Do homeless individuals have codes of conduct or rules?
April 19, 2014 3:28 PM   Subscribe

I recently learned that the panhandlers in my city (Cambridge, MA) often share their food when they get big items and it made me wonder - do homeless individuals often have explicit or implicit rules, like "share when you get food" or "the person who's been homeless the longest gets the best spot"? What do you think happens if people break the rule? I'm sure there's a lot of variation both within and between cities, but if anyone has any thoughts, I'd really appreciate it!
posted by mrmanvir to Society & Culture (12 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
I'm not sure this necessarily overlaps perfectly with unwritten rules of homelessness, but it's definitely true that street vendors and buskers (and probably panhandlers?) have all kinds of rules about turf and the etiquette behind where it's OK to set up shop.
posted by Sara C. at 3:38 PM on April 19, 2014

Tangentially related, the Hobo Code of Ethics.
posted by DarlingBri at 3:45 PM on April 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: It depends. From what I've heard people generally set up small groups and really many of the rules are mutually agreed upon and or newcomers are taught the ropes. But it is all communal enforcement. So the very mentally ill homeless guy who can't understand the rules might get a break or be victimized. There is a lot of stealing and turf among homeless persons but it depends on many many factors. Of course homeless services also create culture and rules (especially about items and spirituality) that people who are homeless adapt to.
posted by AlexiaSky at 3:48 PM on April 19, 2014

Best answer: I grew up in Cambridge MA, and go to church in Harvard Square. There are definitely rules. As AlexiaSky implies, there's a difference between the "average" homeless and the "mentally ill" homeless. Recently, some of the homeless were annoyed that a schizophrenic woman was now in their midst, and went to our priest asking if they could do something about her.

AlexiaSky is also right in that the services create rules, and the homeless adapt to them. Our church recently made a controversial decision to not allow the homeless to sit in the parish hall entrance area on Sundays, but it would be ok for them to stay there the rest of the week. (It was a "think of the children!!" mentality; again, it was controversial.) But the homeless folks were fine with it; it was a rule, and they could follow it.
posted by Melismata at 4:09 PM on April 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

The Homeless Guy's site is not as personal as it used to be but you can still find tidbits about that kind of stuff.
posted by BibiRose at 5:14 PM on April 19, 2014

Best answer: I just saw a reddit thread on this exact question the other day. Some interesting stuff in there.
posted by randomnity at 5:16 PM on April 19, 2014 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I was homeless on and off during my mid to late teens. In my experience, homeless folks are just like other folks when it comes to group behavior. If you identify with a group and want to be an active member of that group then there's going to be a bunch of rules, both spoken and unspoken, that you're going to have to follow. On the other hand, if you keep to yourself and don't try to join a group then the only rules you're going to have to follow are those you create for yourself.

At first I tried hanging out with other homeless folks, but I got a lot of criticism about my behavior that I felt was unjustified, so I ended up going my own way. But from my own observations, the homeless folks I've known have seemed even more concerned with controlling each other's behavior than the non-homeless. Many of them grew up with abuse, and have met with a lot of abuse in their later lives as well, so I think part of their interest in making rules and enforcing social structure is to protect themselves from further abuse. A lot of them also ended up homeless because of neglect and lack of caring discipline, so I think all the rules are partially an attempt to give to each what they wished others had given to them.

The spoken rules I remember had to do with proper panhandling behavior and with how to behave at another person's squat. I don't remember what the specific rules are now, but I'm sure they were probably reasonable and justified. It just didn't resonate with me. I'm not really into groups, then or now.

The unspoken rules I remember had to do with not caring too much about food or being healthy, or in other ways giving up your trashy homeless mystique. Pretty sad, but many groups have that kind of self-defeating attitude, where it's more important to look cool than to do what's right.

