My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research and the founder/president of Data & Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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psychology of guilt – homelessness in San Francisco

Around 3AM the other night, i was walking home from “exercise” when a man asked me for a quarter. All i had in my pocket was a $20, some smokes, an ID and my keys. I shrugged and said, sorry, i didn’t have any money. And then i spent the rest of my walk tormenting myself about my reaction, about having lied.

The homeless situation in San Francisco haunts me. Nothing horrifies me more than the privileged folks i know who look at the folks on the street with disgust as though they deserve to be there for something they’ve done. Of the groups that i’ve talked to, there seem to be three distinct homeless populations:
– youth who come from abusive environments and escape to SF because the streets are safer than home
– mentally ill folks who would be better off in a care facility but since we don’t have that infrastructure, they’re on the streets
– folks who don’t have the network structure, skills or opportunities to get out of the perpetual state of poverty (think: Subdivision

I hate the part of me that immediately thinks “well, i earned my money; i deserve to keep it” because, frankly, that’s bullshit and i know it. So then i’m confused about what inside me runs to that excuse. Or to the million other excuses that my brain generates to justify why i am (not) giving money in a particular situation.

There are days when i find myself spending an extra $1 to take MUNI to BART so that i don’t have to walk by the homeless folks on 16th. It brings me great heartache to witness this level of struggle. And yet, what is that avoidance about? That’s not a healthy response either. And where does it come from? I know i’m not alone; folks run to their gated communities and suburbs to not have to deal. Of course, ignorance increases the problem. The visibility is critical for people to realize that this is a real endemic problem and seek solutions. But yet, ignorance is bliss.

I often give out food to folks, but sometimes i think this is more to assuage my guilt than to actually do any good. And that makes me feel more guilty.

What can one do? Homeless issues tend to be the key factor in my local voting choices, but look what good that is doing. ::sigh:: How do other folks resolve their emotions around this issue? How do you actually do something?

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16 comments to psychology of guilt – homelessness in San Francisco

  • Here in the UK they have run campaigns recently to dissuade people from giving directly to the homeless precisely because so many of them are drug or alcohol dependent (eg http://www.birmingham.gov.uk/alternativegiving.bcc). Instead they suggest you give money to one of the many homeless charities who can provide them with the help they need to get off drugs, find accommodation etc. I know it may feel worse but I would rather my money was channeled via people who work with the homeless every day than opportunistically when someone approaches me. Surely there are plenty of such charities in SF? If you want to get personally involved you could always volunteer at one…

  • Exercise. hehe.

    Anyway… Your comments make me think of Lazyboy’s “Underwear Goes Inside the Pants”. Unfortunately, there’s no easy answer, but a little volunteering at a homeless shelter wouldn’t hurt. Maybe you can’t fix the problems, but for those few people who make it into what little the system offers them, maybe you can make their day a little brighter with your pretty smile and a helping hand.

  • i suspect anything uncomfortable is in general avoided in our society, we’re the kings and queens of comfort and virtual reality. but i also suspect that tendency to avoid what is uncomfortable in the short term, even though it just makes things worse in the long term, is a pervasive human problem. smarts and awareness. that’s my only answer for myself. can i see myself when i’m pushing away my experience in the name of short term comfort, and can i tell when doing that will bring about even less long term comfort? not very often.

  • I don’t run across homeless people every day anymore. I did when I was at Berkeley, and back then I did the typical avoidance stuff.

    Nowadays, I donate regularly to the Emergency Housing Consortium in Santa Clara, and figure that’s as good as anything. So when I run across the homeless, I pretty much do what you do, apologize to them but give nothing, figuring that it’s at least better than pretending they don’t exist or giving them money that might feed an addiction, and I tell myself that the money is better off going to the EHC anyway.

    Seems to work for me, but again, I don’t run across them every day. Just mostly when we’re in San Francisco, which is only once or twice a month.

  • I should admit that the EHC thing was my wife’s idea, and that realistically, I’d probably otherwise be continuing to ignore the whole issue, as it’s pretty easy to do that in the South Bay.

  • Alex Supertramp

    There is a great book out called Fixing Broken Windows (George l. Kelling) that explains the decline of a safe and habital enviorment in NYC during the late 80 and early 90 until measures were taken to change this.
    Among these problems was the issue of Homeless and the pandering that intimadated, assaulted and raped would be charitable suspects. I believe to a certain extent we should aid individuals less fortunate then ourselves.
    Documentation has reported that 85% of homless adults suffer from alcoholism, drug addiciton, mental illness, or some combination of the three.
    I believe “throwing money” at would be pandering homless does not solve the problem. If there is to be any long term aid to these individual I think the Phycological disorder or addictions must be tackled first.
    Just giving a homless person a dollar is the metaphorical equivalent of trying to stop a sinking ship with a band-aid.

