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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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“All of this means that there is a fairly intense, if temporary, identification with the homeless person…who represents the external form of our internal shameful, needy, incompetent, failed self,” he said. “The encounter may provoke us to feel the other person’s shame, which, through identification, is also to feel our own.”

Levine said that because shame is a taboo in our society, people often think about this encounter in more comforting ways. Perhaps, if people embraced their discomfort, they might begin to understand their actions.

“I think as a society, that being aware of our motivations gets us to some better place in our encounters with other people,” Levine said. “We don’t abuse them as much when we’re aware of why we do what we do.”

Facing Poverty

Despite billions of people living in poverty and many people’s desire to assist those in need, year after year goes by with little change — and people’s reactions to poor people’s request for money may reveal why that is. This encounter is a raw, complex moment in which one has the ability to provide for, or at least acknowledge, a person asking for help. But the majority of people ignore panhandlers as well as the discomfort of the encounter — just as poverty, in a global context, has largely gone ignored by the general public.  

Perhaps the first step to really addressing poverty is to examine ourselves as well as our reactions to poverty. As we begin to explore our motivations, Boden reminds us to critique the structures that cause poverty on a global scale. 

“Panhandling is the manifestation of racism, classism, lack of housing,” he said. “So let’s not just give them money and say, ‘Oh now I feel fine’… Giving people money when they’re panhandling isn’t… addressing poverty. It’s helping out a fellow human being, and that’s a cool thing to do.”

And perhaps a good place to start, though certainly just a beginning.

But if we can help and/or acknowledge poor people we encounter, perhaps we can begin to tackle some of the biggest issues behind poverty.

For David Sleppy, his constant encounters with homeless people while making his book helped him learn to identify with them. “Can we see…the piece of ourselves in this man?” he asks in his book.

Sleppy said the goal of his project was to create an awareness that homeless people are like everyone else, and thus important to recognize. He said: “I always try now to make eye contact with people and give them a smile. You see them on the street — just recognize who they are.”

Alyssa Figueroa’s next article features conversations with homeless people and the people who acknowledged them.

Alyssa Figueroa is an associate editor at AlterNet.