The other night I was entering 7-11 to pick up a 12-pack of beer to drink with friends when a man called out to me from a dark corner of the building asking for spare change. My normal response is to pretend I didn’t hear him. Studying social work, the systems perspective, homeless agencies, and mental health has taught me there are better ways to help people. I understand that the complexity of homelessness and poverty stretch far beyond handing a stranger $5.00 on the street. Maybe it was something deeply human about the look in the man’s eyes, or maybe I just needed a reason to feel better about myself that night. I’m not sure what drove me beyond my usual strategy of staring at my phone and pretending he wasn’t there. Whatever the reason, I hit the cash back button on the credit card machine and entered the shadows to give the man less than what I spent on a 12 pack of miller lite.
People always say if you are going to give a homeless person anything, it should be food because you do not want to enable a drug or alcohol problem. It is strange to me that a large portion of society adamantly blames the homeless for their disposition with the mindset that they couldn’t possibly be trusted to spend $5 .00 in a way we deem acceptable. We assume they all have poor judgment and must have made terrible life decisions to land them where they are without any context of their actual past. Perhaps holding them individually responsible makes it easier to cope with the fact that they may be sleeping outside on concrete while we sleep in a warm bed at night. We like to believe they have the free will to rise out of their current situation, however, we can’t extend them the free will to spend $5.00. I got to thinking more about where the rest of the money I expended that night went. I spent close to $20.00 at happy hour on drinks and appetizers and then I proceeded to buy more wine to entertain my sisters coming to town for the weekend.
Society looks at the man in the corner and blames him for his failures but few would blame me for spending the money I “earned” on a weekend of indulgence in a similar fashion than they fear he might. Much of my success in life comes from being born into a middle-class home, with two parents who had high expectations and paid for me to get an advanced degree. Sure, I work hard and try my best most of the time, but it would be a lie to deny I was dealt a lucky hand. I don’t know and won’t speculate on this particular man’s past, but I know my own. All I had to do was in color in the lines with a brand new set of crayons when others are expected to create the same drawing with a broken pencil and a blank sheet of paper. Too often, we compare the two ignorantly and judge the latter for being devoid of color and creativity. There is little creativity when coloring in the lines, but we tend to take full credit for the work of art we end up with.
I’m not saying giving a few dollars on the street is righteous or even helpful because I sincerely believe there is more we can do to help solve these complex problems. However, instead of looking above, below, or past people maybe we should try to remember to look them in the eyes more often with the goal of understanding the human similarities.