I'm not sure what methods they would have used to keep me in line if I hadn't done what they said, because I didn't stick around long enough to find out. I think that was a good strategy for me, because if I had invested in an identity as a homeless person then it would have been more difficult for me to move on from that phase of my life.
posted by sam_harms at 5:36 PM on April 19, 2014 [12 favorites]

Best answer: Yes. Maybe not all homeless people in all settings, but it does happen. If you're interested in the sharing issue in particular, you should look for research on "moral economies" among the homeless. Check out ethnographies of homelessness, which are likely to describe this sort of issue. I can personally recommend Phillippe Bourgois's excellent ethnography (with photos by Jeff Schonberg) of homeless heroin addicts in San Francisco. He has an extended discussion of moral economy among his informants, among other things.
posted by col_pogo at 7:10 PM on April 19, 2014 [6 favorites]

Brief anecdote: I'm an emergency department doctor and I deal with homeless people on a regular basis. One rule breaking episode I encountered recently was related to me by a man with a head injury. He explained how all those who hoped to stay at the homeless shelter would have to get in line and wait for a bed. He saw someone cutting in the line and he started shouting at them that it wasn't allowed, and they hit him in the head with a piece of nearby furniture. I noticed this waiting in line/no cutting thing was also referenced in the movie The Pursuit of Happyness.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 12:11 AM on April 20, 2014

Best answer: One of my more intrepid students just did an amazing independent project in order to graduate from high school. This kid has been going on about the vagabond lifestyle for years, he hangs at the Pit, and his goal has been to live off the grid as soon as he graduates. As his principal, I suggested he do his senior thesis on life as a homeless person and he interviewed some of the more talkative people who are homeless in Harvard Square, of all places.

(A big reason he went with this project was because he really felt that making a choice to be homeless was sticking it to his parents and to the man and he could become Alexander Supertramp.

Anyway. Great kid, great presentation and the big lesson that he drew from it was that the homeless in Harvard Square had more rules, more regulations, more unspoken etiquette than mainstream society. And that he could never handle it.

Now, whether this is because he understands mainstream expectations I can't say. But this kid was surprised at the very strict code of conduct these people believed and the outrage they expressed at fakers (these would be upscale kids who ran away for no real reason) and yes, the seriously mentally ill.

*He also found out that most restaurants and Trader Joe's would give more food away but they don't have enough volunteers to pick things up and distribute them, so if you have the time...
posted by kinetic at 9:25 AM on April 20, 2014 [12 favorites]

Best answer: I have been on the street over two years, along with my adult sons. I and my sons mostly keep to ourselves and we have never panhandled. We have a lot of strict rules between us, not because we are homeless but because of the medical condition that runs in the family. A lot of these rules preceded our time on the street.

As far as food sharing: I have been on the both the giving and receiving end of that kind of generosity amongst the homeless. It seems pretty common. I have never seen any indication that there are "rules" about it.

Something people in housing seem to not think about: If you are on the street, you tend to carry all your stuff with you and have little to no means to wash, refrigerate, cook, etc. So if you are given, say, a bag of thirty apples and you are one individual, you probably aren't going to eat 30 apples by yourself in the next 2 or 3 days after. Without refrigeration, cooking facilities, etc, after 2-3 days, food spoils pretty quickly. Not only can you not use it but carrying the weight is a burden when you walk everywhere.

People on the street are still human and, like anyone else, can have a generous nature or other reasons to give. With being destitute, the idea of just throwing perfectly good food in the trash can be galling. If you happen to be around other people who might take it, you offer it. If your generosity comes back to you at some point, great! But mostly there is no point in letting it go to waste. Why not let someone else eat? Some folks on the street are pretty underfed. It is not like I am going to it next week after it has rotted and grown mold. It isn't taking anything away from me to give away excess that I can't use in a timely fashion.

I don't doubt that where any people congregate or interact as a group, regardless of their economic or social status, rules of some sort start to form. But many homeless individuals have a lot of leeway to simply walk away if they don't much care for it. There are situations where this is not true -- where someone is ill or for some other reason dependent on location-based resources, they can be essentially trapped in a particular area. (I was stuck in downtown San Diego for a few months, waiting on paperwork I needed.) But I have more than once simply moved on to avoid friction of some sort.
posted by Michele in California at 12:23 PM on April 21, 2014 [10 favorites]

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