    There are thousands hacking at the branches of evil to one who is stiking out at the root.
    -H Thoreau

  • Esme Vos

    I have lived in Amsterdam since the end of 1994. I came back to SF this year (March-April) for two months, living in the Castro district. I cannot believe how many homeless people I’ve seen in SF. So many more than in the late 80s/early 90s when I spent a lot of time in the city. They are everywhere now, not just in the Tenderloin. Just a few weeks ago on Haight Street, I saw a man lying in front of a store – he was bleeding from his forehead and seemed asleep. It was 3:00 in the afternoon, bright sunshine, and people were just walking past him as if he were a lamp post or a flower box. I was quite alarmed and considered calling the police or an ambulance so I went into the store and told them that there was a guy bleeding in front of their shop, and that someone should call an ambulance. They said, “oh he’s just like that all the time.” I simply cannot accept that – people lying on the street just bleeding all the time? Is this Calcutta? I can’t believe how bad it has become in San Francisco.

    On the other hand, I am leery about giving money to homeless people. Once I was standing at a bus stop also in SF and a homeless woman came up to me and asked for money. She looked really pitiful so I gave her five dollars. She went right across the street to a liquor store and bought a beer, and came back to the bus stop where I was standing. I gave her a dirty look and said, “I gave you money for food.” She told me to fuck off. I felt really angry not because she told me to fuck off but because I had just fed her alcohol habit. Very irreponsible of me.

  • The homeless situation in Montreal is pretty bad too, but when we were in San Francisco not too long ago we found it overwhelming. I have given money to people, but usually I don’t. I’d rather give it to organizations, including one that solicited us and seemed legit in San Francisco.

    One day I decided to buy a sandwich to give to a particular guy who somehow stirred my compassion more than most, but when I came out of the restaurant he’d already left. Then I walked around all over Montreal looking for a homeless person, but wasn’t able to find one.

    Some “homeless” people in Montreal aren’t actually homeless at all. One very visible guy who wears a beat-up old jacket while asking for money can be seen while off-duty in a nice leather jacket. Someone in his building told me that he actually lives in a 2-bedroom apartment. One of the reasons I prefer to give money to legitimate organizations is to guard against this kind of manipulation and make sure the money goes to people who really need it.

  • The title of this entry imho allready points to something essential, namely considering and in consequence treating “homeless” people as victims of violence, drug addiction or psychopathological derangement.
    It is not my aim to ignore the high number of drugaddicts in the streets, especially alcoholics, as not as the high number of traumatized people and of course theres an increasing number of those, who indeed flew violences they had to face in their former living conditions–the latter especially touches women and children–and poverty leading to homelessness indeed is reality all around this planet.
    Just–making them victims implies a certain perspective on all people living in the street I dont consider targetting towards an understanding of “whats really going on there”, which might serve as means to find answers on what academia could do to help change social misconditions.
    ..being in a somewhat optimistic mute today.

    @zephoria,
    You dont have to give money or whatyouhave each time you re asked for it. I mean, you dont have to feel bad about saying no, you see? 😉

    We just should stop this “victimizing thinking” concerning “homeless” people, but cultivate more respect instead.
    They indeed do have a certain kind of home, this is the street`.
    Many “homeless” anyway do not sleep in the street but live in the street and this does point to many sociocultural aspects that are connected to this.
    The question of having a landlord or not does not really hit the sociocultural hotspots of homelessness.
    Its not that easy and I wont success feeding all of my thoughts in regards of the street as ethnographic field into this comment.
    German anthropologist Ute Metje has recently published – in german language though – an ethnographic study focussing the living of young homeless girls and women at Hamburg Central Station, Germany: Home in transformation. Girls and young women at Central Station Hamburg.
    She had been teaching Sociocultural Anthropology at University Bremen I belong to being student of cultural sciences, history and philosophy.
    Some years ago I attended her seminar on ethnographic fieldwork in the field of homelessness and the homeless. To get into it I indeed went working in a privately initiated cafe, where they can get something to eat, non alcoholic drinks, theres two showers and a washing machine. Moreover they can get clothes there.
    In the first instance I tried to focuss on the people working there, but it is very difficult to get rid of the psychologizing perspective on people in especially this field even in this indirect approach to the field via people working in it,
    because you do ask yourself, why do they do this? What has happened to these people? Instead of just describing what they do.
    (One thing I can say is, those who had experienced living in the street themselves had a very different habitus towards the guests, than the others working there, mostly academics and pupils.)
    But these are questions, non-psychologists only can answer by empirical analysis based on qualitative biographical date, which we simply do not have, gained by ethnographic interviews, not by statistics.
    And we wont gain these if we have interpreted yet right in the beginning for then we ll find only what we had allready in mind.
    The following two years I was in the field by direct approach. There was an old man with two dogs living in a bush in a park (where I daily walk myself with my dog), who somewhat centered some part of the scene at this corner of the town, because he had money.
    In summertime there were all sorts of people around him and I often went talking to them and well, drinking a beer with them on a warm summereve could happen also. In wintertime living under the bridge was different. He was more than 70 years old when I met connaissance of him and our quite regular contact lasted two years.
    Then he disappeared one day. Some say he did get an appartment other side of town.
    In shortform of what I wanted to say: victimizing is a sociocultural discourse which at least should not rest unreflected, for it simply is not just victims, you meet on the street.

