When walking down the street it is not hard to see human suffering, one distinct image I remember was seeing a homeless man and his dog panhandling for money, in the freezing cold. I felt guilty as I tossed $3 of silver in his hat as it was the only change I had on me. I remember looking around, and the majority of people were just walking by, looking at them for a second or two then carrying on with their lives.
They go unseen everyday, this we know. But perhaps people’s most perplexing moment of disregard occurs when homeless people ask them for help. Requests like “Spare change?” “Got a dollar? and “Please help” overwhelmingly fall on deaf ears and diverted eyes.
Why don’t we give when asked? Do we fell guilty seeing them suffering? I believe one of the obvious reasons people react differently to panhandlers is their varying perceptions of homeless people. Paul Toro, a psychology professor at Wayne State University has found is his research hat compared to other countries, people who live in countries like the United States and the United Kingdom that have more capitalistic economies and offer fewer social services, are more likely to believe personal failings are the primary cause of homelessness and feel less compassion for homeless people. Meanwhile, these countries have higher rates of homelessness than, for example, Germany, where there is a guaranteed minimum income, more generous unemployment benefits and more rigorous tenants’ rights.
Compassion fatigue seems to be playing a role in the increasing inaction of peoples’ helpfulness in regards to those suffering. This comes from the media’s over-saturation of images and stories of plights such as homelessness or famine.
As for viewing homeless people in the street, I think the closer that poverty is to the face of people that aren’t in poverty, the uglier it is and the unfortunate part is that often gets manifested as the person is ugly — not the poverty is ugly. And poverty is ugly. It’s unpleasant. It doesn’t smell good. I think it is bringing something that people want in private (homeless people) but it is out in public, for all to see.
We have demonized homeless people so much that passersby don’t think they can ever end up on the street because they’re not crazy, they’re not drug addicted, they’re not alcoholics and they’re not stupid. But, in saying that- maybe- passersby do think they could end up on the street, some people know that if it weren’t for circumstance, they could be on the streets, too.
So regrading looking at homeless people suffering on the streets I think it comes down to this; we grow up with deficits in self-esteem; we grow up with, more or less, profound doubts about our self-worth.…so when we encounter a person that kind of culturally represents shame or failure, by definition, then that is likely to activate our own deficits in the area of self-esteem. At the point of encounter, I don’t think we know what to do with these feelings.
How do you cope with looking at people suffering?