There’s a German phrase some psychologists use to describe the dehumanizing feeling that results from avoiding eye contact: “Wie Luft behandeln.” It means: “to be looked at as though air.”
Michael Gonzalez is familiar with that feeling. He experienced street homelessness for about three years starting in 2010, and he remembers that sensation of going unacknowledged, being looked through, like he wasn’t even there.
“It hurts. In the beginning it hurts,” Gonzalez said. “And then I think after a while it just started to annoy me. And then it angered me, and then it disgusted me. And then at some point it’s like, you just get used to it.”
We The Commuters is dedicating the next few weeks to reporting on homelessness and our transit system. When we put out a commuter survey several months ago, lots of people mentioned homelessness in their responses and asked for more coverage of the increased presence of people taking shelter in the subways.
A lot of your comments showed a struggle with selfishness and humanity:
“I don't go more than a few hours in New York without seeing someone living in desperation in the subways. It makes me feel guilty about all the resources I have in my life, but it also feels like a social issue we should be addressing as a community.”
“It sucks to see homeless people on the trains during my commute basically every day. But what sucks more is when my first reaction isn't empathy for the person and their situation, but annoyance that they are taking up three seats, or that the train car smells bad. I am frustrated that I get annoyed so easily.”
“When our collective response to mental illness is to close our eyes and pretend it's not a problem… We need a better menu of humane responses to pervasive human suffering.”
Your responses led me to examine the psychology behind our interactions, specifically what happens when we choose to see or not see other people, and when we are seen or unseen.
Most people told me they try to ignore everyone around them during their commute. But it’s telling how we respond when someone is asking not to be ignored.
“I mainly just look at them and then look away, as sad as it is to say,” one man told me at Penn Station. “I never actually thought about it. I guess thinking of it now, I do treat them as lesser than people, which is kind of sad.”
There’s a reason why some people, thoughtfully or not, put people who are currently homeless in a different box. It has to do with a social psychology theory called “the just-world hypothesis.”
Dr. Alisha Ali, a professor at New York University who studies the psychological effects of poverty, explained the theory this way: Most of us like to believe that good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people.
“So that means it makes it far easier to look at someone who’s poor or homeless and say...they did something that led to them being poor and maybe that means they’re a bad person,” Ali said.
This base assumption, said Dr. Ali, sets the stage for people to dehumanize the poor.
But not everyone subscribes to that theory. Many commuters told me they feel deeply affected by the plight of people seeking shelter in the subways. Some cried in our short conversations, when I asked them how they feel about seeing homeless people every day. Sad. Guilty. Angry. Guilty for feeling angry.
Dr. Ali said feeling guilty is a good sign; it means your moral compass is working. But feeling too much personal responsibility can lead to something called “compassion fatigue.”
“We don’t really have the capability as human beings to look at this onslaught of problems that are depressing, problems that are overwhelming, and deal with it—especially on something like commuting to and from work—on a daily basis,” explained Dr. Ali.
That’s what can lead ostensibly compassionate people to avert their eyes when they see a person in need.
Gonzalez, recalling his time experiencing street homelessness, said he tried not to take it personally when people looked away or through him. After all, he remembers reacting in a similar way toward homeless people before he became homeless himself. But that distinct feeling of not being seen has eerie effects.
“It's like a wear and tear on your soul, a wear and tear on your mind and your body,” said Gonzalez. “Like I watched people lose their mind on the street because they just can't deal with it mentally. You just watch people slowly kind of unravel after a while.”
He said that fortunately he wasn’t so isolated. He had a close friend who was also experiencing homelessness at the time, and they looked out for each other.
There’s something to that. Dr. Ali said studies on the effects of social isolation have shown that having a single, close confidant goes a long way in preventing depression.
So how does Gonzalez respond to requests for money from people who appear to be experiencing homelessness, now that he’s lived through that perspective?
“I personally do not give money to people on the subway or the street,” said Gonzalez, calling it a short-sighted solution.
He acknowledged that some people who are asking for help truly need it, but he knows that others are just hustling, taking advantage of the kindness of strangers. He said he prefers to buy a meal for a person in need.
“If you are handing money to someone so you can feel better about yourself, so others can view you as charitable or because you feel guilty about your privilege, then you are better off averting your attention,” said Gonzalez. “Or better yet, offering a sincere smile, a greeting or acknowledgement of that person's right to be regarded as a human being.”
Listen to Shumita Basu’s story on WNYC:
Additional reporting by Alexandra Feldhausen
We the Commuters goes live at The Greene Space with a look at homelessness in the subways on September 24th, hosted by Shumita Basu along with her fellow WNYC and Gothamist reporters. The evening will include conversations with State Senator Liz Krueger, MTA Board Member Larry Schwartz, Coalition for the Homeless Policy Director Giselle Routhier, the former homeless, and more. More details here.