I see a sagging back burdened with a duffel bag full stuffed to the brim, dirty pants that are much too short, bare feet, a Rip Van Winkle beard. He stoops over the recycling can in the parking lot, digging out the plastic jugs and cans that will yield him 5 cents a piece–a pithy amount of change that most of us would take for granted. My heart hurts. Is it mental illness? Addiction? Bad choices or just bad luck? Abuse? Every homeless man and woman in this town has a story to tell.
The seven of us went out for take out pizza (another thing I take for granted) the other night. We ordered boneless chicken wings on a whim and didn’t end up liking them. Back at home, my better half noticed a man digging through our apartment complex trash can. He said he was going to offer the man our discarded chicken–I agreed. I felt the familiar pang of sadness in my heart and wondered what the man’s situation was, but I ignored the pang and went on with my night as usual. The next night while I was enjoying a hot shower (another thing I take for granted), my boyfriend came in and said to me: “That same man from the other night is rummaging through the trash. Do you mind if I bring him some crackers and V8? I know they say if you keep offering food to them they’ll keep coming back, but…” (This is a separate story in itself, borne of an experience we had in Portland at a restaurant.) I’m ashamed to admit I actually thought about it before saying “Yeah, of course. Go ahead.” After my boyfriend left the room I had a serious moment of self reflection and was horrified as I reminded myself, “He’s a man, not a stray dog. He’s a human being, flesh and blood, not a varmint we want to be rid of.”
When did I get to a place where I actually hesitated before offering a little bit of help to a fellow human being?
My boyfriend did bring crackers and V8 to the man, and what he learned was heart-breaking. The man had shared stories of his life as a vagrant. He shared how a few mall security guards had held his possessions from him and then spilled them all over ground while they mocked him. He shared the way it felt to be shied away from in public places because of his appearance. He shared the loneliness of not having a place to call his own, the feeling of settling down under a bush at night to have a go at some sleep. He admitted to drinking alcohol, but honestly, who am I to judge? Am I somehow “better” because I can afford my habitual alcohol binges? And in all honesty, if I was homeless with little hope of help and no where to turn, who knows, I might be boozing it up too.
There may be dangers and risks to helping others. Some of us become jaded when we offer food to a transient only to have it rejected. Some of us stop giving because of that one time we saw a homeless person buying alcohol with donated money. Some of us refuse to give because we are scared for our own personal safety. I don’t advocate putting ourselves in danger. I don’t advocate perpetuating addiction. What I do advocate is having respect for our fellow humans. I advocate giving what we can (time, prayers, a kind word, a nod and a smile, material goods or money if we are able) when we can. We have SO MUCH.
Some simple ideas: Fill gallon ziplock bags (or better yet, dollar shopping totes) with non-perishables (crackers, juice, granola bars, apple sauce) and travel size toiletries and first aid items (ointment, band-aids, deodorant, tooth brush/paste, gum), and keep them in your car for whenever you see someone who looks like they could use a bit of help. (What’s the worst they can do–toss it? You’ll be out a few bucks. Big deal.) Hand out blankets when it’s cold at night. Join a local homeless outreach group. Donate money or time to an organization that helps people get back on their feet. Plant a row or two of extra veggies in your garden to donate to a food bank. Keep water bottles and snacks in your car to quickly hand to roadside vagrants.
We haven’t seen the man again, but I am so grateful that his presence reminded me to get my selfish head out of my butt.