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April 24, 2014 5:04 AM   Subscribe

The New York City Rescue Mission set up a social experiment with a hidden camera to see if people would notice their loved ones posing as homeless people as they walked past.

Below the video are some real faces of homeless people in NYC.
posted by gman (27 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite

 
I want to be moved by this, but I'm not sure "People don't recognize the tops and backs of costume hats as loved ones" really tells us much.

What's the expected change in behaviour as a result of seeing this? Are people supposed to get in the faces of homeless people who aren't trying to engage with them? I suspect that would not be welcomed by most homeless people.

It's a nice idea, I'm just not feeling like I get what I'm supposed to do now.
posted by jacquilynne at 5:35 AM on April 24 [4 favorites]


What would happen if they tried the same experiment with their loved ones just sitting on the street or at an outdoor cafe, not posing as a person who is homeless? I would guess many would not see even then.

I, too, don't know what is the appropriate response. It's certainly not to treat someone as invisible, but it's also not to stop and gawk.
posted by valeries at 5:37 AM on April 24 [7 favorites]


I'm sort of really confused about this experiment.

I'm one of those people who have really, really bad face-recognition at the best of times. I find it hard enough to recognize people in context. When they're totally out of their normal context...probably just not going to happen.

So, if my sister was slumped on the side of the footpath with a few garbage bags of stuff, wearing clothes she'd normally never wear...my brain wouldn't be 'prepared' for that to be her. Because that's not how she looks or what she does. So I wouldn't recognize her.

This is probably not at all how the brain works. I'm no expert. I'm just not sure that this experiment says anything about people's attitude to the homeless. I don't think I'd recognize my sister if she was wearing painter's overalls and up a ladder, either, KWIM?
posted by Salamander at 5:38 AM on April 24 [7 favorites]


There's a tension between visibility as a matter of public discourse, which is absolutely lacking for the homeless and which should be corrected, and the visibility of individual homeless people to particular non-homeless people who see them. The experiment, I think, conflates the two, which I understand because the first is hard to demonstrate, but seems wrong. I try to engage in respectful ways when homeless people approach me, even if it's just to say "sorry, I don't have any change," but when someone doesn't approach me, I try to ignore them, because it's what I would want if I were in their shoes. Maybe this is wrong, I'd be open to hearing that, but it's always seemed right to me.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 5:42 AM on April 24 [3 favorites]


jacquilynne: I'm not sure "People don't recognize the tops and backs of costume hats as loved ones" really tells us much.

At :50 in, Tom appears to look right at his loved one, and it looks to me like the same goes for Shaunya with her mom and aunt around the two minutes mark.
posted by gman at 5:46 AM on April 24 [1 favorite]


I have had trouble recognising loved ones in half-empty coffee shops where we were planning to meet. I am sure I would not recognise anyone pretending to be homeless. Maybe I'd think they look sort of like someone I know but I cannot think of who.

There is probably a lot of interesting work to be done around this idea, but this one seems more like a stunt than anything else.
posted by jeather at 5:59 AM on April 24


At :50 in, Tom appears to look right at his loved one, and it looks to me like the same goes for Shaunya with her mom and aunt around the two minutes mark.

Shaunya's relatives say out loud that she didn't even look so I'm assuming she didn't look. Tom does look at his wife, but he's looking at her from above her, which isn't a good angle for facial recognition.

The camera framing is interesting. Some of the cameras are capturing angles where we can see the faces of everyone, and maybe that's supposed to make us think "look, she's right there! your wife! can't you see her?" But the people who are supposed to be doing the recognizing are doing it from nearly the opposite vantage point. Some of the long shots that are from the direction of travel and above show pretty clearly that you can't really see any part of their face at all from where the recognizers are walking.
posted by jacquilynne at 6:01 AM on April 24 [1 favorite]


Though I probably wouldn't recognise family members in wigs if they were driving my taxi or delivering pizza, this is a pretty cool idea for a video. Unfortunately, though I care about the homeless and everything, this film is UNBEARABLY GLOOPY. Who are these weepy doofuses? I hate it!
posted by cincinnatus c at 6:05 AM on April 24 [2 favorites]


isn't the pretense that they're invisible one of the most useful psychological tools enabling us to tolerate their presence? i mean, if i actually NOTICED someone shitting in the street outside my house, then i'd have to do something about it, wouldn't i?
posted by bruce at 6:21 AM on April 24 [1 favorite]


How many of you saw the moonwalking gorilla?
posted by Obscure Reference at 6:38 AM on April 24 [4 favorites]


isn't the pretense that they're invisible one of the most useful psychological tools enabling us to tolerate their presence? i mean, if i actually NOTICED someone shitting in the street outside my house, then i'd have to do something about it, wouldn't i?

