Many people refer to Alaska as one big village, as it seems impossible at times to go to the grocery store or coffee shop without running into at least one friend or colleague. Visitors often characterize us by our friendliness and openness to others, as we share – and perhaps overshare – stories about ourselves and our loved ones. We treat people like close friends or family, because there's a relatively good chance that we are. While the rest of the world refers to "six degrees of separation," in Alaska we know that those degrees are decreased by at least half. For as much as we enjoy this connectedness, however, many of us often forget there are those standing on the margins of our community – people who we are very much connected to – who may need our help.
This is the gap that Samuel Johns' "Forget Me Not" Facebook group is helping to fill. Samuel began the group with the aim to connect homeless individuals with their families. With permission, he posts pictures and messages from the homeless to their families to let their families know they are alive, send messages of love, or sometimes reach out for reunion. Families also post pictures of their lost loved ones, reaching out to the community for information on their well-being and whereabouts. Since it began just three months ago, the page has already attracted nearly 12,000 followers and has become a nonprofit organization with the help of Forrest Dunbar, Emily Tyrrell, Keith Morrison and Brendan Babb – members of the group's steering committee.
What is perhaps the most profound aspect of "Forget Me Not" is that it allows us to see the homeless as individuals – humans – rather than anonymous faces holding signs on the street. In essence, it addresses the phenomenon known as dehumanization, which is when we see people as less than human and therefore not worthy of humane treatment. Dehumanizing others make us feel better about our inaction (e.g., ignoring the homeless) or action (e.g., solely blaming the homeless for their problems), allowing us to go on with our daily lives without changing much about ourselves and the society we live in.
"Forget Me Not" also addresses stereotypes, which may influence our attitudes and behaviors toward other people whether we like it or not, whether we intend to or not, and whether we are aware of it or not. We all hold certain stereotypes about the homeless. Even if we are well-meaning, it can be uncomfortable to not know how to interact with the homeless, largely because we probably no longer see them as equal to us – as equal human beings. "Forget Me Not" allows us the space and safety to understand the stories behind these individuals – to remind ourselves of their humanity and that we can interact with them just like we interact with other human beings – and look deeply into faces we might normally avert our gazes from.
Addressing dehumanization and moving beyond negative stereotypes also allow us to see the positives and good qualities – the strengths – of people. "Forget Me Not" reminds us like other human beings, homeless individuals also hold many strengths. Our society is filled with disparaging attitudes about the homeless; one need only read the online comments from homelessness stories to see such poisonous beliefs widely exist. This is why the positivity and strengths-based view of "Forget Me Not" are a breath of fresh air. As community members, we must each decide what type of atmosphere we will cultivate. Will we be silent when others spew rhetoric filled with ignorance and prejudice? A better alternative is to promote an atmosphere where all our members are afforded their inherent dignity.
In a span of only three months, the evidence is mounting to support the positive effects of "Forget Me Not" – the positive effects of seeing a person as a complete, complex, and equally valued human being who still holds many strengths and potential, despite experiencing rough times. A woman who was struggling with alcoholism and was homeless was inspired to work on sobriety after seeing her story on Facebook; the positivity expressed by the group members showed her she was loved and valued. A school-age child wrote to say they were inspired to start helping the community. Airline miles are donated to reunite families. Innovative ideas are suggested for ways to help the homeless. A rich dialogue is being added daily as awareness grows. Community ties are being formed and strengthened.
Yes, there are many organizations working to decrease homelessness, including our local government. However, a problem as big and complex as homelessness requires the entire community. Just as all the cells in the body must be operating well and doing their part for a fully healthy life, we need all community members to be active and contribute for a fully thriving community. For a community as diverse as ours, we are sure there is no shortage of talents, strengths and expertise we can give.
So what is it you have to contribute? Maybe it's donating airline miles so families can be reunited. Maybe it's speaking up when those around you make prejudiced comments. Perhaps you can become a part of city commissions and boards that have stake in this issue. You may find a passion serving at food pantries or shelters; dropping off material goods at agencies working at the ground level is a massive help. Perhaps you're a musician who can play at shelters to boost morale, or maybe you're a good listener who can lend an ear to someone struggling. Whatever it is you do, just don't forget to genuinely see people as people, to see their humanity.
The work of Samuel Johns did not require specialized education, lots of startup money, or a title behind his name. All it required is to see people as human beings who are worthy of respect, love and care. And now, the action of one commendable citizen has started a powerful movement that is changing lives in deeply meaningful ways.
So the next time we see a homeless individual, let us pause long enough to remember that – just like you – they are a human being with a past and a story. This is our community, this is our home and it is a relatively small, highly connected home. The person in need may be more closely connected to us than we believe. Their stories and struggles – as well as their triumphs – may be more similar to ours than we initially thought. Let's engage ourselves and try to give just a little. We may find out that serving our community is not only our responsibility, but it can also bring great pleasure.
Ali F. Marvin (Tlingit Indian) is a doctoral student in the UAA-UAF clinical-community psychology program. Her research interests are centered on marginalized populations including the homeless, with a special interest in problems disproportionately affecting Alaska Native peoples. She seeks to bridge research with practical solutions to benefit the Alaska community.
E.J R. David is an associate professor of psychology at the University of Alaska Anchorage, and director of the Alaska Native Community Advancement in Psychology program. He has produced two books on the psychological experiences of ethnic minority groups, "Brown Skin, White Minds" and "Internalized Oppression: The Psychology of Marginalized Groups."