Understanding The Nature of Homlessness


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.

INTERACTIONS

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