Why we ignore strangers plight; why the problem of homelessness is better-off solved than managed; and how NM House empowers street children to empower street children.
Run the following test by reading what follows.
You mghit tnihk i’ts aaminzg taht you can raed tihs with vrlialuty no diluftficuy even tuohg the ltetres are mxeid up. It trnus out that all you need are the fsrit and lsat leetrts in the crocert pcale. Tihs is an eaxplme of yuor barin rnuning in aoumtatic mdoe.
In March of 1964, on a cold Thursday night, something outrageous happened in New York City. A young lady named Kitty Genovese, 28 of age, on her return from work, decided to park her car in the Long Island Rail Road station. It was a beautiful neighbourhood, occupied by a handful of apartment buildings, and a small commercial district. Kitty Genovese got out of her car and locked it; almost immediately, a stranger started chasing her. She screamed for help, but help, she received none; everywhere remained dry. Finally, the assailant succeeded in stabbing her in the back, after which, he retreated to his car, a white Mercedes, parked some sixty metres away and drove out of view. The assailant’s name was later uncovered, he answered to the name: Winston Moseley.
Genovese, in this deplorable state, mustered what was left of her energy and carried her bleeding body back to the doorsteps of her car. But in a short time, the assailant returned. And this time, he didn’t go easy on her. He began by sexually assaulting her. After which, he stabbed her, yet again –leaving Genovese to die in agony.
Once everything was over, Winston Moseley got back into his car and drove home. The whole scene occurred within 40 minutes and it happened under the lidless eyes of 38 New Yorkers, who spent the whole time gazing at the scene behind their windows. On his way home, Moseley noticed that a car had stopped at a red light and its driver was asleep on its wheel. Moseley got out of his car, walked over to the man and woke him and left. He didn’t hurt or rob him. The following morning, Moseley went to work as usual.
The crime soon became infamous. Infamous, in part, because of an article published on the front page of The New York Times.
It read like this: For more than half an hour, 38 respectable, law-abiding citizens in New York –Queens, watched a killer stalk and stab a woman in two separate attacks in Kew Gardens…. Not one person telephoned the police during the assault; one witness called after the woman was dead. The murder took about thirty-eight minutes from start to finish. “If we had been called when he first attacked,” said a police inspector, “the woman might not be dead now.”
Two other focal reasons why the crime was infamous were:
- The assailant was a rear breed. Like Genovese, he was young, twenty-nine years old, and he too lived in Queens. His wife was a registered nurse and they had two children. And somehow, he’s the last person you’d expect to commit such a hideous crime.
- It showed that even under the lidless eyes of 38 people –neighbours, the worst of crimes could happen. Without any reaction on their part. (Bystander Effect).
In the aftermath of this crime, politicians, theologians, and editorialists lambasted the neighbours for their apathy. Some even called for the neighbours’ addresses to be published so justice could be done. The incident so deeply shook the nation that for the 50 years that followed, it inspired more academic research on bystander apathy, aka the Bystander Problem.
The whole crime is still disconcerting: How could such a horror occur and all these neighbours’ could do was stare? A similar scenario has occurred 54 years later, this 2020, known as the manslaughter of George Floyd. Guess what? After 54 years, we’ve improved a little, and this improvement can be measured in the fact that these witnesses, rather than actively stopping the crime rather decided to film it. (Unpopular opinion: I still believe those filming could stop the George Floyd murder, if only he/she dropped the phone and devised another strategy)
It is a regular hassle to get interrupted in your usual commute by a complete stranger –who comes to you begging for money. In Yaoundé, it is very hysterical because after some time you notice the pattern in their shtick; a man/woman, almost twice your age will walk to you, calling you ‘uncle or aunty’ and will tell you this: “I was on my way to (fill in the blank) and I ran short of money – can you help me out? Or ‘I am very hungry, I haven’t eaten since morning, please can you help me with some money to buy what to eat?” etc. Sometimes they look so pathetic, desperate and convincing that you find yourself giving either: a little, a lot or anything in-between, to help them. But, in some cases, just a day after or a few minutes later, you find that same beggar talking to another stranger, with the same problem you thought you’d solved. That drives everyone crazy, crazy in part because it makes you realize you’ve been scammed. He tricked your emotions. And unlike other con artists who disappear after every con, this one has the right to pursue his activity without any worry. It also pisses to find out that your altruism was ineffective.
