Lee Stringer was a homeless man, famous for his exchanges with the eminent Postmodern writer Kurt Vonnegut. He wrote a book called Grand Central Winter. The book is highly amusing, for a number of reasons, one of which is because Lee is completely upfront about how it’s his own fault he’s on the streets (due to drugs) … but also how he wants to redeem himself via writing, because that’s where he finds purpose and meaning.
I think an obvious lesson can be learned from this little anecdote, one of which is that we must be accountable for our actions, whether we are millionaires or homeless drug addicts. But Lee Stringer has another important lesson to teach, and that is his idea that “indifference goes both ways.” He describes how he was sleeping at the train station, and how people would ignore his plight (of sleeping in a train station). But Lee Stringer, never the kind to give up, tells the audience that indifference can go both ways: Essentially, Lee Stringer doesn’t have to care about the public, just like the public doesn’t care about him.
Indifference goes both ways.
For my intents and purposes: Invisibility goes both ways.
How am I defining invisibility? It’s rather simple. It’s a concept that’s adopted by many sociologists as simply an unawareness of the homeless population, ranging from ignoring the population to not even seeing them. I’m using that definition.
My thesis is that invisibility goes both ways. To the public, a homeless person is invisible, but I also argue that to the homeless person, the public is invisible.
This is a precarious situation, and I’m going to discuss the implications. First, however, I’m going to lay down how invisibility goes both ways, first off by describing how the public makes the homeless invisible.
In my personal experience, I have witnessed that the homeless are not welcome in public spaces, such as businesses. I have heard appalling stories about how society tries to make the homeless invisible by certainly not offering a helping hand. McDonalds recently banned customers from buying food for the homeless. A woman had to resort to her freedom of religion to help her situation (she was ticketed for feeding the homeless). The city puts spikes on park benches so the homeless can’t sleep on them, or they make the benches as uncomfortable as possible. And if this isn’t enough, I know that panhandling has become illegal in some areas, which is what homeless people tend to do to get money to survive. And this is just in America. I know it’s worse in some places, where the police or some organization is hired to “clean the streets,” and literally kill people to get them off the property of the businesses.
I was once sitting with a homeless man, a refugee from the Middle East, outside of a Café Rio. I had bought him tea from a Starbucks. I will never forget this experience: We were chatting, simply talking, and I was trying to help him in whatever way I could, chiefly by talking to him. The refugee was panhandling for change, as he was talking to me. Suddenly the manager comes out, threatening to call the police if we didn’t leave. She had assumed I was homeless, simply because I was associating with a homeless man.
If that isn’t invisibility or the desire to make another person (in this instance, including me) invisible, then I definitely don’t know what is.
Society wants to make the homeless invisible because they are a major inconvenience to their shopping experience. I have heard that the homeless literally scare the customers at local businesses, and so the businesses, so they don’t lose money, ban the homeless from existing, by ticketing them or throwing them in jail … anything to get them out of the way of the businesses.
This desire to make homeless people invisible by making them unwelcome in businesses is a major reflection of capitalism at its worst. Certainly, capitalisms seems to be the best method we have for distributing resources so far, by having an open and free market, but it starts to encourage attitudes like banning homeless people from businesses to make them invisible. Because essentially, the principle guiding this idea is that the business is the owner. Karl Marx has a great criticism of capitalism, where he says that “You will work for me not because I am better than you, but because I have the money.” This sentiment shows the power of the business, and where it comes from: Because of money.
Throw in our Postmodern consumerism, and you’ve got a problem. The customers are eating at their local Café Rio or shopping at their local mall because they want commodities. They want stuff. We can argue all day about the ethical implications of this all we want, but that is actually unimportant here. What is important is that we as consumers don’t want to encounter homeless people while we’re shopping for a new pair of pants. What we want is to enjoy our shopping experience.
And so the consequence, is making the homeless invisible at businesses, and making life hard for the homeless.
Businesses and our consumerist culture are one reason why we as a society render the homeless invisible. Another issue that must be talked about, however, is certainly a controversial one, and that is panhandling.
