Tag Archives: homelessness

Seeking “Compassionate Disruption” on Oahu

On the island of Oahu, Hawaii, approximately 4,700 people are experiencing homelessness. More than a third of them are unsheltered. The city of Honolulu, along its deep blue ocean waves and bright, sandy beaches, has one of the nation’s highest homeless populations per capita.

© Joe Philipson 2012

For a community that relies so heavily upon tourism revenues, this doesn’t bode well. People don’t like to vacation alongside homelessness. In the state’s largest newspaper, Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell wrote, “We can’t let the homeless ruin our economy and take over our city” (June 2014). “It’s time,” he said, “to declare a war on homelessness.”

In the intervening months, Caldwell has developed an approach he calls “compassionate disruption” to address this “crisis.” “If we let it be convenient to sleep, for example, on these sidewalks in Waikiki or parks around the island, it just means that those activities continue, and we don’t get people into permanent housing to be treated and made better,” Caldwell said.

This is the “disruption” part of the strategy: Police have stepped up enforcement of laws that already exist that restrict homeless people’s access to public space. They’re giving out tickets and arresting people for sleeping in parks at night and for being “sidewalk nuisances,” and they are seizing people’s unattended personal property. At the same time, Caldwell’s administration has passed new legislation (October 2014) that would make it illegal to sit down/lie down on public property, and that would attach a $1000 fine to public urination/defecation (a frequent problem for homeless people without 24-hour public restroom facilities).

This kind of lawmaking/law enforcement is not unique to Honolulu. Indeed, advocates have documented a trend toward “criminalizing” homelessness in the United States for some time. A similar trend has impacted people trying to alleviate homelessness. Just this week, several people were charged in Florida for serving food to homeless people in a public park.

It’s hard for me to think of these kinds of actions as “compassionate.”

To disrupt is “to break apart, to rupture, to throw into disorder.” The idea behind Caldwell’s strategy appears to be to make it so uncomfortable to be homeless that one would have to be “crazy” to not seek help. What Caldwell seems to be missing is that that’s already true of homelessness. It has never really been terribly convenient to sleep on sidewalks or in parks. It is also not as easy as one might think to find effective help. Homelessness is already often a state of disorder; it is itself a state of disruption. These efforts work to make already undesirable, chaotic conditions even more undesirable.

How, then, might it be “compassionate” to seize people’s personal property and make life on the streets even harder? How does Caldwell frame disruption as a positive strategy?

 Mayor Kirk Caldwell, Honolulu, HI.  © Ed Morita 2012

Mayor Kirk Caldwell, Honolulu, HI. © Ed Morita 2012

First, Caldwell’s rhetoric surrounding his “compassionate disruption” policies frame homeless people as pitiable, and in need of guidance. “I think it is incredibly cruel to just drive by homeless folks and ignore them as if they don’t exist – those who have mental challenges and addictions – and say let them fend for themselves,” Caldwell said.

Here, he reduces a highly diverse homeless population to people with “mental challenges and addictions,” calling into question their decision-making abilities. The problem, Caldwell continually implies, is not that there aren’t enough services (there aren’t), but that people aren’t choosing to use them. It is compassionate to help people get the services they need. It is compassionate to force people to do “what’s best for them.”

Secondly, the rhetoric of “compassionate disruption” portrays housed people who “help” homeless people as good citizens. It is what “civilized people do and it is what Americans do.” This, of course, implies that Caldwell’s policies are “help,” and that one should feel both civilized and patriotic for supporting these policies. As “compassionate disruption” makes the audience feel pity for homeless people, it makes them feel good about not “just driv[ing] by homeless folks.” Conversely, people who don’t support these policies (i.e., advocates working for alternatives), and homeless people themselves, are represented as less “American,” less civilized.

Third, Caldwell’s repeated turn to “compassionate disruption” is paired with policies that appear to reward homeless people for seeking help. Honolulu has begun to allocate millions of dollars to a Housing First plan that aims to house a fraction of the city’s homeless population (estimates vary). It certainly appears compassionate to provide housing to homeless people, especially housing with “no strings attached,” as the Housing First model demands.

