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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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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.

“I think the poorer and darker-skinned and dirtier a person is, the bigger that private space bubble that Americans love to walk around with gets,” he said.

This bubble, Boden suggested, gets in the way of people’s ability to identify with homeless people. 

“We have demonized homeless people so much over the last 30 years that passersby don’t think they can ever end up on the street because they’re not crazy, they’re not drug addicted, they’re not alcoholics and they’re not stupid.”

But Robert Prasch disagrees — he believes passersby do think they could end up on the street. Prasch, who is an economics professor at Middlebury College, said that subconsciously, some people know that if it weren’t for circumstance, they could be on the streets, too.

“It’s easier psychologically to tell yourself, ‘Look, I could never be that because that person is different from me,’” he said. “So I think people do that. It’s instinctual almost. …And maybe it’s a microcosm of survivor’s guilt. People can’t look at their own luck in that moment. Otherwise it’s frightening. You have to think seriously about, ‘Well, what does that mean if that could be me.’”

In fact, nearly 40 percent of Americans live paycheck to paycheck, and thus can be homeless in a matter of months if laid off. But as Prasch said, too often people, especially progressives, think they can change attitudes with accurate information. He said we really need to explore people’s emotional commitments that are obtained at a young age and tied up in people’s identity.

“People have certain emotional commitments that are beyond information problems … like the following: ‘America is an exceptional country,’ ‘America is a place where if you work hard you succeed,’ or ‘I have myself succeeded because I worked hard and I’m an exceptional individual,’” he said. “If you see a lot of people on the street, then it begins to challenge these emotional commitments, and I think that’s when people sort of harden inside. It’s like, ‘I need to protect my commitment.’”

David Levine believes it may be much bigger than emotional commitments concerning work or success. Levine, the associate dean for academic affairs at Denver University’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies, said that the absence of knowledge about homeless people creates a space for people to project their fears — and then escape them.

“We grow up with deficits in self-esteem; we grow up with, more or less, profound doubts about our self-worth.…So when they encounter a person that kind of culturally represents shame or failure, by definition, then that is likely to activate their own deficits in the area of self-esteem,” Levine said. “So at that point in that encounter with the homeless person, all of their internal feelings get activated, and the question is: ‘What do I do with these feelings?’ Well, I use this person to contain them. We do the same thing with greed.…Now, capitalists are greedy. But we can also use them to contain our greed. We say, ‘I’m not greedy, capitalists are greedy.’…It’s a very common…coping mechanism for people.”

Levine said requests for money get bound up with shame, to which people react differently (though all try to hide it). Some people, he said, attempt to avoid their own shame by explicitly shaming the homeless person (telling them to “get a job,” etc.). Others may give because they believe they are responsible for the homeless person’s shame, and so they hyperbolize this idea of responsibility in an attempt to really repair their own damage. Still, others, he said, may even be inclined to give frequently in order to experience their shame in others, instead of themselves.

“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.