There are a lot of conceptions about panhandling. As mentioned earlier, it is illegal in many areas, and that is because they have found that people who panhandle use the money to buy drugs.
I have mixed feelings about panhandling. On the one hand, I can see why a homeless person would ask for change (assuming they are honest): Because they need money for food and shelter. Money, due to capitalism, is the currency of our survival. On the other hand, I know that it’s very easy for an addict to buy drugs with the money they are given, and it would seem smarter to give the money to an organization.
However, despite all of this, I can certainly see why panhandling is a problem. It’s distracting. But this is exactly what needs to be addressed. Why won’t the homeless person ask for what they need, not ask for money? If they need shelter, why don’t they just admit they need shelter? If they need food, why not admit that? Panhandling, unfortunately, increases the gap between the public and the homeless. There is already a large gap between the public and the homeless population, and that is because there is little to no meaningful daily interaction between both groups, but I think that panhandling is certainly a reason for this gap. Panhandling is an awkward activity to engage in, even if you are desperate. It also doesn’t make sense, to an extent, when there are other resources for the homeless to utilize. There might be reasons why those resources aren’t utilized, and it would seem appropriate to investigate why that is the case.
I’m definitely not implying there aren’t circumstances where panhandling wouldn’t be a necessary way of coping and surviving. However, I think it is an issue that should be addressed, and it should be addressed because it seems to be leading the homeless to be invisible. Panhandling, or the act of panhandling, has become the symbol for the homeless. It in fact seems to be the only way that society generally interacts with the homeless, for better or for worse. But the reasons why the homeless are panhandling must be acknowledged and short-circuited. I’m not saying that panhandling should be banned and made illegal, but I’m also noticing some problems with panhandling, namely, how it doesn’t solve the underlying problem: That, the homeless person needs something, and that need isn’t being addressed.
Again, I will reiterate that this must be acknowledged, because it opens the gap wider between the homeless population and the public, and it leads to the homeless being more invisible. Some people may give out money, but mostly, the panhandler is seen as a nuisance, and someone that must be ignored, and consequently, turned invisible.
There is a final contributor to the invisibility of the homeless. There may be others, but the ones I am mentioning seem to be some of the most crucial.
The final contributor to invisibility of the homeless population from the public is as simple as stereotypes. The stereotypes range from wanting to stay away from a homeless person because he is dirty and unclean, to staying away because he is flat-out dangerous.
I don’t want to confirm or deny these stereotypes (because generalizations can sometimes be true) … but I do want to challenge them, so we can reevaluate how we think about the homeless.
Let’s start off with the stereotype that they are dirty and mangy. There is a great book called Street Kids by Kristina Gibson, where the sociologist actually makes it clear that homeless kids are often clean, because they want to blend in. In this instance, the stereotypes of the “dirty, mangy, no-good homeless person” is unfounded.
But even if a person was dirty and mangy, this is not a good reason to refuse interacting with one. People get dirty all the time. This is instead, rather a representation of the superficiality of our culture. You can’t get sick from being around dirt. It doesn’t kill you. There’s a great parallel to this: If you need water and are in the middle of nowhere, suck on a rock. As the saying goes, a little dirt never hurt you.
Jokes aside, not acknowledging or working with a homeless person because they are dirty is not a sufficient reason for making them invisible. It is, however, all it takes sometimes, more often than not.
A better reason for avoiding the homeless is because they are dangerous. I must give pause when I talk about this specific idea. I don’t want to encourage people to get themselves in dangerous positions by helping the homeless. But I do want to acknowledge a pretty universal fact: Anybody can be dangerous. Anybody. I know that in the population of the mentally ill, the stereotype that that mentally ill person is violent runs rampant, even though in actuality (and this has been shown in many ways), the mentally ill person is more likely to be victimized. In terms of the homeless population, this is a little different, because I haven’t heard anything conclusive, though I imagine, without trying to encourage risky behavior, that the homeless people (that are genuinely homeless) are actually the vulnerable ones.
