You can’t walk down the main street of any city and not encounter the homeless. They’re begging on the streets and sleeping in doorways and bus shelters, and it seems their numbers are growing. Homelessness does not discriminate; you see everything from young teens to the very elderly, and it tugs at the heart strings because you can’t help but wonder at a world where anyone would be without food or shelter.
There are those who are somewhat cynical and blame the homeless for their lot in life, and while I suspect a small number of homeless may have accepted this path, it’s hard to believe anyone would choose to live on the streets.
We’ve all encountered the street kids who take over an intersection. They stroll through traffic during the red light, cup in hand and sign proclaiming their sad state. Sometimes they have a partner and too often a dog which begs the question, if you can’t support yourself, why would you take on a pet you can’t provide for? How fair is that to an innocent creature?
All too often we’ve heard someone tell the tale of giving a donation to a hungry man only to later see them in a nearby liquor store. I recall once a friend said they dropped coins in the cup of a man with a sign that said he was deaf and homeless. He later saw this same man flipping through albums in a local record store. And what about the ones who claim to be starving but can afford cigarettes? I realize that smoking is an addiction but choosing cigarettes over food is either an indication of a scam or a serious lack of priorities. None of these scenarios is appreciated. Let’s face it, we work hard for our money so it’s a slap in the face to ‘do the right thing’ and later witness our act of compassion as a scam. On the other hand, who are we to judge?
It’s hard to imagine how one comes to be homeless but you can bet it’s never a good story. Abuse at home, addiction, fear, and too often, mental illness. Regardless of what brings a person to this state those of us more fortunate need to be understanding of their plight because it is innately human of us to feel compassion and we don’t know what goes on in the life of another. I am often moved to drop something in the cup because you just don’t know who is truly in need and who is shamelessly hiding behind the face of destitution.
Several years ago, I was walking along the waterfront on my lunch hour. It was a cold, dreary November day so that I was alone on the water was no surprise. I had a ten dollar bill in my pocket so I could reward myself with a latte after my lunch hour exercise. I came upon a young man (twenty five-ish) who was just sitting on the waters edge, hands in his pockets, staring at the ground. As I walked by he lifted his head slightly and asked me for any spare change, quickly adding, “I’m not gonna spend it on drugs or alcohol”. This caught me off guard so I stopped and looked right at him. Now I should point out that I would typically walk by because beggars are abundant in this part of town so they tend to fade into the background, but something in his appearance startled me. When I looked into his eyes I saw despair and complete hopelessness, and it shook me to my very core. Something told me this man was in legitimate need; a beggar had never affected me like this before, and I grudgingly handed over my ten dollars. Truth told, at that moment I was so moved I would’ve given him a thousand if I’d had it on me and I don’t know why. Walking away, I mentally berated myself for falling for another scam artist, but those eyes haunted me for much of my afternoon.
Earlier in my working career, I recall an elderly woman who used to stand at the bottom of the escalator at a very busy subway station at rush hour, waving to all and wishing them well. She wore a tiara and a banner that declared her a beauty queen of some kind. Every now and then a passerby would comment to her, usually in jest, and she would let loose with a string of profanity that would make a sailor blush – clearly she was dealing with mental challenges and I always wondered where she went at night. Was anyone there for her? Was she safe?
There’s an elderly man who plays the accordion in our downtown. He is missing a leg, so wheelchair bound, and rain or shine, snow and cold, he’s out there playing. My father played the accordion on Saturday evenings when we were children, so this familiar music brings back wonderful memories; memories of a safe, happy childhood. I guess not everyone has had that and I can’t walk by this man without dropping a coin into his cup,,,,and he always acknowledges every gift, further humbling me.
Homelessness is frightening to those of us who’ve never experienced it, and it is reality to too many. Old, young, male female, there’s no ‘type’ that fits the image of a homeless person and if a few coins from each of us is all it takes to help a fellow human being, do it. Occasionally you might be scammed….but it’s worth it, because you may also be the savior one of these lonely people needs.
With respect to the young man I encountered on the waterfront, the next day I heard that the body of a young ‘unknown’ man was found in the harbor. He had jumped off the bridge, and while I have no reason to believe they are one and the same, the news hit hard, and I am still haunted by those eyes; those sad, desperate and vacant eyes…… and I will always wonder.