Normally I do not give anything to homeless people with two exceptions for when: (1) I am having a most excellent day and I just feel like sharing my life high and (2) the people are being what I tell myself is deserving: playing music, helping people with directions, or otherwise being productive. But two days ago I tried to change this philosophy when, while sitting at a red light, I tried to give a homeless man $1. I was thinking about how I was driving a van full of food for the needy and how my job is (partly) to help the homeless. And how in my personal life I ignore the homeless people I meet. I wanted to give a dollar. I wanted to do something different.
Interacting with a homeless person presents a unique social dilemma. Seriously, what do I do? Look away? Stare straight ahead? Smile? Do I give cash? How much? What about some food? Perhaps those napkins in my bag – they looks kind of dirty. Wait, should I help them? He’s probably just a bum. Or crazy. Maybe they should just get a job. Why would anyone choose to live like that?
Let us be honest: most of us do not know how to handle homeless people. City dwellers are no better than country folk – while urbanites may be more accustomed to homelessness they are often no more informed and quite frankly sometimes too jaded to care. And if you’re from the country maybe you have never seen homelessness before, so you’re just overwhelmed. Anyone who as ever interacted with are walked near a homeless person knows it is not the most comfortable of feelings for our more privileged selves.
There are our feelings.
guilt, sadness, anger, skepticism, incredulity, empathy…
There are our explanations.
society’s failure, lazy, hard times, crazy, disabled, choice, no family…
There are our uncertainties.
eye contact, facial expression, recognition, embarrassment…
There are our actions.
ignoring, talking, helping, preaching, feeding, donating, avoiding…
What do we do?
I was inspired for this post by a post on another blog. Over dinner, a friend and I were talking about my new job in the Food Bank and homelessness came up. She showed me this post about someone who made “Blessing Bags” for the homeless people she met in Austin, Texas. On first glance my reactions were naive, privileged, preachy, patronizing, cute, judgmental, superior. I especially held on to one phrase in particular:
I do not feel comfortable handing out money. There’s simply too much of a risk that the money will not be used for non-essentials, and I’m on far too tight of a budget (not to mention have a serious ethical dilemma) to be funding any sort of self-destructive behavior.
I understand budget. But ethical dilemma and self-destructive behavior? So you assume homeless people are generally drunks, addicts, gamblers, and whatnot. Tell me I am wrong.
Unfortunately, that is what we think because it is easy. It is easy to assign people who make us uncomfortable these labels because it justifies our inaction. It helps us feel better when we spurn their pleading, and it allows us to sleep peacefully at night because we are not passing by a good person in need. In fact, we probably sleep so well because we don’t even think about it. We forget. Just another homeless drunk.
When I arrived in Seattle homelessness was immediately apparent. More than any other U.S. city I have been to, homelessness stands out as a clear problem. Perhaps Seattle’s clean streets make the unwanted squatters more noticeable than in the much dirtier New York City.
This means that in Seattle I am confronted with the dilemma of how to respond even more often. This means I must decide what to do. And I do nothing.
**This is the first of what I hope will be a few entries on homelessness.**