Think about this logically. If they are genuinely homeless (and not simply a criminal posing as a homeless person), they don’t have shelter, which makes people extremely vulnerable, they might have a mental illness, and they are probably hungry, and who knows when they last got a good night’s sleep? All of these factors, and more, contribute to making a homeless person incapable of being a threat. With all of these basic needs not met, they just need help. Again, this assumes that the person is genuinely homeless or has some degree of honesty.
It would seem to me that the difficulty is certainly figuring out which homeless people are genuinely in need, and which ones aren’t. This uncertainty probably leads to the stereotypes that exist, that essentially, if they are homeless, just stay away from them, because they are dangerous.
My final thoughts on these stereotypes (and there are others, but these are two of the main ones), is that I still stand by my claim that being around a “dirty” person is not in and of itself a bad thing. Being around a dangerous person is more problematic, for obvious reasons, and what must be emphasized is safety. That being said, there are good reasons why the homeless are actually the vulnerable ones, or at the very least, generally in need. The trick is finding out which ones really need the help, and more importantly, which ones are ready to get help. It has been said multiple times that a homeless person must want to get off the streets to get off the streets, and that we can’t control their decisions, and while I disagree with this claim in sentiment (it seems limiting and like too much of a generalization, and doesn’t require a person to go the extra mile in terms of helping a homeless person), there is some truth to this in practice, and that must be acknowledged. Also, I wouldn’t want to encourage people to be around “dangerous homeless people,” but I also wouldn’t want to perpetuate a negative stereotype, either, and that’s where the trick is, it would seem.
Now of course, invisibility goes both ways: That is the core thesis of this paper. But in what ways do the homeless consciously make themselves invisible? If we’ve established that society works to make the homeless invisible, then what reasons would the homeless themselves have for making themselves invisible, particularly if society is already doing it for them?
Not so fast: That to me is fallacious. It operates under the assumption that the homeless first off don’t desire to become invisible, and also that society is the only active agent on the lives of the homeless. This is true in a sense, but I would say, only to an extent.
It’s true that the general public has a large say in what happens to the homeless. The homeless are a marginalized, oppressed, and unappreciated population in society. But I’m going to offer two reasons why the homeless opt to become invisible: First, because the homeless people are deeply entrenched in a specific lifestyle that requires them to stay off the radar (this could include living a life of crime, but not always out of an inherent desire to break the law); second, because the homeless feel unwelcome, and so the oppression hurts so much that they drop out of the public eye, or they openly rebel against the established norm.
The first reason, as I posited, is because the homeless want to stay underground and off the radar. The life of crime is a complicated one, and while I believe that humans should always be accountable for their actions and should be held accountable for committing crime, sometimes the circumstances surrounding the crime are very nuanced.
I don’t deny that some homeless people (or even imposters) live underground because they want to commit crime, for whatever agenda they have. Those kind of people, however, are unimportant to this discussion, because, while they must be addressed, their fate is probably best left to law enforcement. That may sound cold, but that’s what the law is for: To judge crime in a fair light, and some openly violate those laws, and that is not acceptable.
The population that I want to speak up for, however, are the people who commit crimes out of circumstance. Some homeless people are drug addicts, and so, they break the law by getting drugs and by stealing, for instance, to get the drugs. I don’t condone this behavior, but it would seem to me that drug addiction is a serious reason for a person being homeless. It wouldn’t be unfair to speak of a “street life”: When you are on the streets, you are thinking about your survival, and if drugs give you that feeling of survival, you’ll do anything to protect it. I separate this class of people from the class that willingly breaks the law, however, because I think there is still hope for these kinds of people. They are a slave to the drugs. People must work with them to convince them of the benefits of getting sober. They must try to reason with the addict to get off the streets so they don’t have to live the street life.
