Apparently most people don’t see homeless people as human beings

HumanA little video is circling the internet which shows the reactions of homeless people on nasty tweets about them. Apparently this is necessary to show the world that homeless people have feelings too. Research of Harris and Fiske (2010) showed that many people don’t see homeless people as real human beings. Harris and Fiske made brain scans of regular people looking at objects and human beings. When looking at human beings, the medial prefrontal cortex was activated, which is involved in social cognition. When looking at objects, the medial prefrontal cortex didn’t lit up, and the same happened when they saw pictures of heavy marginalized groups like substance dependent or homeless people. I found a same sentiment reflected in a recent blog post here, that basically came down to the conclusion that homeless people are not worthy (or not worthy enough) of our money. Homeless people were portrayed as professional beggars who make tons of money collecting our 50 cents. And they don’t use their fortunes to improve their lives, but to buy drugs or alcohol.
I did quite a lot of research in homeless shelters. For one project I would spend weeks at the time in shelters, recruiting people. I can tell you, it really got under my skin. When I would come home on a Friday evening after a week’s work, I would feel very numb after spending so much time in a ward with 20 other people, the constant noise of a tv, having to ask for a key to use the bathroom, having no private space. Call me sentimental or materialistic, but when I would come home, I would cry. Having your own fridge, with your own favourite drink in it that you could just get and drink by yourself without anyone watching you suddenly felt like a privilege. Why should we give money to homeless people? For me it is because of what the Lithuanian-French philosopher Levinas call the ethical appeal that the face of the other makes to you. Seeing someone being in misery should evoke feelings of empathy. For that I don’t need to see homeless people being hurt through nasty tweets before I recognise them as human.
I know that people get homeless for very different reasons. Relationships break up and people find themselves homeless, some people get homeless after spending a lot of time overseas, and when their fortune turns, they find they have no place to live, no social network, and their savings evaporate quickly. Some people have serious mental health issues and addiction problems, but sometimes treatment facilities for addiction refuse them for their mental health issues and vice versa.
I hope the movie makes people realise that homeless people are worthy our compassion and money. I found the movie offensive because it seems to be at the expense of homeless people. Rather than confront the people who tweet nasty things about homeless people, homeless people got extra violated, just so that we could see their emotions. In the Netherlands a very interesting experiment has started. Homeless people were given a smartphone and a twitter account and asked to tweet about their lives. The idea was to break the social isolation of homeless people. I think this is a way more respectful way to show the general public that homeless people are human.
To end with one of these tweets: ‘When I look back at my life, I see chaos, mistakes, suffering and sadness. When I look in the mirror, I see strength, lessons learned and wisdom’

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3 Responses to Apparently most people don’t see homeless people as human beings

  • JM says:

    I live in a large U.S. city in a neighborhood with a high rate of homeless presence, situated three blocks from the city’s largest homeless shelter on one side (principally for males) and a couple of blocks from the city’s largest “soup kitchen”. Have high compassion but fatigue sets in from the daily gauntlet of being asked for money, while we live in a ragtag apartment ourselves, barely subsisting in arts. Aggressiveness verging on physical threat has become a problem (my teen son has been bullied and chased) and there have been times we’ve given to people too regularly and have had it turn eventually into a frightening stalking situation. Of course, the most obviously mentally ill among the homeless are the ones who are most at threat, we witnessing this regularly with the sad cases of the speechless or barely-there wanderers, who never beg, being beaten up in parking lots by the more aggressive homeless, and those who are aggressive are alarmingly so (such as the guy who chased my son, and another guy who pulled a knife on my husband). Crossing the sidewalk to the grocery store means being aggressively pursued and hit on several times. A popular restaurant two blocks from here (not high end) has security out front handling the homeless that literally line the sidewalk to hit on its patrons. I should say that the homeless shelter near us is one that is talked about amongst social workers as being a part of the problem as it does little to help anyone other than providing a bed for the night, and a parking lot across the street from it was an open and thriving drug spot for years. When that lot was briefly closed down (was fenced for a time), the dealing simply gravitated a block down to the aforementioned grocery store. There’s also a park near us, a block from the homeless shelter, that isn’t used for contented strolling in a bare minimum of nature because it is hidden from the street, up on a hill with a fencing of trees, and was all drug dealers and homeless. We’ve lived here for 12 years and I never once ever considered taking our son on a happy lark walk through that closest park with him because it was forbidden territory. It wouldn’t have been one woman with child chasing pigeons around chess players and skateboarders. It would have been the drug dealers and homeless wondering what in the the world this woman and child were doing going into forbidden territory for exercise. The city seems to be now trying to clean that up a little and are pushing the drug dealers out, but they are simply again taking it to the main drag a block from us and the grocery store parking lot etc.

