If you live in an urban center you have probably noticed people who are homeless languidly shuffling across a crosswalk, beginning the journey even though the flashing red hand sign has blatantly shifted to a hard red. Drivers are put out and look exasperated, stopped dead at a green light as this person slowly rambles to the other side of the road. I see this frequently in Seattle and decided to take a crack at the psychological mechanisms operating.
Some will explain away the behavior as an obvious manifestation of drug addiction, alcoholism, or mental illness. But this misses a key psychic factor. Plus there are plenty of people in other demographics who get intoxicated or have mental illnesses yet usually follow traffic laws for pedestrians. They wouldn’t just walk out in the middle of traffic. They don’t want to get hit by a car and they have also been indoctrinated to obey traffic laws since they were very young by authority figures.
Centering our conversation around powerlessness and power and around transferring feelings of exasperation onto someone other than yourself for a time provides more satisfying answers. A deep feeling of powerlessness is central to the state of being homeless. Human beings have basic needs, and shelter is one of them. Having a place to call home gives you an anchor, a launchpad, a place to come in from the rain, comfort and security.
Consider the feeling of powerlessness that would arise if all of the psychic benefits derived from having permanent shelter were taken from you. If you were left to fend for yourself against the elements, against the cold, against hunger and disease. Anxiety would skyrocket, you would feel very small, and you would be acutely aware that you lack the most important asset in the modern world.
Homelessness does not occur in some other dimension. It happens right here in our cities and the two worlds, the worlds of the homeless and the worlds of all of us, overlap every day. Think of seeing tremendous wealth around you while you are suffering and struggling just to survive, and feeling like no one is really doing anything to help you except throwing a quarter your way once in awhile.
There is one thing that you would symbolically own though. The streets. They are where you live, breathe, and struggle every day. Breaking traffic laws by blatantly crossing the street at a red light is a way to force motorists to recognize the overlap between the two worlds. This is a way to regain power for a brief moment by transferring feelings of powerlessness onto someone else. It is a way to prove that you exist, that your life has some significance. You force motorists to notice you. You feel a sense of ownership over something. All of this increases power, even if only ever so slightly.