But these apparent rewards work to mask other troubling policies. The number of tickets issued on behalf of “compassionate disruption” in just the first six months of 2014 is more than three times the largest estimate of Housing First apartments projected to be created in Honolulu over the next several years. Caldwell is also currently considering a plan to “relocate” a portion of the city’s homeless population to a camp on Sand Island, the site of a former Japanese internment camp, and former home to ash and solid waste dumps as part of his strategy.

The rhetoric of “compassionate disruption” serves as a reminder that rhetoric has very real material consequences. How we talk about homelessness, and about helping, influences the policies we establish to address these issues and the ways we respond to people living in states of disruption. Caldwell’s policies have been gaining steam in the public and in the legislature, even as advocates resist. As they do so, they help to define what “compassion” looks like on Oahu, and maybe even beyond.


Filed under Uncategorized

Making People Count: Thoughts on Homelessness, Statistics, and Communication Ethics

"Homeless Man in Snow" by flickr user Paulo Ordoveza

“Homeless Man in Snow” by Flickr user Paulo Ordoveza

Even as a qualitative scholar, I frequently work with statistics. I do not gather many numbers myself, but I rely heavily on the data collection efforts of others. Because I am most often writing about homelessness, I regularly consult documents like the Annual Homelessness Assessment Report to Congress or the State of Homelessness in America Reports to help describe the scope of the issue.

Earlier this month, for the first time, I participated in the process through which these statistics are compiled – the national Homeless Point-In-Time (PIT) Count. This count is conducted annually* and functions as a one night census for homeless people. My participation led me to some valuable reflection on some of the ethical questions associated with the gathering of this kind of data.

Teams of volunteers are dispatched across our nation’s cities on count night to determine how many people are sleeping in emergency shelters and how many are sleeping in places considered unfit for human habitation. Demographic information is also gathered as part of the count, and all of this information is sent from local communities to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

On the night of this year’s count, perhaps serendipitously, I attended a seminar in which we discussed the relationship of rhetoric to communication ethics. Much of this discussion revolved around Emmanuel Levinas’s concept of the “trace,” the distance we cannot ever fully bridge between people in a communicative encounter. Spoma Jovanovic and Roy V. Wood describe the trace as a place where we “feel the indescribable depth of the difference between the self and the other.” Seyla Benhabib has similarly described the encounter as facing “the ‘otherness of the other’ . . . to face their ‘alterity,’ their irreducible distinctness and difference from the self.”

It is in the trace, in how we choose to address the difference of others from our selves, that an ethics of communication is established. To believe that we can ever fully know another person, or to believe that we can fully know what is best for that person, opens up possibilities for all kinds of communicative violence (e.g., verbal abuse, invasions of privacy, control, silencing). Compassion and kindness and understanding emerge when we acknowledge the unreachable, the unknowable, in the people we encounter.

Every time I encounter someone other than myself, I face the trace. This is true as I speak, as I write, and as I am silent.

With my head full of these ideas, that night I trekked through snow banks, looking under bridges, in tunnels, in parking lots, in wide open spaces, and in abandoned buildings for people who do not have homes of their own. As I walked, I wondered: What does an ethical encounter with a homeless person look like in the middle of the night? How could I acknowledge the trace, to respect the distance between us, even as I invade the space he/she/they had turned into a place of rest and respite?

When a PIT team encounters homeless people on count night, we are under instructions to awaken them. We must then conduct a brief interview, asking for demographic information like age, race, gender, etc. Some of the questions are quite intrusive, asking about sexual orientation, histories of mental illness, military service, and more. We enter people’s resting spaces, we wake them up, and we ask them personal questions in the middle of the night. For reasons I hope are obvious, this can feel threatening (and frightening) to the people the teams encounter.

"They count, will you" by Flickr user Neon Tommy

“They count, will you” by Flickr user Neon Tommy

The statistics we gathered on count night are essential for so many reasons. Federal funding decisions are tied to these numbers, as are policy proposals and decisions at all levels of government. The count also helps establish how widespread is the problem of homelessness. In fact, in the 1980s, homeless advocates fought to establish a homeless count because, they argued, no one would believe it was an issue of national concern without one. Journalists, politicians, advocates, scholars, and homeless people alike depend on the information gleaned from the PIT Count process.

