Understanding The Nature of HomlessnessI knew that I would encounter homelessness when I came to Berkeley.
Iwas expecting it, because just about everybody I knew had something to say aboutthe 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 Iwould be up against. Reality quickly hit me, though, as I began to familiarizemyself with Berkeley and its main streets. I’d never seen anything quite likeTelegraph Avenue and People’s Park. No matter how much poverty one has seenthroughout the course of their lives, it’s far more difficult to accept when itoccurs in areas of high concentration.Understanding the nature of homeless people asking for money and theirinteractions with people walking up and down a main street such as TelegraphAvenue is a difficult task.
This observation process, which took place onTelegraph Avenue watching the homeless at “work”, was difficult because of thewealth of information one could find in simply watching as one person askedanother for money. We looked for a number of signals in the interactions,considering people’s ages, how they reacted physically, whether or not theycommunicated verbally, their demeanor throughout the interaction, and theimportance of eye-contact. We must also wrestle with the ambiguity of the powerstructure 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 theworks of Erving Goffman and Robin Leidner.INTERACTIONSThe difficulty in defining the parameters of dominance within theinteraction comes in understanding the disparity between the social status ofthe person being asked for money and the status of the individual begging forit; the real science lies in determining how little that difference actuallymatters. Socially, the respective status of each individual should be quiteclear. The person walking down the street is probably either employed or astudent.
The stereotypical homeless person, on the other hand, may have alcoholor drug problems, may be suffering from schizophrenia, and is clearly notcapable of functioning within the confines of mainstream society. Clearly,according to unwritten rules of our community, the employed person has a muchhigher social standing. Despite these social differences, the actualinteraction is controlled by the panhandler.
Their authority role begins withthe 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 torespond, in some way. The initiation process itself varies quite a bit frompanhandler to panhandler and has a tremendous impact in terms of reinforcing thenotion of authority. For example, there were panhandlers we observed who werenot capable of singling out an individual person and therefore had a great dealof 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 hisway to single people out in the passing crowds, he was loud enough to make eventhe most jaded person turn and was clearly in control of the interaction.Once control has been established and the interaction has commenced, itis necessary to gauge the response of the individual being asked for money andexactly what that response may mean. Of nineteen interactions we observed,only seven people made eye contact with the person asking for money. We foundthat it was often easier for someone to say no if they did not have to look theperson straight in the eyes. One common response was to look to the personwithout making eye-contact, and then respond while turning away from thepanhandler.
Many people did choose to communicate verbally, often using thephrase, “I don’t have any money.” In all likelihood, almost all of the sevenpeople who uttered that phrase had at least a some money, and the homelessprobably know that. Still, the phrase- whether an outright lie or the gospeltruth- manages to carry a great deal of weight. Another micro-interaction wesaw quite a bit of was the use of the body to communicate certain attitudeswithout the use of words. There were people who looked up as soon as theynoticed the homeless people and would actually face their entire bodies to themas they walked by, suggesting acceptance, and there were others who angled theirbodies so that their shoulders provided a clear barrier, shielding theindividual as they walked silently by. Although I had expected age to be afactor in the interactions- and it was in that panhandlers did not ask childrenfor money-peoples age, and even the nature of their dress did not seem to haveany clear impact on the interactions. In truth, finding many specific patternsin these interactions would require far more time spent in the field doingresearch.
One factor which I took notice of early on in the field research processwas the behavior of people wearing sunglasses and their responses to the samepanhandlers. The initial results, in which three out of three subjects wearingsunglasses actually struck up conversations and appeared particularly at ease-to the point of laughter in two instances- convinced me that it would be worthdoing more research during the daylight hours. The next time I was on Telegraphduring the day I sat down for a few minutes and watched only for people wearingsunglasses. Six people passed a homeless man directly outside of Fat SlicePizza wearing sunglasses during the next ten minutes. Of those six individuals,two ignored the requests for change and the other four acted friendly andnatural, looking directly at them and responding in a pleasant manner.
In total,of the nine people I witnessed wearing sunglasses, seven of them chose torespond 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 theseinteractions, eye-contact would be very high on the list.
The fact thatsunglass wearers have an instant barrier between themselves and those asking formoney makes the argument all the more reasonable that eye-contact has thegreatest impact on the interaction. It’s much easier to respond to someone ifyou don’t have to look them in the eye; in fact, wearing sunglassesautomatically puts the propositioned individual into the dominant role in theinteraction. The reality is that the information set may not be an entirelyaccurate representation of the actual social group; it’s hard to believe thatover seventy-five percent of the entire Berkeley population would be inclined totalk with panhandlers simply by wearing sunglasses.
What the information setdoes suggest is that, for some people, sunglasses lighten the tension in asomewhat difficult exchange.LEIDNERIf 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 ofthe interactions between the Telegraph confrontations and the interactionsbetween customers and employees at McDonalds, suggesting that both interactionsare somewhat routinized. Anyone familiar with Telegraph Avenue knows that, upondeciding to walk down the street, there is a very high chance that they will beasked for money. In response to this, some of us do everything in our power toavoid Telegraph altogether. Those of us who don’t avoid it find that a plannedapproach to these interactions is often the most effective method for dealingwith them. We may choose to give change, we may choose to smile and apologizefor 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 assoon as we see a homeless person. When we walk into McDonalds, Leidnerexplains, we must, in order for the purchase to run smoothly, already have ageneral idea of what we want and how to order it. In both situations, theinteraction 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 ofthe employee and the panhandler fit directly into the routine. If you wereto 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 samereaction 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 ofthese two routines may be quite different, there is no denying that there aremany similarities inherent in both.GOFFMANThis notion of a planned response, as well as the behavior of apanhandler tossing pennies onto the street, fit very well into Erving Goffman’sdiscussions in Asylums.
Goffman talks both about secondary adjustments, whichhe defines as “ways in which the individual stands apart from the role and theself 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 thedemands for change, we are actually making a secondary adjustment; if we nevertrained ourselves to deal with these situations, we would probably feel very illat ease with the situation and not handle ourselves well. Being put out on thestreet is clearly quite difficult. How does one respond to suddenly being aloneand forced to fend for oneself, without money, shelter, or food? This processof developing a new life on the street, without the support of society, is veryclose to what Goffman calls mortification. Although the situations are verydifferent, one with too many walls, one with too few, there is no denying thesense of loss of self felt in both cases.
The prevention of mortification isone of the biggest reasons for secondary adjustments and when we look at oneparticular panhandler, who, in an effort to maintain some final shreds ofdignity, would throw any pennies he had been given out onto the sidewalk, we seea clear adjustment made. To this man, it wouldn’t matter if he was given tendollars worth of pennies, because needing those pennies represented the lowesthe could possibly reachCONCLUSIONWhat does any of this mean? What can we gain from looking at thisinformation? 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 thenature of these interactions. Though I expected to find more patterns- forexample, I had expected that older people would perhaps be more sympathetic- Ialso had not expected to witness so many clear interactions from the homelessand methods used to challenge the authority the panhandlers had gained. Eventhough there is no question that the homeless, through the initiation of theinteraction, control that element of the confrontation, it’s important torealize that it is the person who is being asked for the money who ends up withcontrol 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 apanhandler any money, and that represents a very clear pattern.
Sadly, thatpattern, without a significant effort on the part of local and nationalgovernment, won’t change anytime soon. We may never cure the problems faced bythe 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.