understanding homelessness

understanding homelessness - I knew that I would encounter...

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I knew that I would encounter homelessness when I came to Berkeley. I was expecting it, because just about everybody I knew had something to say about the rumors they'd heard filter over from the West Coast. Coming from New York, however, I figured I'd seen it all, and would be in control over whatever I would be up against. Reality quickly hit me, though, as I began to familiarize myself with Berkeley and its main streets. I'd never seen anything quite like Telegraph Avenue and People's Park. No matter how much poverty one has seen throughout the course of their lives, it's far more difficult to accept when it occurs in areas of high concentration. Understanding the nature of homeless people asking for money and their interactions with people walking up and down a main street such as Telegraph Avenue is a difficult task. This observation process, which took place on Telegraph Avenue watching the homeless at "work", was difficult because of the wealth of information one could find in simply watching as one person asked another for money. We looked for a number of signals in the interactions, considering people's ages, how they reacted physically, whether or not they communicated verbally, their demeanor throughout the interaction, and the importance of eye-contact. We must also wrestle with the ambiguity of the power structure within the situation, because it is not nearly as clear as it seems. In the end, we will try to decipher the true nature of these confrontations, concluding by comparing the analysis of these situations to those found in the works of Erving Goffman and Robin Leidner. t INTERACTIONS The difficulty in defining the parameters of dominance within the interaction comes in understanding the disparity between the social status of the person being asked for money and the status of the individual begging for it; the real science lies in determining how little that difference actually matters. Socially, the respective status of each individual should be quite clear. The person walking down the street is probably either employed or a student. The stereotypical homeless person, on the other hand, may have alcohol or drug problems, may be suffering from schizophrenia, and is clearly not capable of functioning within the confines of mainstream society. Clearly, according to unwritten rules of our community, the employed person has a much higher social standing. Despite these social differences, the actual interaction is controlled by the panhandler. Their authority role begins with the initiation of the interaction; by being the one to cause the confrontation, the second party- the one being asked for change- is forced to react, if not to respond, in some way. The initiation process itself varies quite a bit from panhandler to panhandler and has a tremendous impact in terms of reinforcing the notion of authority. For example, there were panhandlers we observed who were not capable of singling out an individual person and therefore
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understanding homelessness - I knew that I would encounter...

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