stigma the surrounds this marginalized group? 

The Research Question and Collection

Research Question:  What resources do our government provide mentally ill homeless people?

 Note: The research collection has been developed in response to the above research question and serves as a short research list that illuminates aspects of the research question.

Source #1

Johnson, Guy, and Chris Chamberlain. “Are the Homeless Mentally Ill?” Australian Journal of Social Issues 46.1 (2011): 29-48. Web.  This academic article focuses on Australian’s general perception that homeless people are mentally ill.  This article also focuses around a study/survey of 4,291 homeless people in Melbourne Australia.  They were able to uncover that 15% of the population they interviewed suffered from mental illness, where as 16% of that population struggled with mental disability after the stress of homelessness became a part of their life.  This article challenges the community’s perception as well as urges their government to reshape policy surrounding this issue.

I appreciated this article because it gave me a window into another countries issues regarding homelessness.  Although, I do believe their populous / demographic is very different from the US.

Source #2

Kim, Mimi M., Julian D. Ford, Daniel L. Howard, and Daniel W. Bradford. “Assessing Trauma, Substance Abuse, and Mental Health in a Sample of Homeless Men.” Health and Social Work 35.1 (2010): 39-48. Academic Search Premier. Web. 29 May 2013.  This academic journal focuses on men’s susceptibility to homelessness due to several factors.  This journal conducted a survey on 239 homeless men in order to collect data within certain demographics.  They analyze a general exposure to mental, sexual, emotional, and physical trauma.  Their findings and action plan believe that this “subpopulation” of men need a different proactive approach to prevent these specific demographics of men suffering mostly from some sort of PTSD before it’s too late and they begin a life on the street.

This article gives me specific insight into homeless MEN.  I have taken notice that during my volunteer work, the center hosts at least 80% men verses women.  This academic journal also has an action plan, which informs me on another approach on how our society can work on this issue.

Source #3

Torrey, E. Fuller. “Thirty Years of Shame: The Scandalous Neglect of the Mentally Ill Homeless.” National Forum 1 Jan. 1993: n. pag. Print.  This is a passionate and well-written article firstly giving staggering statistics based upon the study of grave mentally ill homeless population verses the general homeless population, citing the archives of general psychiatry which gives it authority.  It also focuses on the strong decline in care for mentally ill dating back from 1950, which was one of the few reasons during the 1980’s our homeless population began to rise at an all time high.

The author also takes about the lack of medical research done for these neurological disorders and attributes this to the fact that 1/3 of the homeless population is mentally ill.

This article gave me a lot to think about regarding how, why, and how long did it take our society to really fail these marginalized people.  For almost twenty years we used medication to “fix” the problem, but this obviously was not a solution.

Source #4

“Report points to ACA opportunities for homeless individuals.” Mental Health Weekly 25 June 2012: 6+. Academic OneFile. Web. 29 May 2013.  This is an informative article regarding the role of Medicaid and a proposal for the year 2014 which will help high need homeless beneficiaries.  It is an authoritative source because the proposal at hand is co-written by Michael Nardone, the Medicaid Director.

This article illuminates more information on my overall question, what is the government doing to work on our homeless problem especially among the mentally ill?  It gives facts figures, stats, an action plan, and the overall result.

