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Understanding The Nature Of Homlessness Essay

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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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Understanding The Nature Of Homlessness Essay
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 s
2018-12-27 04:01:07
Understanding The Nature Of Homlessness Essay
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