I’m not sure exactly when it happened but a few years back I started looking at homeless people in a different way. Before that moment, when I saw someone panhandling I immediately jumped to the conclusion that they were on drugs, worthless and deserved their homeless status. I had judged them and thrown them all into a class labelled “Underserving.”
But the universe was working on me. Each time I saw someone begging, eyes downcast, dirty and tired I wondered what I would do if I saw my son sitting in their place. What would I do to help him? Would I walk by and not make eye contact – like most people do? Would I immediately jump to the worst conclusion?
So I started talking to them. I met Michael in Houston a couple of year ago. He was 19 years old and had been sleeping under the freeway bridge close to our hotel. He had been there for a couple of days but wasn’t feeling particularly safe but he was glad that in Houston it was at least warm out at night. We talked about his family. I told him his mom was probably worried about him and then I bought him a coffee at Starbucks. He wouldn’t come in with me so I brought it out to him.
I met Helen outside of a Publix grocery store in Brunswick, GA. She was sitting by the stop sign crying. I walked over and sat down next to her and put my arm around her. She was dirty and had no shoes. She was crying because she lost her job at Burger King and was now sleeping in a tent in the woods. We talked for about 15 minutes and I left her with $5. She cried some more when I hugged her good bye.
I met three traveling guys outside of a Walmart store. One of them was juggling like a boss! They were all around 20 years old and had been traveling home from a fair but had run out of gas. I went in to Walmart and bought them a Subway Gift Certificate so that they could at least get some food while they waited for gas money.
I met a man recently begging for money in Anacortes. He had a worn out bicycle with all of his possessions strapped onboard. He carried a sign asking for 37 cents. We pulled over and searched through our car compartments for all of our spare change. As we handed over our “leftover” change his face lit up – revealing exactly 4 teeth. He was so grateful for the small amount of change that was rolling around in the forgotten places in our car.
Homeless people don’t want to be homeless. Everyone wants a place to belong, to feel safe and comfortable. They all have families who love them and wonder where they are. Yes, some of them have substance issues. So, give them food instead of money. Or maybe just make eye contact and say hello. Maybe ask them their name, tell them yours and shake their hand.
We’re all in this together. Isn’t it our job to love each other? “Love thy neighbor as thyself!” “Do unto others as you’d have them do unto you.” It doesn’t take much effort to see someone. To acknowledge their presence. Most of us have time, spare change or food to share. I don’t have a lot. I live in an RV – so technically I’m homeless too. So I will stop and say hello. If I have change to spare I will share it. If I’m in doubt about how the money will be used, I’ll bring food. Maybe all I will have to share is a hand shake or a hug but I vow not to ignore them anymore.