What Happens When You Avert Your Eyes From the Homeless

STEPHEN NESSEN / GOTHAMIST

This article was originally published on Gothamist.com.

There’s a German phrase some psychologists use to describe the dehumanizing feeling that results from avoiding eye contact: “Wie Luft behandeln.” It means: “to be looked at as though air.”

Michael Gonzalez is familiar with that feeling. He experienced street homelessness for about three years starting in 2010, and he remembers that sensation of going unacknowledged, being looked through, like he wasn’t even there.

“It hurts. In the beginning it hurts,” Gonzalez said. “And then I think after a while it just started to annoy me. And then it angered me, and then it disgusted me. And then at some point it’s like, you just get used to it.”

We The Commuters is dedicating the next few weeks to reporting on homelessness and our transit system. When we put out a commuter survey several months ago, lots of people mentioned homelessness in their responses and asked for more coverage of the increased presence of people taking shelter in the subways.

A lot of your comments showed a struggle with selfishness and humanity:

“I don’t go more than a few hours in New York without seeing someone living in desperation in the subways. It makes me feel guilty about all the resources I have in my life, but it also feels like a social issue we should be addressing as a community.”

“It sucks to see homeless people on the trains during my commute basically every day. But what sucks more is when my first reaction isn’t empathy for the person and their situation, but annoyance that they are taking up three seats, or that the train car smells bad. I am frustrated that I get annoyed so easily.”

“When our collective response to mental illness is to close our eyes and pretend it’s not a problem… We need a better menu of humane responses to pervasive human suffering.”

Your responses led me to examine the psychology behind our interactions, specifically what happens when we choose to see or not see other people, and when we are seen or unseen.

Most people told me they try to ignore everyone around them during their commute. But it’s telling how we respond when someone is asking not to be ignored.

“I mainly just look at them and then look away, as sad as it is to say,” one man told me at Penn Station. “I never actually thought about it. I guess thinking of it now, I do treat them as lesser than people, which is kind of sad.”

There’s a reason why some people, thoughtfully or not, put people who are currently homeless in a different box. It has to do with a social psychology theory called “the just-world hypothesis.”

Dr. Alisha Ali, a professor at New York University who studies the psychological effects of poverty, explained the theory this way: Most of us like to believe that good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people.

“So that means it makes it far easier to look at someone who’s poor or homeless and say…they did something that led to them being poor and maybe that means they’re a bad person,” Ali said.

This base assumption, said Dr. Ali, sets the stage for people to dehumanize the poor.

But not everyone subscribes to that theory. Many commuters told me they feel deeply affected by the plight of people seeking shelter in the subways. Some cried in our short conversations, when I asked them how they feel about seeing homeless people every day. Sad. Guilty. Angry. Guilty for feeling angry.

Dr. Ali said feeling guilty is a good sign; it means your moral compass is working. But feeling too much personal responsibility can lead to something called “compassion fatigue.”

“We don’t really have the capability as human beings to look at this onslaught of problems that are depressing, problems that are overwhelming, and deal with it—especially on something like commuting to and from work—on a daily basis,” explained Dr. Ali.

That’s what can lead ostensibly compassionate people to avert their eyes when they see a person in need.

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