After such an awakening, what becomes a common tendency? For the people I spoke to in preparation for this piece, it is to bypass these homeless individuals and beggars – young or old, decently or poorly dressed – in the streets without paying any attention to them, and devoid of any remorse, empathy or guilt. Hence, we bypass them regardless of their agony. And the question at the back of our minds is: Why should we help scammers? That’s encouraging them to continue in the con artistry.
George Orwell in his Essay – New Words said: “At present, the formation of new words is a slow process… English gains about six and loses about four words a year. That is true, except in the terminology used to describe street kids. They receive names like thieves, daylight scammers, prisoners out of prisons, Banga smokers, Jambo players and professional liars, just to name but these. There is no shortage of names to describe them. And guess what? Most of those who practise the con described above are those we refer to as street kids.
Now that we have established that neighbours can see one of theirs being murdered and do nothing and that we all can move in the streets and numb our feelings for the needy, the real and underlining question is: Why?
Two New York City psychologists: Bibb Latane and John Darley conducted a series of experiments to fully understand what they dubbed the “bystander problem.” They crafted and staged emergency scenarios in order to see who would come and help someone in danger. What they found, surprisingly, was that the key factor that pushed people to help others was how many witnesses there were in a given event. In one experiment, for example, Latane and Darley had a student alone in a room stage an epileptic attack. When there was just one person next door, listening, that person rushed to the student’s aid 85 % of the time. But when subjects thought that there were four others, also overhearing the seizure, they came to the student’s aid only 31 % of the time. In another experiment, people who saw smoke seeping out from under a door would report it 75 % of the time when they were on their own, but the incident would be reported only 38% of the time when they were in a group. When people are in a group, in other words, responsibility for acting is misplaced. They assume that someone else will make the call, or they assume that because no one else is acting, the apparent problem — the epileptic attack from the other room, the smoke from the door — isn’t really a problem. In the case of Kitty Genovese, then, psychologists like Latane and Darley argued, the lesson was not that no one called despite the fact that thirty-eight people heard her scream; it was that no one called because thirty-eight people heard her scream. Ironically, had she been attacked on a lonely street with just one witness, she might have lived.
Going back to the English exercise I gave you at the beginning, where you were to read something abnormal – which you did and proceeded without fixing, that is, more or less the same way we view the plight of street kids and proceed as if they are non-existent. Almost all of us, except for NM House, a group of young Cameroonians who’ve decided to correct this ill, rather than just ignore it. They have decided to empty the streets of these so-called street kids. Bold goal!
I’ve had the opportunity of meeting some of the NM House executive team. This is a group of empathetic, funny, sometimes prattling, but still, determined guys/gals. In their oral and written manifesto, they have an annual goal dubbed Street Invasions –a descend into the nooks and cranny of the streets of Yaoundé –aimed at befriending these homeless individuals, tally up their complaints and supplications & find a way of solving the most important. Last year, December 2019, after evaluating the complaints presented by these homeless individuals, they discovered that two main concerns were expressed, namely: being taken back to one’s families and the desire to find something doing. To that effect, NM House earmarked two of these street kids, put in the necessary resources and reunited them with their parents in the northern path of the country.
Unlike other NGO’s that come to these kids, with food (which is a good thing, in the short-term), NM House, seeks to empty these Yaoundé streets – which is amazing. They also launched a health campaign to test and treat these kids before reintegrating them in our not so friendly society. They’ve even gone as far as helping rent group houses for these street kids – turned workers – such that empowered as they are now, they will empower some of theirs, who seem to be warry of the NM House’s empathy. The expectation at play here is what I will coin: Empowered homeless individuals, empower homeless individuals. And for NM House, they either succeed or they die trying.
Imagine the bustling streets of Yaoundé empty, and free from these beggars and homeless individuals. But not just that, imagine these homeless individuals as responsible, law-abiding citizens or even family heads. Isn’t that something we all implicitly wish for them and ourselves? That can happen if we put our trust in NM House. It goes without saying that they really need our support. And remember, by supporting them, you’re helping take a street kid out of the street.
For any donations or further inquiry on NM House:
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org Tel : +237-676-90-32-45
Thanks for reading,
Verberi Leslie Michael