There’s an organization called “Invisible People” which seeks to do education about homelessness and bring visibility to those who are often “invisible.” They have several videos on YouTube, like this one:
What I like about this organization is the effort to allow homeless people to tell their stories. This to me seems vitally necessary, for many reasons. Not only can it be healing and very supportive to those who are homeless, but understanding people’s stories and what caused them to be homeless, to me seems central in coming up with solutions for the “Homeless Quandary.”
The man who started this organization says,
I once heard a story about a homeless man on Hollywood Blvd who really thought he was invisible. But one day a kid handed the man a Christian pamphlet. The homeless guy was shocked and amazed, “What! You can see me? How can you see me? I’m invisible!”
It isn’t hard to understand this man’s slow spiral into invisibility. Once on the street, people started to walk past him, ignoring him as if he did not exist… much like they do a piece of trash on the sidewalk. It’s not that people are bad, but if we make eye contact, or engage in conversation, then we have to admit they exist and that we might have a basic human need to care. But it’s so much easier to simply close our eyes and shield our hearts to their existence.
I not only feel their pain, I truly know their pain. I lived their pain. You’d never know it now but I was a homeless person. Seventeen years ago, I lived on Hollywood Blvd. But today, I find myself looking away, ignoring the faces, avoiding their eyes — and I’m ashamed when I realize I’m doing it. But I really can feel their pain, and it is almost unbearable, but it’s just under the surface of my professional exterior.
For years I’ve used the lens of a television camera to tell the stories of homelessness and the organizations which are trying to help. That was part of my job. The reports were produced well and told a story, but the stories you see on this site are much different. These are the real people, telling their own, very real stories… unedited, uncensored and raw.
The purpose of this vlog is to make the invisible visible. I hope these people and their stories will connect with you. I hope that their conversations with me will start a conversation in your circle of friends.”
While the compassion and caring in this approach is beautiful, the man behind this organization is heavily oversimplifying the situation. I believe that the reason most of us “ignore” the homeless on the street, and avoid making eye contact, is actually not that we dont’ care about them. Sometimes, perhaps quite often, we avoid them because we DO care about them, and it hurts us when we open ourselves, in compassion and sincere care, to another human being who seems in need of care, only to find our genuine care be returned with lies, rude impositions and demands, harassment, obscene and foul language, bizarre behavior, or overt and disturbing mental illness.
Of course there are many “normal” people among the homeless, but particularly in large urban centers with huge numbers of homeless, there is a huge percentage who have very serious problems functioning normally. Such people can be disturbing and scary to encounter. They can be very dirty or smelly, covered in filth, surrounded by garbage. Many of us have been “burned” by trying to interact with such disturbed people.
I recall a recent situation where I bought a newspaper from a woman on the street, someone who struck me as a homeless woman. After buying it and walking a few blocks away, I decided to return and talk to her a little more. Unfortunately as soon as I spoke to her again, she looked at me with a glazed-over and blank expression, and cut loose with a “spiel”, a “hard-luck story” that sounded like a broken record which repeats itself ad nauseum. As I looked into her face, I got the sense of someone with serious mental illness….a situation where “there is no ‘there‘ there”, or in essence, “nothing here to notice: nobody’s home here.” I got the sense that this woman could not be “moved” if she tried, and she could not come across as authentic if she tried. Serious mental illness in effect placed very serious obstacles towards her connecting with any other human being, obstacles unlikely to be overcome by the most generous and compassionate of helping hearts.
She stared blankly at me — actually I felt dehumanized in the encounter — and imposed upon me to give her money, using the same fake-sounding, insincere kinds of hard-luck tales of woe that so many street corner and bus stop con-artists use for their daily con job. I was certainly not moved, rather I was heavily put off. This is the kind of problem that faces so many of us who actually are interested in trying to open up or establish connections. It’s not we normal passers-by who create the obstacles to the building of bridges — but serious mental illness, substance abuse and other grave dysfuctionality can certainly create enormous barriers for homeless people. And this readily leads to them being experienced on the psychic level as energy sucking entities and perpetrators of serial nuisance. In fact viewing them as energy leeches can help understand why people want to avoid all eye contact. We dont’ want our energy drained away.
As well, in large urban centers particularly, there are just too many homeless everywhere, to reasonably expect that someone is likely to approach one or more to “hear their story.” THere can be “compassion fatigue” if on your way to work you have to routinely walk by 20 homeless beggars, most or all of whom look disturbed or mentally ill, or high on drugs.
Still, while we must acknowledge the many legitimate reasons so many people avoid engaging with people on the street, the work to listen to people and hear their stories is very valuable, and I do believe that we need to hear many more such stories in order to help find better, more effective and more enduring solutions for homelessness.