Overcoming Invisibility

It is hard to believe that you wouldn’t stop and recognize one of your loved ones homeless on the streets the way that a recent video by the New York City Rescue Mission demonstrates. However, according to social psychology research out of Princeton, it’s actually not surprising because of how our brains process images of homeless individuals. Stereotyping and prejudice have been related back to a lack of activation in the Medial Prefrontal Cortex, usually very active when recognizing other people, particularly faces, and reward processing.1 While images of all other groups of people activated the MPC, the brain was only activated in places associated with recognizing objects when presented with images of homeless individuals.

The scenario presented by the video combined with the proposed neurological basis behind prejudice brings up a few interesting points regarding our treatment of the homeless. If the invisibility of the homeless in the United States is not only due to circumstance, such as temporary homelessness, and our own willful ignorance, how do we begin to empathize with these individuals? After all, without empathy, it would be much more difficult to perceive actual identities when addressing issues like those facing the criminal justice system. Many artists, such as John Kraintz a formerly homeless Sacremento resident, have taken on this task, portraying the stories and faces of homeless individuals, asking us to perceive them as people rather than objects.2 There is little evidence as to the success of such tactics, but at the very least it is vital that we as a society become aware of the invisible among us.


1 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17100784
2 http://www.sacbee.com/2014/02/09/6128842/faces-of-the-homeless-in-sacramento

“The Jungle” – Ithaca’s Home for the Homeless

Last Decemeber Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick stated that “It is time that we work with human service agencies, the community of faith, and private individuals to clear the Jungle and keep it clear” following the death of 53 year old Richard Sherman.1 Sherman died at Cayuga Medical Center on December 11th, 2013 following a fire in his tent the previous day. While no foul play was suspected, the lack of attention given to and true intervention following the event by the greater Ithaca community has allowed the issue of homelessness to persist in Ithaca. A second man was found dead on April 16th, 2014 in the same area, again with no indications of foul play.2

The Jungle- a three area campsite on the grounds owned by  just past the West End near big box stores like Wegman’s and Walmart- has been a campsite for the past fifty years to those who would otherwise be considered homeless.3 Multiple attempts have been made by the city of Ithaca to evict the residents of this tent community in the past few years. In 2011, a meeting with Common Council members, Mayor Carolyn Peterson (Myrick’s predecessor), social workers and others the issue of how to compassionately clear the Jungle and prevent harm to those who would prefer to live outdoors was explicitly addressed. While efforts in 2011 to evict residents of the Jungle were largely unsuccessful, the issue of harm reduction was appropriately identified. Since 2011, some changes such as adding portable restrooms to address the lack of sanitation and clean up efforts by the Department of Public Works in the Jungle, as well as efforts by the Red Cross and other nonprofit organizations have addressed some of the issues regarding safety of the homeless population in Ithaca. However, the recent deaths as well as concerns about mental health such as suicide, as referenced nonchalantly by Thomas Persun a 2011 video from The Cornell Daily Sun.

For those studying on The Hill, the issues facing the homeless in the United States may seem far away, confined to big cities like New York City or Los Angeles. While small movements for awareness about the Jungle have come in waves there is still much to be done. Between 50 and 100 individuals in Ithaca are homeless on any given night and according to an Independent Living Survey conducted by the Learning Web, about 500 – 600 youths are affected by homelessness each year.4,5 While the city of Ithaca embarked on a ten year plan to end homelessness in 2011, it is important to remember that there is much Ithacans can do. Donations of time or money to the Red Cross, Loaves and Fishes and the Youth Outreach Program run by the Learning Web can have a significant effect on the lives of homeless individuals in Tompkins County. To get involved or find more information on these programs, please visit their websites!



1 http://www.syracuse.com/news/index.ssf/2013/12/police_man_who_suffered_severe_burns_in_ithaca_homeless_camp_dies.html

2 http://www.cnycentral.com/news/story.aspx?id=1032316#.U1lYJVVdWNU

3 http://www.ithaca.com/news/article_e5fa16c4-e086-11e0-ac61-001cc4c03286.html

4 http://m.ithaca.com/news/addressing-the-state-of-homelessness-in-tompkins-county/article_6fad0564-8e92-11e3-b590-001a4bcf887a.html?mode=jqm

5 http://www.ithacaweek-ic.com/young-and-homeless-in-tompkins-county/