Every society has outsiders. Among people whose economic systems are based on reciprocity, outsiders are often those who don’t reciprocate, or who try to take all the glory. In most societies, there are outsiders who don’t buy into the general religious or moral framework, or who display symbols (piercings in some circles, for example) that are considered renegade or inappropriate. In industrial and/or capitalist societies, class becomes like caste, resulting in class wars and various kinds of discrimination intertwined with racism and other isms. In the case of the United States, I would venture to say that homeless people could be referred to as our “untouchables”. This may at first seem like a useless generalization or zealously comparative statement, but I think it is a fairly accurate way to look at what it is like to be homeless, or even just dirt poor in America. Granted, I’m speaking largely from personal experience, so I’m a bit biased.One of the reasons I was attracted to anthropology is its humanistic elements, although I haven’t quite adopted the label “humanist” because it’s a bit too anthrocentric. Anyway, I wonder how this prerogative of humanism plays out in day to day life. Are most anthropologists philanthropists? When you see homeless people, do you wonder what it must be like for them? Do you think about their circumstances, the cultures of which they are a part and the mainstream culture of which they are outsiders?
I think there may be another element to anthropology, too: rumor has it that it’s an outsider’s discipline. It’s full of eccentrics, artists, people who aren’t happy with science, religion and the like as we know it. Liberals, progressives, and would-be revolutionaries. For all our studies of social norms and cultural traits, don’t we tend to identify with the underdog? Do you see a little of yourself in the panhandler?
Here’s a test of your humanism and/or your renegade self: what do you do when a homeless person asks you for money?
I have often heard people say that if you want to help someone who’s homeless, you should give the money to an agency that is responsible for delivering aid. The reasons behind this I suppose are that aid agencies are supposed to give handouts to those most in need; they usually give in the form of food, vouchers and housing rather than cash which could be used for addictive substances. That all makes sense — on the other hand, you’re paying for administrative costs, and the aid you want to give may not ever filter down to that person who is most in need, for various reasons, much less the person asking you for a dime right in front of you. Plus, you’re paying for whatever doctrines that agency wants to espouse. If it’s church-driven, the homeless people you sponsored might be attending mass or uttering prayers, regardless of what they believe — in order to obtain a place to sleep at night. (That really happens.)
It’s a strange dilemma for me, since I come from a very poor background myself, and panhandled as a kid. We received a great deal of help from food banks and the like, but I remember that individual generosity had a huge impact on me. Having been subjected to my share of ignorance and derision from the general public, it made all the difference in the world when someone would speak openly with me as if I merited human contact, or gave from a place of generosity and some degree of trust. On the other hand, those who showed a blatant lack of compassion had quite an effect as well. We always used the money for food, clothes or some other necessity; in my experience there were a number of people on the streets who were most interested in acquiring food. Alcohol was a popular commodity for some.
When I think about it, most of the compassionate and/or genuine human contact I experienced occurred through interactions with other poor or homeless people.
I try to give a dollar or so, and a genuine smile, to a few people who ask for it. I figure that no matter what, I can’t know what they’re going to spend the money on, and in many cases that very small symbol of compassion and personal interest, rather than the money itself, is what is most liable to make a difference in that person’s day. Very few people actually want to panhandle; it’s not exactly lucrative, in case you haven’t noticed by the kinds of clothes panhandlers wear. It’s not an act, as many people seem to think. Many homeless people aren’t equipped with the skills and resources to pull themselves out, and though many people would yell “get a job” at them, virtually no one will hire a dirty bum off the street.
Most striking for me, about my memories associated with this issue and my experience of the present, is the way I experience human contact compared to the way I did then. It’s a lot more abundant, now. People who would have spit some hateful remark at me or turned away from me-the-adolescent, are able now to look me in the eye and smile, or say hello. My co-worker doesn’t blink an eye at lending me a few dollars if I’ve forgotten my wallet one day, but she might feel very conflicted (understandably) about giving those dollars to someone on the street who obviously needs it a great deal more than I do. One thing I’ve learned with a resounding bang is that with class, comes privilege. I am sometimes astounded to find myself on the other end of the spectrum, the person being asked for change by the bum, who in turn looks at me and hasn’t the faintest inkling that I once did the same thing myself.
But am I somehow more human now, than I was then? Because I certainly feel less untouchable.
To this day — probably largely because of my own experiences — I cannot fathom how people can automatically behave so derisively as they often do toward homeless people. Turning a blind eye to others’ predicaments, ignoring them — that I can understand better. Sometimes another person’s suffering is just too overwhelming to look at.