One of my main philosophical claims is indeed that corruption exists everywhere: Anyone can be fallible, or even blatantly harmful, to themselves or to the people around them. This means that rich businesses are just as guilty as a homeless drug addict. This is an existentialist claim, indeed, in the sense that all must be held accountable and all are capable of making bad decisions because they are free beings. I also acknowledge that this claim means that I have to acknowledge that there is corruption in the homeless population (the very population I am trying to defend). This would imply that some simply use the streets as a vehicle to commit crime. That being said, I can’t shake the intuition that not everyone is a willful breaker of the law: Some are, as I mentioned before, simply slaves to the drugs, and haven’t had the right experiences or discussions to get them off the drugs. I can’t shake the feeling that more should be done for these people, who don’t willfully break the law, are simply unsure of where to proceed from their drug addiction. I have a saying that has developed due to my experiences with the homeless, and that has served as a pretty good maxim: “The longer you stay on the streets, the harder it will be to get off of the streets, and the more your entrench yourself in the street life and the street mind set.” The basic idea is pretty simple and self-explanatory, but I’ll elucidate by saying that I’m pointing out that the more hopeless a homeless person feels due to their circumstances, the more they resign themselves to the streets, and as a consequence, resign themselves to the life of crime.
The problem of drug addiction in the homeless population is a difficult subject to tackle, but I have tried to tackle it with grace and honesty. There isn’t an easy solution, though it’s clear that the drugs reinforce the criminal behavior, but that the criminal behavior reinforces the drug addiction, and that all of this is complicated by the rough and tough environment of the streets and the street life, making it nearly impossible to get off.
But this covers the blatant crime as well as the confusions surrounding drug addiction. What about the petty crimes? What are we to say about the homeless person that is arrested for trespassing (because they are sleeping at a park, for instance)? What are we to say to the homeless person arrested for stealing food? What are we to say about the homeless person that is ticketed for some arbitrary law that he broke?
This, to me, is the bigger problem. As a friend of mine once told me when I asked why homeless people are so easily ticketed: “Because they are a target.”
And indeed, he’s right. Homeless people don’t always blend in. Sometimes, they can’t blend in, particularly when they have to camp out in a public space. What must be taken into account in this case is the blatant vulnerability of this population.
Now, you might be wondering what this has to do with invisibility? In fact, am I actually contradicting myself, by pointing out how apparent the homeless are?
Not so fast: I would argue that the homeless, in order to stay invisible, commit crime to survive, the crime of which forces them to constantly run from law enforcement and the authorities. This actually helps me wrap up my idea here: Which is, essentially, that the need to survive and meet the basic needs leads to crime, the crime of which causes the homeless person to stay under the radar and stay invisible.
This is crucial. The homeless person probably feels, once a criminal, always a criminal … and they’ll never have the chance to be a well-regarded citizen of society again, and so they give up on it, and just collapse deeper and deeper into the street life.
One final note: I am hesitant to say that there are “white lamb” homeless people out there, because I think the streets are such a corrupting place for a homeless person to be, and they eventually corrupt even the best person (this is due to the variety of factors, such as the high crime rate on the streets, the constant drugs, the constant sex trafficking, etc.). However, I think it’s okay to evoke characters in literature such as Oliver Twist from the novel by Charles Dickens and Gavroche from the novel Les Miserables: There is a period in the lives of some homeless people where there is still hope for them, but due to the overwhelming situation surrounding them, the constant corrupting influences surrounding them, it pretty much takes a miracle for them to be saved … but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t shaped by the overwhelming circumstances surrounding them. I can’t say what percentage of the homeless population is an Oliver Twist or Gavroche, but I think if we can say that Draconian drug lords can exist in the homeless population, we have to account for the innocent as well.
Now my second point about invisibility: That is, simply the notion that a homeless person seeks invisibility because they don’t feel welcome, and so they blatantly rebel against society, or simply allow themselves to fade into the background. In other words, there are people who purposely make themselves invisible, and others who make themselves invisible but only out of necessity, not to make a statement.
