The scourge of homelessness

I was in New York last week, and when walking out of a pizzeria, I saw a homeless man holding a cup for donations. I walked up and gave him the change in my pocket – left over from the purchase of a giant slice of New York-style pizza.

But while I was giving him change, I said: “Hello, how are you?”

What I soon realized, to my sadness and horror, was that no one had asked him that question in a long time. Because, he immediately went into a litany of complaints about being thrown out of a hospital, his ailments, etc. The words came out of him as an avalanche, grateful for a chance to escape after someone finally showed interest enough to ask.

I realized that it’s not enough just to quickly give change to a homeless person and walk away. Equally as important is taking the time to see the homeless as people, as human beings deserving of all the same common courtesies, kindness, consideration, and care we grant everyone else in our daily interactions.

Too often, the homeless are ignored, looked past, as if they don’t even exist. I can’t imagine what that would do to the human psyche.

A lot of people don’t like to give change to the homeless, because they suspect the money wouldn’t go to the right place. I would argue: it’s not up to us to decide what the right use of money is for anyone else. What IS up to us is to treat others with basic human dignity, kindness and courtesy. That includes not only giving money when you have some to give and another person clearly needs it, but also treating everyone – no matter how they look – with respect and consideration.

Every time I see a homeless person, I am reminded that we as a society have a shameful failure to account for. One of the richest countries on Earth should not have homelessness. It shouldn’t happen. While the causes of homeless may be complex and many, the solutions are there if we are willing to invest in them. It’s not rocket science. And it’s not a mystery.

In another recent trip, this one to San Francisco, I walked down a street next to an elderly man struggling to walk with a walker. His clothes were filthy – clearly showing signs that he had been wallowing in his own waste. The man walked with difficulty but with as much dignity as he could muster.

What a tragedy that that man should have been in that state. Where was the outrage?

I suspect one of the reasons we don’t like homeless people is because when we see them, we feel guilt. We are reminded of our great societal failure and our continued failure to do something about it. But the current solution, of blaming the homeless, of trying to get rid of them through harassment and herding them around to different communities, is not a solution at all. It exacerbates the problem and ads to our collective failure.

This is the season when we are supposed to be generous, giving, and think of our fellow man. I hope some of us will embrace that to great enough measure to think of those we would rather ignore – and then do something.

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