Posted: August 1, 2008 in Compassion, Discrimination, Homelessness, Morality, Panhandling, Self Esteem

Panhandling by the homeless is a touchy topic to broach. Perhaps more than anything else, it is the one activity that the homeless engage in which "pushes people’s buttons." And, there is a wide division of opinions regarding it: how it should be handled; whether is should be allowed (or tolerated); how to go about preventing; what to do if you’re asked for spare change; should you give money to panhandlers; should you never give money to panhandlers; etcetera.  

As a result of my post yesterday, Sign Of The Times, my e-mail’s inbox was filled with folks expressing their opinions. Some folks thought I was wrong. Others thought I was right. And still others were still flip-flopping between believing that it was okay to give money to the homeless, but only to a limited extant. Only a couple of people actually decided to offer their thoughts on the matter in the form of a comment to the post.

* Sigh *

Well, at least it started people thinking.

Chris – one of those who left a comment – mentioned something right off the top that I wanted to address,

"I’ve given money, but usually only to a few homeless and almost every time they’ve felt the need to try to explain their situation (which I’m not sure I really have required or even asked, but they’ve felt maybe obliged to say?… not sure)."

In particular these 13 words: "… almost every time they’ve felt the need to try to explain their situation" I felt a need to try and explain.

For the most part, the homeless have very little genuine interaction with other members of the community. Most of the time, the only non-homeless they interact with are staff or employees of organizations who provide services for the homeless. Unfortunately, that interaction is generally nothing more than being "processed" to receive those services. So there is an actual lack of communication at the personal level.

Subsequently, the homeless usually only have other homeless persons to interact with. But, since the majority of homeless don’t really want to be homeless, having only other homeless which with to talk with is a constant reminder of their plight – and that can have a deleterious effect on a person’s psyche.

When you consider that human beings are by nature social creatures, you can see that there is a need for some type social interaction. Even the most reclusive, introverted person requires some form of personal interaction with others.

Case in point: within the penal system, one of the worse forms of punishment a person can have inflicted on them is to be placed in "solitary confinement." This type of segregation can and does create the potential for psychological damage.

In a report to the Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons, PSYCHIATRIC EFFECTS OF SOLITARY CONFINEMENT, Dr. Stuart Grassian, a Board Certified Psychiatrist, stated the following:

"…confinement of a prisoner alone in a cell for all or nearly all of the day, with minimal environmental stimulation and minimal opportunity for social interaction – can cause severe psychiatric harm. This harm includes a specific syndrome which has been reported by many clinicians in a variety of settings, all of which have in common features of inadequate, noxious and/or restricted environmental and social stimulation. In more severe cases, this syndrome is associated with agitation, self-destructive behavior, and overt psychotic disorganization.

In addition, solitary confinement often results in severe exacerbation of a previously existing mental condition, or in the appearance of a mental illness where none had been observed before. Even among inmates who do not develop overt psychiatric illness as a result of confinement in solitary, such confinement almost inevitably imposes significant psychological pain during the period of isolated confinement and often significantly impairs the inmate’s capacity to adapt successfully to the broader prison environment."

For the homeless, who are forced to exist in a community, but who are treated as though they are not a part of the community, these feelings of being isolated from everyone around them has similar effects. And the feeling of constantly being segregated from the rest of the community because of their homelessness dulls their ability to "socialize" with others. In short, they fall out of practice with regards to interacting with anyone other than other homeless persons.

Subsequently, when they are shown kindness by a non-homeless member of the community, there is a sense that a "personal interaction" is occurring; that someone is taking an interest in them. The result is that the homeless person will attempt to engage in a conversation. And because their topics of conversation with other homeless are about homelessness, that is what they end up talking to with non-homeless members of the community.

Additionally, this desire to not feel isolated may cause the person to "talk non-stop" in an attempt to extend the amount of time that they have another person to talk to. They don’t want to feel alone. They don’t want to feel uncared for. They don’t want to feel as though they are unworthy of human companionship.

But it makes me wonder how we seem to be so keen about making sure that prisoners are afforded certain rights, yet so often we aren’t willing to afford those same rights to those folks who call the streets of our community home.

What we’ve done is created a type of urban prison for our nation’s homeless. And while there may be no visible doors or barred windows, we have nonetheless placed them in a social solitary confinement.

It’s a terrible thing to feel alone.

  1. AnAmerican says:

    Thank you for providing this valuable insight regarding the psychological effects that the homeless go through. Only someone who has “been there” can appreciate the loneliness of feeling isolated due to being homeless.
    Loneliness is a universal human feeling. A smile, acknowledging another person’s persence, exchanging greetings when we met those who are homeless should guide us all in our interatcions with the homeless..and all people for that matter.

  2. Jack says:

    I’ve been homeless now for a couple of months, and in a community where I’d had a number and variety of contacts and acquaintances, etc. You can see a change pass across people’s faces at the moment they realize or learn that you are now “one of those” people. It’s almost eery. And then conversation gets stilted and quite a few go into “avoidance” mode.

    Oddly, even the people that work at the charity meals and other deals to serve the homeless”have little to no idea how to just have some normal, passing chat or dialoque with a homeless person… although they are in regular contact. You are treated as being “one of those” people, and spoken to accordingly.

    Yes, there are the “chronicly homeless” and even those that outright choose the life. But those of us that, not so long ago, were employed, equal community members in all other ways, get mightily demoted all the way to this cardboard cutout image and role. It’s one of the more unnerving aspects of the experience, frankly.

  3. Chris says:

    You *did* post something about this then…. I forgot to check back until now.

    Last night I was out and about with some clothes and befriended one guy. We talked until he said the cops were about to go through the park and starting checking IDs and making people leave. About an hour or so of us talking. The hard part for that guy is what Jack talked about – how had it all and it was completely stripped from him because of one person.

    I totally agree with what you wrote Michael (and Jack’s comment as well) – completely fits with everyone I’ve talked with.

    Still, I wonder (in particular for the guy I talked with last night) if it’s what they want to rehash their story and how they got there. He retold several parts over and over again, and why I wonder is because he said he feels the most at peace when he’s at his church. I assume one aspect of that is because (or at least I would hope) he feels “normal” there again, whereas most everywhere else he might not feel that way.

    When I asked about family, he mentioned that no one knows; I would also expect that would be so that he isn’t seen by them as “one of those people” as well.

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