    The homeless use our apartment building’s entrance for a urinal at night–where else are they supposed to go, but when it’s your building’s entrance that stinks and you occasionally pass by the guy pissing on the wall then yeah it’s more than aggravating. When I walk out the front door at any time of day I’m likely going to have 4 homeless men sitting against the building across the street staring back at me. The pedestrian “sounds” I daily listen to are those of the guys who rant loudly to imaginary presences as they go up and down the street. At night, we walk past silent figures of the homeless sleeping on lawns and others roaming the sidewalks up and down all night and going through the garbage outside our windows. We never know, getting up in the morning, when we’re going to go to our car and find the windows busted out for no reason at all because of course we don’t keep anything of worth in it. But one time we left a pair of cheap sunglasses on the dashboard and that was enough. I can’t count how many times our windows have been busted out, but I understand that’s usually transient homeless, and it does usually occur in the fall when there’s a heavy migration of transient homeless through here.

    There are those among the homeless who recognize us and we just share the neighborhood, they don’t hit on residents much. When we first moved in, a homeless man (severely epileptic) would do odd jobs here, stored his few bags of belongings in our building, stored here too the cans he collected for recycling, and every morning he would take respite behind our building just sitting on a chair away from the street. He would occasionally disappear and then be back; he didn’t care for half-way house living and not having independence. He was scared of many of the other homeless people at the shelter.

    It’s the frighteningly aggressive homeless, and there are many now, who make one wary of most everyone eventually.

    So, yes, we practice eyes straight ahead always (exercising good peripheral vision) and a carry no cash policy just as a matter of survival. But, like I said, a lot of it is just plain old fatigue when you’re living in the same neighborhood. And it’s a problem when you are a person for whom $5 and $10 is important and makes the difference as to what you’re eating that night and whether or not you’re going to buy expensive peanut butter or wait a few days.

    And at the same time I’m infuriated by extremely-well-off relatives who have raised their children to look down on the poor (we’re counted among the impoverished) and the homeless, who speak disparagingly about our neighborhood (despite the fact there’s also t a lot of money here, high-rise expensive condos being thrown up daily) and who think of the homeless as deserving what they get and having no compassion for them. They do look upon them as objects. If a “poor” person has on a good pair of shoes, they resent it and see themselves as having been personally deprived of wealth, because no poor person should have a good pair of shoes as they haven’t properly earned them. They seriously do see it as that person having walked in their closet and taken those shoes from them. The homeless and poor are not only objects to them, they are also the enemy.

    I don’t even know why I’m posting. Except to comment it’s a complex problem. As far as I’m concerned, the most egregious perpetrators of social and economic violence are those protected by corporate walls and good lawyers. They are only getting wealthier by the minute at great and terrible cost to the rest of us. And yet, despite my views, despite my being a person of great empathy, I daily walk right past the line of homeless with my don’t-fuck-with-me expression on because I’m fatigued and don’t have money myself and also don’t want those who are iffy to see me as a vulnerable target, especially when I live right there. And I feel guilty. And I don’t feel guilty.

    P.S. No, I don’t do homeless activism and it wouldn’t make me feel better if I did. I did do 17 years of volunteer work for several non-profits and I’m currently taking a break from that as I hit a wall of fatigue there, too.

    • Anke Snoek says:

      Thanks for sharing your story! I can imagine you are very fatigued by the situation. It is a shame that so many people have to live on the street in your neighbourhood, and it is a shame that the council doesn’t do more to help them.

  • JM says:

    P.P.S. It occurred to me that maybe I should note that the homeless shelter three blocks from us houses 700 to 1000 homeless a night and that these make up the bulk of the pedestrian traffic in our neighborhood. I didn’t want it to sound like we have fatigue from a few dozen or so homeless.

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