Tag Archives: poverty

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.

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“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.

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