When I was young, my mother used to say she was going to go live on the street to show her children how privileged we were. I never understood her point but we used to beg her to keep that promise. She never did.
When I moved to the city I didn’t give people who lived on the street, or homeless people, too much thought. My first city apartment was on the fringe section of the city where there was a drug problem and therefore, lots of homelessness. Or vice versa, I’m not sure which. My naive assumption from my seat of privilege was, if I gave the homeless person a buck or two, I would help them solve their problem. Or at least make them feel better about me and help me ease my conscience.
However, I didn’t notice the homeless population decrease by my interpretation of kindness. And my brother aptly pointed out that in many ways, I might be perpetuating the problem.
My perception of their desperation broke my heart. I guess I’m one of those bleeding heart types, or an empath. I’ll take that as a compliment. The alternative is to be a rock. Rocks are cold…
So I changed my tactics and began to buy meals, drinks and food for the homeless when I could. During these interactions I would frequently talk to them. Many of them said they didn’t have family, had no place to go, they weren’t allowed to stay in shelters during the day so they had no choice but to hang on street corners, and many of them were just desperate and had no option. The desperate people, or newly homeless, were easy to spot. They looked physically put together but were usually crying or had the look of despair.
There’s another kind of homeless person I see in the city. They seem a little, or a lot, – off. They are unkept, smell bad, look awful, and are often talking to themselves or someone I can’t see. I try to steer clear of them.
Until one day I didn’t. Because why? They are suffering, not dangerous, right?
Standing on the street corner, waiting to cross I hear, “Ma’am, do you got some change to spare?”
I turned and saw a lady dressed well, but messy and replied: “No, I don’t. But I’m willing to buy you a meal if you’re hungry.”
Leaning on one hip she asked slowly, “Okay” and paused. “But I just ate so what I really need is some money to get home.”
I paused, contemplating how much energy I wanted to put into this transaction. “I can help you with that. I’ll buy you a train ticket or if you can get there on the subway, that’s where I’m headed so I will get you on the subway. Where do you live?”
“I live in Northeast. Can I get there on the subway?” I wondered how she got down here to begin with.
The conversation continued and I let her know I wasn’t sure but we worked out a plan and began to cross the street.
Not even to the other side of the street with her lagging behind me, I hear “Lady!! Why you walkin’ so fast? Slow down, I can’t keep up!”
Okay, I’m getting yelled at by someone I’m trying to help. But I persist.
“You’re going to need to walk a little faster. I would like to get on the train and if you want to get on too, you’ll need to catch up.” I wasn’t even 2 yards in front of her.
“Okay, okay” she says as she continues at her slow pace. Granted, she may have a physical difficulty I am not aware of.
I can only be aware of what I’m aware of.
The crowd increases as we head down the stairs. Turning the corner I hear coming from behind me, “Lady!! You tryin’ to kill me?! I can’t walk this fast! You gotta slow down!” followed by some expletives I won’t mention.
I’m getting flustered and just want to get away. This will teach me to be nice. Did I mention it’s New Year’s Eve?
I was arguing with myself what to do next. My kindness being pushed to its limit. “I’m not going to help you if you yell at me. The turnstiles are right up here if you want to get on the train please hurry.”
“Okay, okay, I’m coming” as I wait at the turnstile.
“Now how do I get to where I’m going?” she asks.
My patience is worn. I’m a little nervous because I’m heading in the opposite direction and though I’m kind, I’m not so kind as to go on the train with her. My kindness limit has been reached.
I gave her basic directions. There are only two subway tracks in this city and there is a person in a kiosk right in front of us who’s job is to help people.
I leave her there as I head off for my evening plans. Heading down the stairs to the tracks I hear her yelling; “Hey lady! You gotta slow down! I’m not following you, you know. I just want to get on the train!”
Her voice fades away as I call my friend to allow a safety net to her yelling and a means to look like it wasn’t me who let her in the station.
The longer I live in the city and pay attention to the homeless population, I am beginning to understand that many homeless people are mentally and physically challenged and have no where to go. Homelessness isn’t an option for many, it’s their only choice because they can’t maintain what most of us consider a “normal” existence.
They just can’t. It really is that simple.
We used to be a nation that at the bare minimum housed the mentally ill and physically challenged who had no other means of support. I looked into why they are now on the streets and learned that in the 1980’s Ronald Reagan deinstitutionalized patients from the state mental homes where those without families were taken care of.
Ugh. The repercussions of that fateful decision are obvious in our major cities. It’s not cool, and I can’t solve the problem, and I don’t even know how. It’s frustrating that the richest nation in the world makes it acceptable for people to freeze on the street. Again, call me a bleeding heart. Is it okay with you that there are people living, literally, on the sidewalk?
Another night while coming home from a show, my friend and I passed a man in a wheelchair in the subway station. It was one of those frigid nights where walking fast was necessary to maintain body heat.
He was sitting at the top of the steps, bent over, wailing. I got choked up, looked around but had no idea what to do to help this man. My empathy was kicking in to overdrive, I couldn’t leave this man here to freeze.
As luck would have it, and I admit that I am often lucky, another man came up, patted him on the back and asked how he could help. My friend and I continued on our way home, feeling relief that the guilt of not helping was eased by another good samaritan.
When I sat down in my warm apartment, I got online and looked up how I could help the homeless. I found this site. They listed a phone number to call when you see a homeless person who needs help and they would come get them. I immediately put the number in my phone. I have used it a few times since.
If you want to help, Google how to help the homeless in your city. There are answers.
I occasionally volunteer at a food service company that feeds homebound people who can’t get out to get their own food. You can volunteer here. This is how we keep people off the street by supporting them when they have a home.
As a society, we need to be concerned about the entire life of a human being. We can’t expect to fight for their birth while we let their life become one of misery when “they” don’t, or can’t live up to “our” standards.
Aren’t they and our, us?
I’ve learned through my years that my ignorance of the real problem made it easy for me to ignore it and look away. I didn’t have to feel empathy when I didn’t see the suffering. So I looked away, or lived in a place full of rich white people. Now it’s right in my face, and it’s hard to ignore.
Not seeing it didn’t mean it wasn’t there, it gave me an excuse to ignore it, allowing it to be someone else’s problem.
You are someone else…
When the beauty of life is mired in the ugliness of human suffering we are all culpable. I can’t solve the homeless problem myself. But I can, at the very least, spread the word, help where I can, and try to create an atmosphere where other humans aren’t ignored.