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Understanding homelessness

I knew that I would encounter homelessness when I came to Berkeley. I was expecting it, because just about everybody I knew had something to say about the rumors they'd heard filter over from the West Coast. Coming from New York, however, I figured I'd seen it all, and would be in control over whatever I would be up against. Reality quickly hit me, though, as I began to familiarize myself with Berkeley and its main streets. I'd never seen anything quite like Telegraph Avenue and People's Park. No matter how much poverty one has seen throughout the course of their lives, it's far more difficult to accept when it occurs in areas of high concentration.

Understanding the nature of homeless people asking for money and their interactions with people walking up and down a main street such as Telegraph Avenue is a difficult task. This observation process, which took place on Telegraph Avenue watching the homeless at "work", was difficult because of the wealth of information one could find in simply watching as one person asked another for money. We looked for a number of signals in the interactions, considering people's ages, how they reacted physically, whether or not they communicated verbally, their demeanor throughout the interaction, and the importance of eye-contact. We must also wrestle with the ambiguity of the power structure within the situation, because it is not nearly as clear as it seems. In the end, we will try to decipher the true nature of these confrontations, concluding by comparing the analysis of these situations to those found in the works of Erving Goffman and Robin Leidner.


The difficulty in defining the parameters of dominance within the interaction comes in understanding the disparity between the social status of the person being asked for money and the status of the individual begging for it; the real science lies in determining how little that difference actually matters. Socially, the respective status of each individual should be quite clear. The person walking down the street is probably either employed or a student. The stereotypical homeless person, on the other hand, may have alcohol or drug problems, may be suffering from schizophrenia, and is clearly not capable of functioning within the confines of mainstream society. Clearly, according to unwritten rules of our community, the employed person has a much higher social standing. Despite these social differences, the actual interaction is controlled by the panhandler. Their authority role begins with the initiation of the interaction; by being the one to cause the confrontation, the second party- the one being asked for change- is forced to react, if not to respond, in some way. The initiation process itself varies quite a bit from panhandler to panhandler and has a tremendous impact in terms of reinforcing the notion of authority. For example, there were panhandlers we observed who were not capable of singling out an individual person and therefore had a great deal of difficulty initiating or holding on to any interactions; on the other hand, one man we watched was particularly effective simply because he went out of his way to single people out in the passing crowds, he was loud enough to make even the most jaded person turn and was clearly in control of the interaction.

Once control has been established and the interaction has commenced, it is necessary to gauge the response of the individual being asked for money and exactly what that response may mean. Of nineteen interactions we observed, only seven people made eye contact with the person asking for money. We found that it was often easier for someone to say no if they did not have to look the person straight in the eyes. One common response was to look to the person without making eye-contact, and then respond while turning away from the panhandler. Many people did choose to communicate verbally, often using the phrase, "I don't have any money." In all likelihood, almost all of the seven people who uttered that phrase had at least a some money, and the homeless probably know that. Still, the phrase- whether an outright lie or the gospel truth- manages to carry a great deal of weight. Another micro-interaction we saw quite a bit of was the use of the body to communicate certain attitudes without the use of words. There were people who looked up as soon as they noticed the homeless people and would actually face their entire bodies to them as they walked by, suggesting acceptance, and there were others who angled their bodies so that their shoulders provided a clear barrier, shielding the individual as they walked silently by. Although I had expected age to be a factor in the interactions- and it was in that panhandlers did not ask children for money-peoples age, and even the nature of their dress did not seem to have any clear impact on the interactions. In truth, finding many specific patterns in these interactions would require far more time spent in the field doing research.