  • if you’re interested in giving money to organizations in SF who are doing great work with and for homeless folks – please consider donating to General Assistance Advocacy Project (GAAP), The Coaltition on Homelessness, or Homeless Advocacy Project. All of these places are deserving and could use your help.

  • This post hits close to home with me as I’m a volunteer at a unique homeless youth advocacy non-profit. I wanted to do something about the amount of homeless we have here in Seattle. We don’t have as many as San Francisco but it’s close. So I combined my love of computers and technology with this small agency. Now I’m the systems administrator for a small network of computers that the clients can use to help find work, research to complete their GED in our school program, or anything they want. This way I can be an advocate of open source software *FreeBSD and OpenOffice baby!* and help with the homeless in my city.

    I would suggest what these other people have already and say to you go volunteer, but combine it with something you love and it becomes doubly rewarding.

  • JR

    I’m amazed at the number of people who feel guilty when around homeless people. What is there to feel guilty about? For me, I feel compassion whenever I encounter a homeless person, especially if the homeless person is a minor. Where I live, I don’t encounter much homelessness, but I have also been in areas where I have encountered more homeless people. I donate regularly to my Church and when I encounter a homeless person, I give them a card with a number and address to call for help. I don’t pretend that I am qualified to help that person, but I am always respectful and courteous, and yes, I offer words of hope, even though on rare occasions I may not always get kind words in return. There are a lot of problems I don’t know how to deal with: depression, alcoholism, addictions, and mental illness to name a few. I don’t send them to a church so they can be converted-it doesn’t matter to me. Most don’t even know (or care) it’s a church that’s helping them. I just trust that my money is being well spent and that well qualified people will help those I refer. It takes a small effort to call and take the first step toward helping yourself.
    I am proud of my accomplishments. Yes, I was born into a good home with loving parents. For that, I am always grateful. I didn’t have a lot of money growing up, but that is completely unimportant. My Father and Mother gave me values and morals money never could buy. My efforts have helped many other people earn a living for themselves and their families, pay medical bills, mortgages, and yes, in turn, willingly help other people. I am also grateful that I live in a country where I am able to take advantage of opportunities to help others and to help myself. People in other countries do not always have the same opportunities we have here. Lets all take advantage of the opportunities that are available to us to first better ourselves then help others around us.

  • http://www.SpareSomeChange.com is the homelessness search engine where you can find resources by state or custom query. Please give this web address to panhandlers and homeless people (they can use free computer/internet at the library). Also, please submit any homeless related websites/URLs so that others may find the help that they need.

  • Brittany

    Please don’t ever feel guilty. I spent several years in San Francisco’s streets and if it wern’t for people kicking down cash all the time my herion habbit would have been much smaller or I would have been locked up for stealing. I’m so thankful I have been clean for three years now. I went back to school, graduated, and am now sharing my creativity as a hair dresser. It beats sleeping under the 5th st. bridge or the greyhound station. Look there are plenty of ways to get help, especially in S.F. so pat yourself on the back for not enabling the habbits of others.

  • BurntOut

    I am sorry to say I know another side of the homeless situation. It is from within one of the programs. Not in SF, but in a state nearby. I have witnessed a year’s worth of lies told to churches, the public, etc. in order to get money – money that does NOT go towards the homeless. I have seen cars donated specifically stated by the donator to be given to a needy family…I have yet to see ONE of them given. Rather, I see them sold. Their interest in their shelters is to generate government grants. To give nice salaries and cars to the Director and his family. I have yet to see anyone helped. I have been told sucess is (and I quote) We never see them again. No donations are given unless they are trash to begin with. They sell everything they TELL YOU they donate. I buy things from my own money and have been told not to do it as it is outside my job description. I came here thinking I could do the right thing to get someone off the streets but all I have found is a thriving business where the stock being sold just walks itself in the door. 100% profit. I see a political, PR nightmare. And yes, it is run by an actor who calls himself a Preacher. The homeless are in more trouble than you think!

  • Tom

    I was homeless when I was twenty. I came from abusive, alcoholic parents who beat me all through growing up and then kicked me out. I slept in the backof an abandoned car and stole food or dumpster dived burgers at McDonalds. I panhandled a little but always hated that. I was that way for about two months and then got fed up and mad and started looking for work anyway I could. I went door to door asking to mow lawns or paint or clean. I usually found at least one job a day doing this. I was amazed at how people want to help when you tell them that you are homeless and want to work. I helped people move, mowed their lawn, cleaned out garaged. Then I found a guy doing a large construction job and he hired me to do labor. Regular job, 8 hours a day, regular pay. Then I found another guy who gave me live in room and board in exchange for painting his rooming house. Now, 25 years later, I have my own advertising company and employ 12 people. I NEVER give money to homeless people, they will just buy drugs or booze. There are always jobs around for people to do if they wanted to. I know, I was there. The other ‘homeless’ people just sat on their asses and drank booze or smoked crack. They never ONCE went to look for a job or work at all. After what I went through, I have no sympathy for a homeless bum and could care less about them. They do it to themselves. But if someone comes to me clean and sober and tells me they are down on their luck and wants to work, I’ll bend over backwards to help them and I’ve helped dozens so far.