On homelessness: Empathy is essential but mustn’t be the end

Brian Bi/Staff

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I’d avert my gaze as I walked by. I’d glance, but only briefly. I’d look down at my feet, up at the sky. I’d study the blank, cracked screen of my cellphone. I’d give a slight shake of my head. I’d turn my face to talk to a friend. I’d focus on the latticed grooves of the sidewalk, on a trail of water trickling from the gutter or on a particularly prominent pothole. Very rarely would I meet their eyes. Do you?

This is an essay about you. And me. And your parents and my friend and maybe your third cousin thrice removed, too. The point is, it’s about everybody. Most importantly, it’s about the person who you just passed sitting down on the sidewalk. All of us, together. But because I cannot speak for you or your parents or the person who you just passed on the sidewalk, I must start with myself.

Larkspur, the place where I grew up, is a small city in Marin County where any semblance of poverty is overwhelmed by an undeniably affluent community. Houses are expensive, schools amply funded, gardens well-manicured. Teslas run rampant. There are few, if any, visibly homeless people. I don’t mean to suggest that poverty, or even relative poverty, doesn’t exist in Larkspur. It still does. It’s just rather hidden.

My only true exposure to visible poverty, then, came when I traveled to places at a remove from my home. And this had a certain effect on how I perceived homelessness. While I saw many people without homes, their displacement was in some ways tempered by my own transience.

I understood what it meant for a person to be homeless, but for some reason, I always figured that the individuals I encountered had someplace else to go. Call me naive — and perhaps I was — but because my role was always that of a visitor, I found it difficult to grasp the permanence of their situations. And so homelessness remained a rather abstract and disembodied concept to me, at least until I moved to Berkeley.

Here, homelessness does have a body — in fact, it has many bodies.

According to the EveryOne Counts! biennial report, the homeless population in Alameda County has seen a 43% increase over the last two years, jumping from approximately 5,600 individuals in 2017 to 8,000 in 2019. Of the 8,000 people now experiencing homelessness, 79% of them remain unsheltered. And it’s not just Alameda County. Similar data has been gathered in other counties across California. Today, more unsheltered homeless people reside in California than any other state in the country. And tensions are building.

A recent New York Times article discussed how the increase in California’s visibly homeless population has been met with rising resentment among residents toward that demographic. The reasons for backlash vary — some lament the uncleanliness of homeless encampments while others express concern for safety or aesthetics — but the sentiment is largely the same: Many Californians do not want homeless people nearby. Read for yourself: The quotes and examples that the article provides are shocking and saddening.

Too often, the rhetoric surrounding homelessness is framed not as a struggle against the socioeconomic systems that cause inequality but as a struggle against homeless people themselves. Moreover, projects that work to alleviate homelessness all too frequently address the qualms of housed instead of homeless populations. If housed people feel inconvenienced, their lives disrupted by homelessness, how must homeless people feel?

Rectifying the crisis of homelessness must begin with empathy. Empathy is the moral thread that binds humanity together, and when it comes to homelessness in particular, empathy serves as the foundation on which all other thought and action must rely.

I’m not suggesting that people who aren’t homeless should appropriate or claim intimate knowledge of the experiences of those who are homeless. These are, of course, not our stories to tell. I’m also skeptical of pity or commiseration, as these feelings tend to be misplaced or, ultimately, self-serving. Instead, I want to suggest that by striving to comprehend the complex social and economic mechanisms that have displaced homeless people, we can all become more mindful of our shared humanity.

Ironically, I think this understanding can best be inspired through physical proximity — between those who hold the power to change society and those who have been all but excluded from it. While this sort of adjacency between housed and homeless people is largely what has fueled hostilities in the first place, perhaps a more thoughtful adjacency could help alleviate them.

Eye contact, for example, is a simple sign of recognition, a symbol of respect, an acknowledgment of dignity. But so often, people will avert their eyes when in the presence of homeless individuals. It’s almost as if we believe that in diverting our sight, we might somehow divert our consciences, too — as if looking down at our feet absolves us of any moral obligation or responsibility whatsoever.

Only when I began to live in Berkeley did the homeless population become truly perceptible to me. Since moving here, I’ve made a point to consciously welcome respectful eye contact with homeless people I pass on the sidewalk. I smile. I don’t ignore. I say “thank you” and “you too” when told to have a nice day. Perhaps little daily interactions like these, if embraced by both parties, can help begin restoring human connection in and between communities in which it’s been lost. Regardless of the means, empathy seems paramount.

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ut it can’t be everything.

In fact, too much fixation on empathy can be counterproductive, detracting from what is truly important: change.

Because so many people today deny or ignore the truths of poverty, those who do acknowledge economic and social inequalities — and, more importantly, the causes behind these inequalities — can feel as though they have fulfilled their obligations. In a milieu that often antagonizes homeless individuals, people who demonstrate a basic sense of compassion may believe they have done their part. As a result, empathy becomes the goal, the endgame, when it should serve only as a point of departure.

We can think about it as a scale, a progression: If those who antagonize homeless people must work toward empathy, then those who are already empathetic must necessarily act on their empathies.

Compassion that does not lead to action can distract from — and even prevent — important structural change, in that it works within the perverse social mechanisms that require compassion in the first place. It hinders our ability to imagine a reality in which compassion is unnecessary, in which homelessness simply does not exist.

Critical and informed action, then, must be the way to fundamentally address the perspectives, frustrations and desires of those in need. Whether that means voting for politicians who will enact meaningful policies to address homelessness, volunteering for organizations that provide services to people living on the street, running for office to incite change ourselves or simply educating others about the truths of homelessness, we must never be complacent.

We must simply be human. All of us, together.

Contact Jericho Rajninger at [email protected].