One factor which I took notice of early on in the field research process was the behavior of people wearing sunglasses and their responses to the same panhandlers. The initial results, in which three out of three subjects wearing sunglasses actually struck up conversations and appeared particularly at ease- to the point of laughter in two instances- convinced me that it would be worth doing more research during the daylight hours. The next time I was on Telegraph during the day I sat down for a few minutes and watched only for people wearing sunglasses. Six people passed a homeless man directly outside of Fat Slice Pizza wearing sunglasses during the next ten minutes. Of those six individuals, two ignored the requests for change and the other four acted friendly and natural, looking directly at them and responding in a pleasant manner. In total, of the nine people I witnessed wearing sunglasses, seven of them chose to respond to the beggar, a much higher percentage than in the total group. Interestingly enough, however, not one of the sunglass wearers offered money. If we look back at the factors which characterize the nature of these interactions, eye-contact would be very high on the list. The fact that sunglass wearers have an instant barrier between themselves and those asking for money makes the argument all the more reasonable that eye-contact has the greatest impact on the interaction. It's much easier to respond to someone if you don't have to look them in the eye; in fact, wearing sunglasses automatically puts the propositioned individual into the dominant role in the interaction. The reality is that the information set may not be an entirely accurate representation of the actual social group; it's hard to believe that over seventy-five percent of the entire Berkeley population would be inclined to talk with panhandlers simply by wearing sunglasses. What the information set does suggest is that, for some people, sunglasses lighten the tension in a somewhat difficult exchange.


If we were to look at the work of Robin Leidner in the book Fast Food, Fast Talk, we would actually find similarities in the nature of some aspects of the interactions between the Telegraph confrontations and the interactions between customers and employees at McDonalds, suggesting that both interactions are somewhat routinized. Anyone familiar with Telegraph Avenue knows that, upon deciding to walk down the street, there is a very high chance that they will be asked for money. In response to this, some of us do everything in our power to avoid Telegraph altogether. Those of us who don't avoid it find that a planned approach to these interactions is often the most effective method for dealing with them. We may choose to give change, we may choose to smile and apologize for not having any more money, and we may simply ignore the requests. Still, there is a good chance that what ever we choose to do, we begin to prepare as soon as we see a homeless person. When we walk into McDonalds, Leidner explains, we must, in order for the purchase to run smoothly, already have a general idea of what we want and how to order it. In both situations, the interaction has been routinized, in that a certain routine, or set of actions, has been developed in order to deal with a situation. Even the expectations of the employee and the panhandler fit directly into the routine. If you were to ask a McDonalds employee for a large bowl of pasta and a glass of wine, they would not immediately be able to respond; it's likely that the same reaction would occur if you went up to a panhandler and asked them for money, challenging them to behave as you are expected to. While the nature of each of these two routines may be quite different, there is no denying that there are many similarities inherent in both.


This notion of a planned response, as well as the behavior of a panhandler tossing pennies onto the street, fit very well into Erving Goffman's discussions in Asylums. Goffman talks both about secondary adjustments, which he defines as "ways in which the individual stands apart from the role and the self that were taken for granted for him by the institution" (Goffman, page 189), and mortification, or being "stripped of one's identity kit." (Goffman, page 21). By developing techniques in order to most quickly and painlessly respond to the demands for change, we are actually making a secondary adjustment; if we never trained ourselves to deal with these situations, we would probably feel very ill at ease with the situation and not handle ourselves well. Being put out on the street is clearly quite difficult. How does one respond to suddenly being alone and forced to fend for oneself, without money, shelter, or food? This process of developing a new life on the street, without the support of society, is very close to what Goffman calls mortification. Although the situations are very different, one with too many walls, one with too few, there is no denying the sense of loss of self felt in both cases. The prevention of mortification is one of the biggest reasons for secondary adjustments and when we look at one particular panhandler, who, in an effort to maintain some final shreds of dignity, would throw any pennies he had been given out onto the sidewalk, we see a clear adjustment made. To this man, it wouldn't matter if he was given ten dollars worth of pennies, because needing those pennies represented the lowest he could possibly reach


What does any of this mean? What can we gain from looking at this information? While no great social upheaval will occur because of this research, there is no question that we at least have a bit more perspective as to the nature of these interactions. Though I expected to find more patterns- for example, I had expected that older people would perhaps be more sympathetic- I also had not expected to witness so many clear interactions from the homeless and methods used to challenge the authority the panhandlers had gained. Even though there is no question that the homeless, through the initiation of the interaction, control that element of the confrontation, it's important to realize that it is the person who is being asked for the money who ends up with control as it is their choice whether or not to give away any of their money. Out of about forty people who walked by at one point, only one of them gave a panhandler any money, and that represents a very clear pattern. Sadly, that pattern, without a significant effort on the part of local and national government, won't change anytime soon. We may never cure the problems faced by the homeless and we may never be able to retrain our society to be more tolerant, but we can at least, hopefully, begin to take steps to that end.

Source: Essay UK -

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