It would seem that this point is pretty self-explanatory, but I will explain in further detail. We take for granted the affect that society has on the homeless. If invisibility goes both ways, society might want a homeless person to be invisible, but a homeless person might wish to be invisible precisely because society wishes them to be invisible. In my philosophy I stress all agents as “active,” with little emphasis as possible on the passive, which means that the homeless person can choose to fall off the radar just as easily as society pushes them off the radar. And this is due to feelings of being unwanted/cast out. This is a conscious choice on the part of the homeless person: “If I’m not wanted, then I will become invisible, so I don’t have to feel unwelcome.” It’s completely psychological, but it explains why a homeless person would want to become invisible.
Then there are those who blatantly rebel. They don’t want to be seen at all. They want to become invisible. You could pass this person on the street, and even if they know you, they won’t acknowledge your existence. They do this out of a need to preserve the self, and to survive, and keep whatever confidence they have left intact. If society wants them to be invisible, they will just play a game of reverse psychology: “Fine, I’ll be invisible.”
Whatever the degree of desire to be invisible, the basic reason for this is clear: Although the homeless person is choosing to be invisible, they are doing so out of circumstance. Society doesn’t want them, and so they become invisible, to preserve themselves.
Why am I arguing that homeless people seek out invisibility? Especially when that seems to weaken the benefits of the claim that it’s society that oppresses, not the homeless that oppress themselves? That is because the homeless have choices as well, and sometimes they have to make do with the hand they are given, and it is my responsibility to try to show that they have a say in what they do. The problem is, invisibility is exactly the problem I wish to attack, and is a topic that is ignored: Society shouldn’t be oppressing the homeless into invisibility, but the homeless shouldn’t ever feel like they need to be invisible and consequently, choose that invisibility. It might lead to feelings of safety and self-preservation, but it ultimately widens the gap between the homeless and the public.
Now, all of this leads me nicely into something that must be discussed: And that is, the implications of invisibility, that I describe as going both ways.
Well, I’ve already implied that it is damaging to the relations between the public and the homeless, which doesn’t benefit anyone. I would explore that in depth but it would seem to me the implications of that are obvious: The homeless are not being treated as equal citizens in society, but rather, people who just get in the way of a functional society.
But even deeper than this: It would seem to me that the implication of this invisibility is what it says about society. It says that society has chosen a group to selectively ignore, an argument that is used (rather irrationally) for issues ranging from race to gender to physical disability. It goes without saying that we marginalize the homeless and that the homeless choose to be invisible to circumvent some of the problems, but I think that this model of people actively bringing about an invisible population shows that we are selectively pushing out a group of people, and rejecting them from society, simply because of their socio-economic status.
There are many ethical implications of this, but the point I want to hit is the idea that this is not the American ideal of equality. I think the founding fathers knew that equality was a long shot (slaves existed during the times of the founding fathers, and as Sartre implies, what about the freedom of the black man?), but we can never forget the Enlightenment ideal of progress, and how important it is to strive for something. Women might still be marginalized, but due to women’s suffrage, they enjoy a better status. The invisibility of the homeless means we must do the same for them: We must work to make them a minority that is heard, a group of people that have rights and deserve, at the very least, to be treated with basic human dignity. I think it’s easy to forget this when we get caught up in various problems with the homeless (whether facing stereotypes or active rebellion), but this principle of equality has always been the driving principle behind American values. Sure, equality is a loaded term, but I’m using it specifically here as the idea that we give the homeless people the benefit of the doubt, and that we treat them as citizens of this country and that we treat them like fellow humans. That is equality.
I want to close by describing the painful and sad ramifications of invisibility. Not too long ago, I befriended a homeless kid. He was open with me. He was visible, even though he was with his cart behind a building. We talked. I got some of his story. He said that he wanted to get off the streets, maybe get a job, he just didn’t know how to do that yet.
I saw him again a couple days later. More resistant to talking to me, but still visible. I once even saw him talking with a friend and had assumed that things were slowly working out for him.
And then he disappeared … until I saw him again, just recently. I smiled at him, but even though he saw me, he continued on his way, and barely acknowledged me, or the friendship that I had tried to cultivate.
That is the process of invisibility. It might be gradual, but sooner or later, the homeless become completely unseen.