It’s basic Providence street culture: Keep your head up, shoulders back, walk quickly and avoid eye contact with the people who ask for money. Bottle up the guilt and keep your eyes fixed on your phone. Every day, I follow this routine while walking down Thayer Street, and every day I regret it a little bit more. The people on Thayer Street who ask for money deserve to be acknowledged, and I don’t know why so many of us Brunonians can’t even seem to do that.
Take a minute to imagine what it feels like to be ignored. Imagine calling out to someone who just carries on as if you’re invisible. Imagine feeling as if no one cares for your well-being. It is arguably one of the most dehumanizing and diminishing feelings in the world. Yet it is something we seem to subject others to day in and day out.
I’m guilty of this. I know I am not above reproach. Each time I walk down Thayer, I persuade myself that the coins jingling in my pocket won’t help them enough. I tell myself that it’s better to keep my eyes forward and my headphones plugged in because homelessness and poverty are structural problems, and what good could I possibly do by donating a few measly cents? Wouldn’t it only alleviate the moral tugs on my heart and convince myself I’m a good Samaritan? But these excuses obscure the real truth: We are hiding behind a veil of ignorance.
We have all been exposed to unfair stigmas and common misconceptions associated with homelessness and poverty. While I don’t want to make any assumptions about the people who ask for money, I think it’s fair to say that many are impacted by poverty or homelessness. If I’m being honest, the stigmas around these two topics are some of the reasons I have adopted apathy as a lifestyle and disinterest as a shield. I saw my parents do it, my friends and colleagues do it. I unthinkingly followed suit. Seeing people ask for money on the street and rushing past them passively became an everyday part of living at Brown. But I can’t justify this any longer. The fact that everyone partakes in this callousness does not make our actions any less contemptible.
Poverty, along with rising housing costs, are the main factors driving homelessness. Incidents like vehicle accidents or health issues — things that could happen to any of us — can be the tipping point after which someone loses a home. This predicament is exacerbated by the fact that Rhode Island has some of the highest living costs in the United States. A minimum wage earner must work around 14 hours a day without vacations to afford an average two-bedroom apartment — an outrageous demand. These circumstances do not warrant ostracism, avoidance or resigned acceptance.
Instead of confronting the social, political and economic issue of poverty head-on, we would rather not think about it to preserve our peace of mind. Panhandlers are sometimes ushered out of public spaces like Thayer Street by the police in an attempt to preserve the perceived sanctity of the streets. Out of sight, out of mind, right? But brushing reality under the rug isn’t very Brown of us. Though we may not be able to see them, there are still people without a comfortable place to sleep at night — they are just hidden from sight.
We are all complicit in the societal structure that perpetuates homelessness and poverty. Removing their presence from Thayer Street or our minds is not a solution, but rather a Band-Aid over an open wound. We need to have real discussions, which can only start when we look them in the eye instead of walking right past them.
There are multiple student organizations dedicated to having these conversations, including Housing Opportunities for People Everywhere. There is also the course ANTH1301: “Anthropology of Homelessness” in the spring, which incorporates regular classwork with at least two hours of service at a local homeless-serving agency every week, allowing Brown students to engage with this issue. But most importantly, we need to push for major policy changes to combat homelessness: decrease wealth disparity, increase the minimum wage and expand affordable housing.
Thinking about homelessness on a macro stage may be daunting, but we can at least begin at a smaller level. On an individual scale, what should we do when we’re asked for money besides inconsiderately ignoring those asking? Well, for a start, don’t ignore them. Smile, or say, “sorry, no change.” Or, if you want, give them some change. Acknowledge their existence and their value as people.
I’m not arguing that you have an obligation to give money to each and every person who asks for it; it is your money, and you have a right to withhold it. But at least acknowledge them. Stop dancing around the subject of homelessness. Stop ignoring people’s physical presence. They are human, and with that comes a right to human dignity.
Cindy Zeng ’20 can be reached at email@example.com.