On our treatment of the apparently homeless

If you walk down the urban core of most cities you are bound to encounter someone who appears as homeless. Furthermore, when we talk about the plight of these people there are few people who can be found who do not see the situation of the apparently homeless as a problem that needs to be addressed. Now, while there are many competing social policies that can combat homelessness I will not discuss them here. What I would like to discuss is the way in which our ordinary relations to those who appear as homeless show that while we might feel that they are in a terrible situation and that society needs to help them improve their lot, when given an opportunity we rarely engage with them as human beings or fellow members of a community who have dignity. Through this disrespect for those who appear as homeless we are complicit in worsening their situation as we participate in a practise that tends to make the apparently homeless less capable of living a fully human life.

Also, it should be noted that this entry will only deal with those who appear as homeless. For example, those who look ragged and are dressed in ill-fitting dirty clothes with unkempt hair and dirt all over their faces and hands. There are many homeless people whose homelessness is invisible as they dress and appear just like anyone else, and their situation is certainly worth investigation, but my object here is to focus on those who appear to us as clearly homeless.

Anybody who has lived or worked in the downtown core of a large city has likely had the experience of an apparently homeless person coming up to us or a person we are near and asking for change or some other form of assistance. This person stands out from the rest of their crowd with their dirty, unkempt appearance and often people ignore and do not respond at all to the question raised by the apparently homeless person. Similarly, if someone spots an apparently homeless person they often will either go out of their way to avoid them or say “No” to them before the homeless person has had a chance to speak thereby preventing themselves from being asked a question. Likewise, even when an apparently homeless person is merely interested in chatting with someone on the street many of us are afraid to engage with them, and either ignore them or try to talk to them in the most minimal way possible to get away from them as soon as possible. I say all of these things not in a finger waving way, but because I, and many other seemingly compassionate people that I know, are guilty of this kind of action at one time or another in our lives.

But this raises the question of why seemingly compassionate people react this way when confronted by the apparently homeless? It seems to me that the core of this issue is that we have become deeply ingrained to fundamentally see the apparently homeless as predominantly an unpredictable, and possibly threatening force, rather than as vulnerable human beings looking for assistance. Consequently, when the apparently homeless appear before us our most basic reaction is to avoid engagement with them. After we react in this way to the apparently homeless or during our brief interaction we may have a thought in the back of our minds that this person is just a human like me and is just unfortunate enough to fell into a difficult situation, but our more visceral reaction is to perceive them kind of like a wild, possibly dangerous animal that we do not want to hurt, but we also do not want to engage with. More than once late at night an apparently homeless person has come up to me, and my first reaction is often to avoid interacting with them at all or for any extended period of time. After the fact I feel guilty about not engaging with the person and treating them like I would treat any other person, but treating them as human beings who should be engaged with respectfully when they ask a question is something that I need to work with myself to do against my more fundamental response of fear. What, in fact, has led to this mode of reacting to the apparently homeless is an interesting question, but not one that I have the time to discuss in this entry.

When we interact with the apparently homeless by ignoring their presence or trying to flee from them as quickly as possible because of our fear we are complicit in worsening their situation. The apparently homeless often are in fact homeless and suffer in that they lack shelter and consequently their health and physical prosperity is always at risk. But on top of this the apparently homeless also are faced with being devalued and misrecognized in the social world they inhabit. It is not just that as an apparently homeless person I cannot find shelter from the elements, it is that whenever I try to interact with a person I tend to be either ignored when I merely ask another a question or dismissed as a parasite just trying to get money for myself for drugs, alcohol or some other apparent vice. In being seen in this way the apparently homeless suffer much in the way that persecuted ethnic and other minorities do, in that the gaze of the other, presents a demeaning image of themselves before their eyes, and when this occurs it tends to negates their ability to live a fully human life. This occurs as those who are seen fundamentally in society as lesser will tend to interiorize this image of themselves and as a result become less able to pursue what they see as fundamentally valuable. In this sense one condition of possibility of pursuing what is worthwhile is being seen as having dignity by others and so when we participate in the practise of treating the apparently homeless with fear and disrespect, we are not merely making an innocent choice about how to respond to them, we are complicit in depriving them of the ability to live a fully human life.

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4 thoughts on “On our treatment of the apparently homeless

  1. I, too, tend to react in the same way towards the “apparent homeless” (I like that phrase, BTW.) But I do have some experiences with them and a few stories to tell.

    My experiences with them were mostly when I lived in Albuquerque. I had just dropped out of college and I lived in a house with a bunch of hippies, paying $50 a month for a couch to sleep on. I had no job, but I made quite a bit of money playing guitar on the street. I learned the ins and outs of this from a homeless person, whom I found sleeping on the floor of our house one day. He was most definitely an “apparent homeless” man (and was indeed homeless). What happened was the people I lived with had asked him “where they could score ‘shrooms'” and he said he knew, then proceeded to guide them to an even better experience—he took them to on an adventure to look for ancient Native American pot shards. When I woke up and found him on the floor, I was pretty frightened at first. But then he won me over by playing guitar with me, and he was impressed that I knew all those songs from his era. He told me I should be out making money, then he took me out to show me how to do it. I somehow trusted this guy even though there was always a part of me that was afraid. He ended up riding the bus with me to Whole Foods, talking to the manager (whom he knew) and securing me a spot in front of the grocery store. He explained that Whole Foods is the best spot, people going in have money and they tend to be liberal. He told me about how I need a funny sign (His was “My wife told me to get a job. This is it.”) He told me not to let the cash accumulate in the open guitar case, otherwise people will see you’re making a ton of money. He told me to leave a few dollars and change in there to give people the idea. He knew quite a few children’s songs, and he’d play those when parents came by with their kids. (I never did this.) Then he told me how to get an almost free meal across the street. I dressed up instead of down, and I ended up earning a lot of money—more than he ever could, as he predicted—enough to go back to college.

    This man ended up in prison, or so I heard.

    While I was busking, another homeless man hung around. He had a spot on the corner of the street. This man came up and listened to me play and—you wouldn’t believe it—tipped me in the form of a half a pack of cigarettes. I tried to give them back to him, but he wouldn’t take them. We started talking and he ended up telling me his life story. He was a Vietnam Vet and an alcoholic. He had stashes of booze hidden all over the parking lot. He said he used to have a wife and children, and he told me he had ruined their lives and his own. It was sad to hear this, especially since he was drunk as he told me. He was completely harmless and he’d come over from time to time to chat or listen to me play. He showed me where he lived, under a bridge. If you drove past this bridge, you’d never see the community of tents set up there.

    Another homeless man I became familiar with would come up to me aggressively and I feared I was about to get robbed. Apparently this was his method for getting money. He never actually robbed anyone, but his intimidation tactics irritated my friend. She once screamed at him and he backed off and left us alone from then on.

    The truth is, the homeless and the apparent homeless are people with different backgrounds, different reasons for being where they are. A lot of them are using drugs and some of them are dangerous. I think the best approach is to assess the situation. I never give money to them, but if I feel or sense that it’s safe, I give groceries. That way you can ensure that you’re not funding their bad habits.

    • Those experiences are certainly interesting, and I agree with you that it is best to approach the situation of encounters with the apparently homeless on a case by case basis. The problem is not when you fear an apparently homeless person that is being aggressive or intimidating. Rather, the issue is when we let our fear consume us such that we do not actually judge the situation but assume because the person appears homeless that they must be feared and ignored. But that is just my thought. 🙂

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