The Public Writing

Op-ed, The Oregonian

1320 SW Broadway

Portland, OR 97201


Dear Editor,

I’m writing the Oregonian in hope that my voice might reach out to a broader audience within the Portland arena concerning our homeless and less affluent patrons.  I’ve recently been involved in volunteer work for an organization that assists Portland’s marginalized population that suffer from mental illness, disability, grave poverty, substance abuse, and lack of opportunity.  My work has consisted of helping to create a sense of community and understanding by simply talking with individuals.  I’ve also had the privilege of visiting some of our members in their homes in an attempt to break down social isolation and depression.  During this enriching experience I began to probe into the minds of the public through friends, family, blogs, letters to the editor and so forth in order to gain insight into the general publics perception of our vast and burgeoning population of people living on the street.  I was fairly saddened by the level in which people judge, are generally disgusted, assume, lack empathy, build walls of prejudice, and plainly dehumanize these people.  Despite the overwhelming amount of hate I’ve witnessed, I have also seen an amazing amount of kindness and generosity from outreach volunteers, and the tireless efforts of social workers that strive to make these peoples lives better. I recognize that here in the Portland area we have more resources than most cities, and that due to our liberal nature there are many citizens involved in helping people get off the street as well as attempting to motivate them to create better circumstances for themselves, but obviously this isn’t enough.  In 2004 the city of Portland created an action plan to end homelessness. In 2003 it was reported that roughly 17,000 people slept in the streets, cars, or shelters within Multnomah County.  Today the number is a few thousand less.  It’s not my intention to appeal to readers with logic and statistics; I’m attempting to appeal to your sense of humanity.  Obviously the cities ten-year goal, which was also part of a twenty-year national goal to eradicate homelessness, has not worked.  The question I’m consistently asking myself as I scan the landscape of Old Town is this, what can we do differently?  I strongly believe that if our community were forced to put a human face to this poverty, there would be change.  If citizens were motivated to educate themselves on metal illness, which is poignantly the leading cause of homelessness, action might replace fear, empathy might replace disgust, and kindness might replace prejudice.  I implore our government to dish out copious amounts of public service surrounding this topic instead of large tickets that fund yet another purposed failed action plan. I ask you citizen, to look more closely at your own ill perceptions and prejudices by questioning them in the face of humanity.  I believe that if we all took time to confront this condition personally, which seems to grow uglier as time progresses, there would be positive change.

Melissa Arnold

Author’s Note:

The most enriching and impactful learning experience has been once again, the fact that I’ve broken down certain prejudices and stereotypes that I’ve been hanging onto in which I wasn’t even aware of.  Moving forward I hope to help this community through outreach programs and by simply communicating and getting to know each individual and their stories.  It’s been a great learning experience.



  1. Aaron Kaplan

    First I want to say that your Culminating Project is a very detailed and written piece. Very informative and I really like how your adamant about helping your community and State out. I believe the government should support non-profit organizations together with individual or private owners. This can be addressed through low cost housing and expansion of shelters. I consider most homeless people financially unstable. Although I’m surprised by the #’s you stated through your sources on the percentages of mentally ill homeless people. I also believe the lack of state funding of proper facilities have released these individuals to become homeless. Most of my experiences have been while I’m driving and homeless people ask for money with a cardboard sign. Or even at gas stations where they would come up and be very aggressive about change I had. I definitely think we’re doing to little and the government needs to take action but with abundance of other current issues, your research question and mine fall below others. I believe it’s a choice to be homeless except for a select few.
    For your public writing, kudos again for an outstanding letter you sent to an editor. I love that you stated the facts about the action plan in Portland and how now today the results aren’t showing. Your voice was well present in getting the point across and I believe with this well written letter, you could get a response. Maybe even asking what we as citizens could do to help would prompt a reply faster. Overall I think you did a great job! Hope all goes well in your future work and college!

  2. Hi Melissa-it’s great hear that you learned so much from this project and developed a deeper sense of compassion for the homeless in our area. I think this is an extremely important issue, especially in Portland where our homeless population is so large. I agree that there is a general sense of apathy and callousness with which most people view the homeless, and I think it was something that was important to include in your letter, I’m glad you did. Despite the fact that we live in such a liberal place, many people turn away from the problem which most of us have just come to accept as a part of life in our community. For this reason, I think that you asking “What can we do differently?” is so powerful. It includes you, as the author, and it reaches out to others, encouraging them to ask themselves the same thing. I definitely think you chose the right type of appeal for this letter (emotional) and I appreciate that you stated that very clearly: “It’s not my intention to appeal to readers with logic and statistics; I’m attempting to appeal to your sense of humanity.” This statement lends your letter a sense of credibility in its honesty.
    My suggestion for improvement would be to work on the organization a bit more; there are no clear breaks between ideas and so the letter comes off somewhat rambling, but I think because of its emotional nature, this is more acceptable than if it had been a letter making a logic-based argument. Overall, I think this is a great letter and will make a valuable addition to the Oregonian; I’ll keep my eyes peeled for it! =)

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