I’m the type of guy who goes out of his way to avoid homeless people. If I see one within 30 feet of me my first instinct is to cross over to the other side of the street or walk on the outside of my friends so I’m less accessible. And when one asks me for change, I generally mutter something about not having money (even though I do) before walking away quickly. In some rare cases, I do give the person a dollar or two, but that is only if the person is friendly and seems less likely to try and gnaw my face off.
I’m aware of the fact that I needn’t feel guilty about doing any of this. Pretending homeless people don’t exist has become the social norm. No one thinks any less of me whenever I refuse to acknowledge a homeless person’s plea or give them whatever change that’s in my pocket. I’ve been given a free pass to engage in what I consider to be slightly immoral behavior. And it’s a little upsetting you know- this mentality that if “everyone does something shitty, it means the behavior must not be shitty”. As if morality is less about the act and more about the people who act.
I’ve heard a few basic arguments as to why why people ignore homeless people or refuse to give them money. I’ve heard people say that they don’t give money because that money will only go towards alcohol or drugs. I’ve heard people say that the homeless should learn to take care of themselves and I’ve heard people say that giving money just doesn’t any good- whether or not the person is given 10 or 20 dollars, they’ll still be on the street tomorrow.
I can’t say that I haven’t thought at least a few of these things before. I’ve often felt that me giving money won’t do any real good- if anything it’ll keep them off the street for one night. But if I’ve learned anything from my roommate, who often goes out of his way to buy food for homeless people or engage with them, it’s that one night can be crucial for a person. And it’s a cop out to say “My help won’t do much, therefore I won’t help at all”. Life, I’ve learned, doesn’t have a clear cut ending like movies make it seem. I don’t think homeless people are expecting us to give them a job or a permanent roof under their head. They’re looking for a moment of kindness. They’re looking for that 5 dollars so that they can buy dinner for THAT night. They’re not thinking about the big picture, they’re thinking about the here and now. Sometimes the present is all some people have and it’s hard to acknowledge but those of us who have been given the opportunity to even fantasize about our futures must realize the privilege we have in life.
As an avid follower of Humans of New York, I’ve learned that we can never prejudge a person or think that our way of seeing the world is the only way. It’s easy to convince ourselves that all homeless people are drunks or crazy, it’s a bit harder to admit that in different circumstances we could be the one on the street. And we all know that if we were homeless that we’d hope someone would show us the kind of compassion we would never show ourselves. We’d beg that someone would just give us the two dollars they were going to spend on gum, just so we could buy something off the Dollar Menu. We’d hope that someone would look us in the eye and realize that we were there and not just some whisper through an alley. And we’d hope that someone would give a damn one way or another if we got through the night.
I’m not saying we need to give all of our money away or anything like that. What I’m saying is that we need to be honest with ourselves about why we do the things that we do. We need to acknowledge our true feelings and assess whether or not those are the best thoughts and feelings to have. We need to ask ourselves, “Is it okay to do something just because everyone else does it?” and we need to admit to when we’re being a dick. Because it’s my opinion that if you deliberately walk by a homeless person and pretend they don’t even exist that you’re being a dick. And I’m sure that there are some people out there who ignore them because they feel uncomfortable and while I understand that, at the same time you have an obligation to get over yourself and say “I’m sorry” or acknowledge that the person exists. And if you do have an extra dollar, give it away. Don’t expect anything of it. Hope that the person uses the money for the right reason and if they don’t, hope that they get through the night regardless. Because I can guarantee that if you were in that situation, you’d hope someone would show you a shred of compassion, not because they have to or because it’s popular, but because it’s a good thing to do.