I used to be very uncomfortable when I'd walk by a homeless person asking for money on the street. I used to avert my eyes and pretend to look at something else, and will myself not to think about them, sitting there - maybe with a beloved pet and all their worldly possessions. I would walk the longest way around them that I could find. If by chance there was a person begging for support on the street corner I was driving past, or worse yet, on the corner where I was stopped at a red light, I would pretend like I was fiddling with my radio, talking to my kids or deeply involved in something, anything, else inside my car, even though inside, I wanted to open my door, invite them in, and bring them home for a shower and a hot meal.
It's not that I didn't feel bad for these folk - I felt really bad. Really, really bad. And really, really guilty for what I had and what they didn't have.
I went through a period in my life where I would try to figure out the cause of homelessness. I would analyze and debate the issue with friends and fellows who would take me on. I challenged their notions that homeless people are all a bunch of drunks and drop outs with the information I'd learned that they were not. In fact, a lot of them even had degrees and former careers and families who loved them. And despite the fact that I rallied behind them in a heated discussion in a tavern somewhere, I was still incredibly uncomfortable when I was confronted with a homeless person just trying to make it, on the street, doing what he/she could to make it day to day.
I learned that you can't put a label on homelessness. They cannot be lumped into one easy category and defined according to one description - that would be like making all human beings the same and that is just not the case.
A lot of society's views of the homeless, I believe, are shaped by judgement. And I do not think that one should judge or attempt to define something they have not experienced or have no first-hand knowledge of, either by having a close relation touched by this or by working with the homeless.
Over the last year, reading One Plus Two, I've become more comfortable with the lives of the people I see on the streets. Thanks to Jen, the world of homelessness has grown to mean more to me than philosophizing about why it happens, or feeling guilty about looking a homeless person in the eye. Her writing makes me more aware and reminds me that people are people, and it isn't any different for our homeless. They are people, plain and simple. People who have stories and experiences and lives to live. Yes, they happen to be in need, and hopefully, with the support of those generous souls who try every day to lift them up, and a little generosity (whether it be in the form of a little cash or just a smile, if you can spare it) from the people passing by, they will leave the life of the streets. With the help of the right kind of people advocating for change, and parents who teach their children to be compassionate toward others this cycle may become extinct. One can only hope. People like Jen make me think that there is hope.
And people like Jen, sharing her stories from the shelter and the streets and giving a virtual "face" to the epidemic give me the courage not to be afraid. Which is what I was. I was afraid, afraid to confront the desperateness of their situations, afraid to confront how helpless I felt, afraid to put that all aside and just give. Just because. Because giving does not have to have strings and explanations attached, and if you can get rid of those bindings, the giving becomes so sweet.
And so, there he was, with his dog and his sign and his boxes - sitting outside the stadium we were going into to watch a baseball game, eat cotton candy, hot dogs and garlic fries, asking for a little help. I had some singles in my wallet, so I dug a few out and handed them to my son.
"Please go put these in that man's cup," I said.
He did, without fear, without question, without batting an eye.
A scruffy voice reared up and said "thank you, thank you very much," followed by the nicest smile I'd seen in the sea of people all day long.
"You're welcome," I said as we were corralled into the gates of the stadium.
And my heart felt lighter, a smile spread over my face and I took a deep breath. It was over. All this questioning about what someone would do with the dollar if I gave them one (who cares?), all this guilt (well, for the most part) and all this fear. Gone.
Because it doesn't really matter, when you're offering help. Thank you Jen, for helping me see that.