Smiles, greetings, and eye contact: How interaction humanizes the homeless

When I left class a few weeks ago, I noticed a homeless person on the street corner asking for money. No one did anything—they kept walking without even looking at the man. He angrily said, “A ‘sorry, I can’t help, but have a nice day’ would be fine!”

His words are still ingrained in my memory weeks later.

I recently read an article in Invisible People—a nonprofit aimed at educating the public on homelessness—about the importance of making eye contact with homeless people. It makes them feel visible by others and more accepted. If a single person does not glance at a homeless person, it does not have a significant impact. But over time, homeless people can feel like “ghosts watching the world but not fully participating in it” if no one looks at them, Kayla Robbins wrote in the article.

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I reevaluated my behavior towards the homeless and decided I need to make a change since reading this. Now, I am making a conscious effort to look at homeless people, smile at them, and say hello to them, because no one should feel invisible.

Since I grew up in a Boston suburb, I didn’t know how to interact with the homeless before moving into college. I have visited a handful of cities, but I never encountered homeless people on a daily basis.

Because we live in the middle of a major city and are surrounded by homeless people, I noticed I subconsciously looked away or pretended to look at my phone when I walked by a homeless person without fulling knowing why I did it.

Here in Massachusetts, homelessness is especially prevalent. At the end of 2018, WBUR reported that while the national homelessness average increased just 0.3 percent in a year, Massachusetts’ average increased 14 percent. But in this same year, Massachusetts was one of four states to shelter at least 95 percent of homeless people, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. 

A part of me always felt like if I made eye contact with any of the homeless in the city, I would be forced to face my privilege in the situation. Or maybe I felt guilty that I did not give any money when I probably could? My momentary guilt over not giving someone a dollar should not trump their constant feelings of isolation and invisibility. I can quickly get over the fact that I did not help someone, but feeling invisible takes much longer to overcome.

For the past few weeks, I have tried to enact this change at every chance I can get. I will give some money when I can. However, I still find it important to acknowledge the homeless in some way, no matter how small, even if I don’t have anything to give.

Oftentimes, we are too caught up in our own lives—rushing to class or to work, for instance—to acknowledge others. We should take a step back and think about how our behavior affects others.

Whenever I am with my friends and they are looking at their phones instead of me, I feel hurt. Why should it be any different for the homeless? Imagine if instead of no one looking at you for a two-minute story, no one looked at you for hours on end.

How would you feel? Isolated, invisible, and dehumanized.

In July 2018, PBS interviewed Joe Wilson, a homeless man living in San Francisco, who highlighted the effect eye contact had on him. 

“It certainly made a huge difference in [my life], when someone was willing to make eye contact with me, was willing to actually touch me as another human being,” Wilson told PBS. “That had more value than a dollar.”

Oftentimes, people are forced into homelessness by circumstance. But just because they are down on their luck does not make them any less human. Instead of being trapped in your privileged bubble, pop it and “acknowledge your shared humanity,” as Robbins wrote for Invisible People.

As a college student, there is not much I can monetarily do to help the homeless. Though I would like to, if I gave a dollar to every homeless person I saw, I would have no money left. Instead, there are so many other free ways to reach out to the homeless. Even telling someone to have a nice day—which takes seconds—is far better than looking away or ignoring their greeting.

Based in Cambridge, Spare Change News is the country’s oldest street newspaper, according to their website, and focuses on topics like homelessness and inequality. Students can volunteer to write for the outlet or purchase a newspaper if interested to support this often overlooked community. 

Telling someone you don’t have any money to give them is okay, but ignoring them when they ask is not. People will understand if you don’t carry cash with you or if you spent all your change, so you at least owe them an answer to their plea.

In the future, I will continue to work on making conversation and engaging with the homeless people in the community because intentionally avoiding someone is more difficult than simply looking or smiling at them. If something as simple as saying hello could change the way they see themselves, why don’t I always do it?

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