This is true, although I think that's a double edged sword, since the "something" people do is often "call the police to arrest them for something stupid."
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 6:39 AM on April 24 [1 favorite]


I would probably think, "That person looks just like my Mom, how sad!" I mean, the experiment doesn't prove that you'd not recognize your relatives because you ignore homeless people, but that you probably know your relatives aren't homeless, so you're not going to assume that the person who looks like your relative is, indeed, a homeless person or acting like a homeless person, because that doesn't compute.
posted by xingcat at 7:13 AM on April 24


Are people supposed to get in the faces of homeless people who aren't trying to engage with them?

I live in the same neighborhood where I work with homeless people and I recognize people when I'm out and about all the time. There are far more opportunities for engagement than you realize. I have to turn it off sometimes too. There are times when I'm in a pissy mood, or in a hurry or whatever and I have to pretend I don't see them. But there are plenty of situations where casual engagement, small talk, etc seem appropriate as with any stranger waiting at the bus stop. The proudest moment of my life was when my son said "Hello, no thanks" to the guy selling Street Sheet outside the QFC.

At the point when you've lost everything material in the world, becoming detached from and invisible to the rest of "normal" society is a big, big problem that perpetuates your situation.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 7:13 AM on April 24 [4 favorites]


I am not a homeless person, but I do blow off steam by busking bluegrass with some friends during street festivals in my town. In my day-to-day I'm the pastor at a downtown church.
Nobody recognizes me when I'm busking. It's bizarre. The first time I did it I was worried that church-members would mess up the cash flow (Friday night beer money!) by stopping to talk to me at length. Nobody stops. It is very hard to describe the feeling, but it sort of feels like becoming a part of the background.
Like in Mario 3 when you crouch on the white block long enough and drop behind the scenes.

The only person that really spotted me was the nun who coordinates worship at the local motherhouse. And she just smiled and danced.
posted by Baby_Balrog at 7:21 AM on April 24 [7 favorites]


As a facial recognition scientific experiment: I HAZ CONCERNS

As a piece of art to raise social consciousness: thumbs up.
posted by odinsdream at 7:29 AM on April 24 [4 favorites]


My father was homeless for a period of about 10 years. Trust me, once you know someone close to you is homeless, you see them every time. Sometimes even when it's not actually them.
posted by aclevername at 8:13 AM on April 24 [7 favorites]


Exactly- I think it's intended to raise social consciousness and make you think about how the homeless are no different than your loved ones. They're just making a novel video for people to share on the internet- better than something that just says "donate time or money to help the homeless." If your loved ones were homeless, they'd call out to you when you passed by.
posted by Secretariat at 8:14 AM on April 24


I recognize the three homeless men who regularly hang out between my house and the shop where I buy my coffee beans. Yet I have passed my upstairs neighbor on the street between my house and my bus stop repeatedly without noticing him. But every single time the breakfast shift waiter from the corner diner is sitting down to dinner in a neighborhood restaurant where I happen to be, I see him. I don't know his name, though, I should fix that. My husband says he often see the one clerk from the coffee shop walking in the neighborhood, but I never do.

Like someone said above, I'm not sure this is terribly useful as a "social experiment" or even goes to prove any actual fact. A person walking on a city street sees and does not see dozens of people in a single block. Some of those people are deliberately not-seen; some are incidentally not-seen; some are seen. It is not our failure to look in the faces of homeless people which is the problem, even if there is a metaphysical component to reframing the "homeless problem" as the need of an individual human being whom society is failing.
posted by crush-onastick at 8:25 AM on April 24


Maybe if they shouted obcenities at me (or occasional pleasantries too as well as panhandling) as I passed like the homeless guys downtown I might be more engaged.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 8:49 AM on April 24


So, for me one of the big takeaways here is that people don't contextualize things (or even people) out of context.

I think would be a good candidate for their video because honestly, I tend to mostly, intentionally ignore the homeless generally out of fear because I have been harrassed, harrangued, and attacked far too many times. In my work training in working with the mentally ill I've been taught to appear to ignore behavioral outbursts but keep trak of them for safety reasons and to try to avoid personalizing it. Rather than face a confrontation, I'll avoid eye contact and move on.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 8:59 AM on April 24


Like other posters, I do not see the purpose of this activity. I disagree that it is not appropriate to treat people as invisible. Personally, I always want to give a few bucks to the person who asks or is sitting on the side of the street, but the reality is that many are mentally ill and can be dangerous both physically and emotionally. For example, in addition to the typical insulting catcalling type of scenarios, I have been called a c**t, grabbed, and pushed into traffic on a busy street. I don't want to universalize my experience, but ignoring the fact that there are many homeless individuals who are not mentally stable is a mistake.

