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Do You Ignore Homeless People?

People may say they want to help the homeless, but their behavior reveals something else.
 
 
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Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com/Pojoslaw

 
 
 
 

A few years ago, as David Sleppy was walking around downtown Toronto, he spotted a young homeless man who reminded him of his son, sleeping on a sidewalk.

“Whose son is this?” he thought.

He snapped a picture, beginning the creation of a book of photography aimed at capturing the invisible life of the homeless. The book is titled No One Sees Me, which comes from an encounter he had during his journey.

“What’s the worst part about being homeless?” Sleppy asked a homeless man on the street.

“No one sees me,” was the reply. 

Why We Don’t See

Homeless people go unseen everyday, as passersby ignore their existence on sidewalks, in parks, in subway stations. But perhaps people's most perplexing moment of disregard occurs when homeless people ask them for help. Requests like “Spare change?” “Got a dollar? and “Please help” overwhelmingly fall on deaf ears and diverted eyes.

“Panhandling sucks. It’s just hard. You have to take so much rejection,” said Paul Boden, who was once homeless for several years, and is now the organizing director for the Western Regional Advocacy Project, which works to expose and eliminate the root causes of poverty and homelessness.

“An overwhelming majority of people that walk past panhandlers ignore them or say something rude or look at them like they’re scum. And then you get a couple people that feel empathy to it and give. And then you get other people that, at the very least, look them in the eye and say, ‘Sorry, dude I can’t do it today.’”

One of the obvious reasons people react differently to panhandlers is their varying perceptions of homeless people.

“People have these attitudes — that they’re lazy, that they deserve what they get, they haven’t worked hard, they’re just looking for a handout. … and people with these attitudes lack compassion,” said Paul Toro, a psychology professor at Wayne State University who studies the public’s perception of poverty and homelessness.

In his research, Toro found that compared to other countries, people who live in countries like the United States and the United Kingdom that have more capitalistic economies and offer fewer social services, are more likely to believe personal failings are the primary cause of homelessness and feel less compassion for homeless people. Meanwhile, these countries have higher rates of homelessness than, for example, Germany, where there is a guaranteed minimum income, more generous unemployment benefits and more rigorous tenants’ rights.

Still, Toro said, the majority of people in the United States have compassion for the homeless.

“There is no compassion fatigue like there was in the media for awhile,” he said. “The media has compassion fatigue starting in the '90s, and then their interest in homelessness gets kind of leveled off, but the public hasn’t.”

Toro also found in his research that most people — about 60 percent — state they are even willing to pay more taxes to help homeless people.

Yet, while the abstract notion of helping homeless people draws support, an actual encounter with a homeless person asking for help often repels.

“The closer that poverty is to the face of people that aren’t in poverty, the uglier it is,” Boden said. “And the unfortunate part is that often gets manifested as the person is ugly — not the poverty is ugly. And poverty is ugly. It’s unpleasant. It doesn’t smell good.”

Boden said that as a result, people end up expecting a privacy in public places — and the scope of that privacy is dependent on who is asking for help.