I engaged in this process as an advocate and a scholar, as a person who cares deeply about the power these numbers have and about the circumstances of the individual people these numbers represent. My team did not, this night, encounter any people sleeping outside in our assigned geographic area. I’m grateful for this, because it meant people had found shelter from the -15 degree cold of that night. It also meant that I didn’t have to resolve the ethical questions that were swirling around in my head. I did not have an encounter in which I was asked to ignore or disrespect the unknowable distance between me and the people experiencing homelessness in my city that night.

As usual, I still have more questions than answers. I maintain that the PIT Count is critically important and I wonder how it might be changed to prevent the intrusion of volunteers into the space and lives of people sleeping outdoors. I believe advocates need to continue to have conversations about how to respect the trace amidst these institutionalized processes. In the academy, I believe we must recognize the trace even in the statistics we use to represent collective “others.” And as responsible communicators, I believe we need to understand not just what our numbers represent, but the means by which they are gathered.


* HUD requires the count every other year for communities receiving federal funding to address homelessness. Many communities, like mine, conduct the counts every year.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

“Flipping the Script” on Panhandling

This summer, Vitamin Water and CollegeHumor released the above video, “Subway Bragger,” as a part of the water brand’s new #makeboringbrilliant advertising campaign. The idea, of course, is that water on its own is boring, but Vitamin Water has made it “brilliant” through the addition of tasty flavors and vitamin supplements. “Subway Bragger” is part of a series of online videos in which panhandling joins waiting rooms, airplane delays, a natural history museum tour, and more, as the “boring” to which Vitamin Water adds flair.

Online response to this panhandling “prank” on a Philadelphia subway train has been mostly positive. GOOD magazine and Philly.com call the video “hilarious,” Policy Mic touts it as an “awesome performance,” and inspirational website Upworthy says that while being “pretty hilarious,” the video “teaches a little lesson on not being so quick to judge people.” The Huffington Post featured the clip in its comedy section, and explained that the people on this train were “delighted” when this panhandler “flipped the script.” Interestingly, the only negative responses I have found to the piece have come from the advertising community. AdWeek’s David Kiefaber wrote, “maybe a sugar-water brand’s energy would be better spent actually helping the homeless [rather] than making fun of them,” and the AdRANTS blog questions the marketing value of a video that “makes light” of homelessness.

To call panhandling — and by implication, poverty — “boring” isn’t just to minimize the struggle of millions of people who experience homelessness in the United States each year. It also speaks to the ease with which so many Americans allow visible poverty to become an (effectively) invisible part of the urban background, as natural as the honking of horns, the smell of the subway station, or the changing of traffic lights. To pass someone in need has become mundane, and that is what allows Vitamin Water to place it in the same campaign as the boring waiting room ad.

What I find even more interesting than the campaign slogan is the response to the video. The scenario is “hilarious” because the black man speaking on the subway train isn’t poor. If this is a “flipped script,” the poverty of a black man is normal, but his ability to speak eloquently and succeed economically is unusual. And, in the words of Vitamin Water, it’s not just funny, it’s “brilliant.”

I would argue, however, that the script hasn’t actually been flipped. Instead, I think the presumed panhandler simply moves from one stereotype of black masculinity to another. Rather than serving as the poor black man, as the audience anticipates, he serves as the black comedian. A number of scholars (including for example, Patricia Hill Collins and Donald Bogle) have explained that black men who wish to avoid being freighted with images of poverty and criminality in the media have few options, but an ability to entertain is one of them. Humorous black characters like those played by Chris Rock, Tyler Perry, or Bill Cosby are “acceptable” black men who appear “safe” (i.e., not criminal, not poor) so long as they don’t challenge existing race norms. As the man in this video moves from presumed panhandler to subway car entertainer, he does not escape the social categories that guide the ways that Americans (white Americans, in particular) interpret black male identities. The script isn’t flipped; it just shifts.

Vitamin Water is not just selling water with the “Subway Bragger.” It is also marketing narratives of race and class. Rather than challenging viewers’ perceptions, the video’s humor reinforces their beliefs about both poverty and black men in America.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Uncategorized