On my way out of the metro one winter afternoon, I saw a woman lying on the floor and didn’t stop to help. She had her hair in a messy ponytail, her shirt was riding up her chest, and she was wearing baggy pants and worn-out boots. She was facing the ceiling and had a tired but amused look on her face. Above her was an STM security guard, staring blankly ahead. I matched his blank stare and kept moving towards the exit.
Even though the woman on the floor seemed to be enjoying herself and the security guard wasn’t asking for any help, this seemed wrong. I’m pretty sure nobody expected me to lunge forward and help an intoxicated homeless woman up at 3:00pm, but I think I was at least supposed to feel bad about the situation. If not for the woman on the floor, maybe for the security guard. Maybe I was supposed feel sad for the lady’s situation or embarrassed for her or mad at our society for allowing this to happen. But the truth is, I didn’t feel anything about it, really. I was worried about catching the bus or wondering where my reusable water bottle went.
Nobody else stopped to help, either. Nobody turned their head for a more than a few seconds. This wasn’t surprising or sad to anyone rushing out of the metro that afternoon. This wasn’t an event the young man in front of me would talk about at the dinner table. When his dad says, “hey, see anything interesting today?” the man will probably say no. Not because seeing a woman on the floor isn’t sad, but probably because seeing a homeless woman on the floor isn’t newsworthy in his mind. And I didn’t mention it at the dinner table that night, either.
The funny thing is, I’ve always considered myself a good person. I hold the door open for strangers, give my seat up for anyone who seems to be having a long day, and leave nice comments on my friends’ social media posts. I cry whenever someone dies in a movie and probably even more when it’s a puppy. I like to think I’m compassionate. But how can this be true if I don’t even flinch when I see a homeless person in a compromising position?
I think most people get easily discouraged. We’re surrounded by insurmountable problems, told we need to save the environment and eat vegan and be superhuman. I watch documentaries about how to save the world and get convinced I can change the way things are going and I try it for a week. But a week later, I’m hungry and tired of only eating lettuce and quinoa and walking to school instead of driving–and the world’s still dying. I get convinced that everything bad in the world is inevitable so I give up. I drive to school and eat a hamburger and ignore the fact that I’m killing our planet and everyone who lives here. I distance myself emotionally from any problem I think is too big to solve because I think I only have two options: feel sad all the time trying to change things or ignore it and feel however I want.
Homelessness is a huge social issue. We see it everywhere and unless we’ve got spare change, we usually don’t do much about it. I think it’s unfair to say that people don’t care about the homeless. No matter what prejudices Canadians have against homeless people, I think if most people were asked if they want homelessness to end, they’d say yes. So to me, the problem seems to be that homelessness has just become this abstract issue that looks too big to solve. I’ve heard countless conversations about whether giving homeless people change helps their situation or makes it worse. This conversation alone tells me people care, but don’t know how to help. We crave immediacy. We want to see our efforts in changing the world actually make a difference. So what really works? Can we solve this problem? And if so, is it our responsibility to solve it?
Lab #7: First Draft, take 2
As a college student who studies in downtown Montreal, I come face-to-face with the homeless every day. To get to and from school, I push through scrambling passengers in the furnace we call a metro and pass countless people asking for food or change. While I come across homeless people all the time, I’ve come to question whether I actually see them. Even though passing homeless people is part of most commuters’ day, they rarely provoke any reaction whatsoever. People’s tendency to ignore the homeless may be linked to common perceptions of homelessness. For one, many believe that homeless people don’t work hard, are lazy, and only want handouts. A study by Paul Toro, a psychology professor at Wayne State University, reveals that in countries with more capitalist economies and less social services, people hold the belief that homeless individuals are responsible for being homeless.
But do these common beliefs really contribute to the way we treat the homeless? According to a study on morality published in 2014, when you believe a person’s situation is their fault, you’re less likely to want to donate to their cause due to perceptions of justice. In other words, if you think someone’s responsible for their plight, you’re less likely to want to help them out because you don’t feel empathetic towards them or you don’t feel like it’s the fair and right thing to do. This lack of empathy towards the homeless is like when your friend hasn’t gone to class all semester and asks for help to study for the final exam because they’re failing. You’re probably less likely to want to help them study.