In Brown Type: What our gazes say about how we view homeless people

In this neighborhood, he stood out, and I saw cars slow down as they passed him by.

A month ago, on a day when a weak sun emerged after intermittent rain lashed the hillsides of a beautiful, equine-friendly city 35 miles south of San Francisco, I saw what appeared to be a homeless man making his way up the curved road that snaked in between houses and estates. He looked to be middle-aged, and was wearing a threadbare jacket, a somewhat battered hat and shoes that had seen better days. His lips kept moving as though he was talking to himself as he made his laborious way uphill.

In this neighborhood, he stood out, and I saw cars slow down as they passed him by. Residents in this town are more likely to spot mountain lions than down-on-their-luck people. How had he come this far? To have reached where he was, the man had to have walked through several other residential neighborhoods, up a few hills, where there was not a single commercial awning that offered shelter from the intermittent rain.

I pulled my car into a cul-de-sac and sat transfixed with indecision. Should I talk to him? Offer him a ride? Notify the police? Give him a hot meal? Take him to a doctor? Contact city administrators? Reach out to residents? As I sat there, I acknowledged the myriad emotions flooding me: sadness, fear, guilt and pity.

It made me wonder about how we look at people who are in evident trouble; what’s behind our gazes? Do we look critically, fearfully, compassionately or dispassionately when we see someone who is homeless?

The Critical Gaze: Are you one of those well-meaning folks who conflates homelessness with drug abuse? Or perhaps you are of the opinion that poor decision making is the root and reason that forces people out of their homes? The critical gaze looks at homelessness as a cause rather than an effect. Criticism, and its cousin — anger — are mechanisms to dehumanize the person behind the condition. It absolves us from confronting our own roles in creating this unfortunate chasm between them and us.

The Humorous Gaze: In a recent stand-up act, funny man Nato Green remarked on how visitors to The City are always complaining about seeing feces all over the place. “That’s right, we create that shit,” he said, his face mobile with mirth, “It’s to keep you out,” he said, delivering his punchline. I laughed and others beside me laughed. Misery is being normalized — since it’s so prevalent — and so we cope by making fun of what is painful to observe. Humor minimizes a societal problem that’s re-shaping the character of San Francisco.

The Fearful Gaze: Do you cross the street when you see a homeless person? At King Street near the Caltrain depot, a homeless man sitting against the wall beside his tarp covered cart yelled, “F**K You,” and repeated it half a dozen times. I looked at him and then looked away, lest he direct his random display of anger at me. I admit that when I hear loud voices, I fear for my own safety and the safety of those who depend on me. And behind that fear is also guilt for feeling the way I do.

The Curious Gaze: Walking past a street encampment late on a winter evening, do you hear the murmur of voices and occasional laughter? Does it make you wonder about the lives that are being lived behind thin fabric and plastic? These were people who more than likely were once cherished and loved and are now considered a problem. Do you conjecture about the upheavals that might have driven these men, women and children to negotiate their lives on the streets of San Francisco?

The Dispassionate Gaze: Sure, it’s sad to see people reduced to living without shelter. But, do you feel that it’s not your problem? It’s a problem that The City and the state government and the non-profits must tackle. Do you feel, like President Donald Trump does, that “They must clean it up?”

The Compassionate Gaze: It’s severe trauma that drives a body to retract into itself. Lying on the pavement with a couple of blankets for cover against San Francisco’s chill, the person, gender unknown, lies curled up, reducing their pavement footprint to just the length of a torso. It’s overwhelming to contemplate that this is human despair in its most elemental.

The California Policy Lab published a report in October about health conditions among unsheltered adults. One of the striking findings was that 84 percent of unsheltered people are likely to report a physical health condition, 78 percent a mental health condition, 75 percent a substance abuse condition and about half are likely to report all three conditions concurrently.

The gaze we use affects the way we read these numbers. The critical among us would read it as three-quarters of the homeless having substance abuse issues; the compassionate would consider that a majority have either a physical or mental ailment that’s layering their poverty and the dispassionate would probably note that half of the homeless population report a physical, mental or substance abuse condition.

Back to the hillside story. Before I could decide on a course of action, I saw at least three squad cars came roaring up the hill as if in a high-speed pursuit of a dangerous felon. The officers got out and began a conversation with the man. As I drove away, the scene began to shrink in my rearview mirror. But I was left with the disturbing thought that in some towns and cities walking the streets while homeless is viewed as deserving of punitive intervention.

Jaya Padmanabhan can be reached at Twitter: @jayapadmanabhan.She is a guest columnist and her point of view is not necessarily that of The Examiner.

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