I agree these are each human beings who have been failed by society and our society should do more to address this issue (ex: mental health treatment, etc) but encouraging untrained people to individually contact them on the street is misguided.
posted by seesom at 9:05 AM on April 24 [2 favorites]


I’ve also had trouble recognizing people I know well if they are in different situations than I’m used to. It’s sometimes embarrassing.

But there are plenty of situations where casual engagement, small talk, etc seem appropriate as with any stranger waiting at the bus stop. The proudest moment of my life was when my son said "Hello, no thanks" to the guy selling Street Sheet outside the QFC.

I always try and engage in a small way with homeless people. I don’t run up and throw my arms around them, or give them the sympathy look, I just say hi and talk to or acknowledge them just like I would anyone else, even if I’m telling them "no, I’m not giving you anything" (depending on the circumstances). It’s my own weird way of saying "we’re all going to treat each other with respect here, right?". I know not everyone feels comfortable doing this because of safety concerns, so I feel like I can make up for it a little. It doesn’t always work out, sometimes I trigger the craziness, but I sometimes get a flash of surprise that I imagine to be gratefulness.
posted by bongo_x at 9:31 AM on April 24


Last summer I made eye contact with the local crazy lady who hangs around outside the ice cream shop on the nearest main street to my apartment. She went from muttering to herself to a really direct stream of invective that would made have Clint Eastwood as a drill sergeant both jealous and blush furiously. She followed me for a city block yelling at me. I learned a great deal about my heritage, proclivities and anatomical flexibility. I have avoided eye contact with her ever since but she seems to remember me and I almost always get a very 'special' hello.

There are reasons why people don't look closely at homeless people and it isn't all because they are heartless. Sometimes you just want to get where you are going without being called a goatfucker.
posted by srboisvert at 11:22 AM on April 24 [4 favorites]


My eyesight is bad, and has become more complicated with age. So I will not recognize my sister at a very short distance if she does not move in a characteristic manner. Since she has the same sort of eyes, she doesn't really mind.

BUT: this video is about something else, and I was moved by it. Some years ago, I did some work for a homeless organization. With a largish group of students, we mapped the homeless population of our city. One of the things we were surprised to learn was that money was a secondary issue when they begged or busked. What they really wanted was recognition and care. They could live without the pennies "we" dropped, but they were really depressed and hurt by the lack of acknowledgment.
We literally found a homeless transperson in a back yard who had somehow escaped the social system, and was rapidly killing themself with contraband medications. They did want to talk and to find help, but the social and medical systems did not have resources to spend days and nights on the streets to be where the homeless are.
We met a very public spokesperson for homeless people who turned out to have a completely different life from what he told authorities - and who was consistently endangering himself because he had no idea of "normal life" and thought he was doing fine.
I could go on and on about this. For both students and faculty, this study has been life changing. Most of the homeless have mental health issues, and they may well verbally abuse us and act in scary ways, but we discovered that none of them were actually dangerous for us. They may at times fight among each other, but even the crazy lady shouting at you will never harm you physically. I think every single one of us will talk with every homeless person we meet, in as much time as we can afford. We know now that by doing this, we are giving as much as we can, and maybe more than if we volunteered for an organization (though most do both).

For me personally, this study cast a special light on a person I know who is schizophrenic, and very severely handicapped by her illness. If you met her, you would think she is a bag-lady, but because her family is very wealthy, she has a warm home and care at all times. She acts like your screaming homeless person sometimes. But at other times, we have long conversations where she has explained how her time at uni and the few people who recognize and acknowledge her mean the world for her.

In other words. For me, this video was a very strong and real statement of what the core problem is. Not money but care. I thought of transplanting it to our local context.
But I listen to what you all are saying, and understand that what seems powerful and true to me doesn't work with a broader audience.
posted by mumimor at 2:59 PM on April 24 [3 favorites]


I have the same reaction to this as I do to the Fuck the Poor video. It's interesting and thought-provoking in a "performance art" kind of way, but it doesn't mean no one cares about the homeless or poor.

Like others here have said, I wouldn't recognize my relatives if they were in costume in a place i didn't expect them. But if a homeless person recognized me as I passed and said, "Hey Dad! It's me, your daughter! I'm homeless now! Isn't that fucked up?" I'd certainly at least buy her a sandwich.

In the Fuck the Poor video...

SPOILER

...yeah, it's easy to raise the hackles of the public by being a dick. Not so easy to get them to make contributions to a stranger wearing a generic "Help the Poor" sandwich board.
posted by The Deej at 4:20 PM on April 24


Almost half of homeless men had traumatic brain injury in their lifetime
posted by homunculus at 6:13 PM on April 25


Relevant: TIL a professor at Princeton found that our brains sometimes process images of people who are poor or homeless as if they were not humans but things.
National Institutes of Health
Reddit discussion
posted by whatzit at 1:26 AM on April 27


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