Surviving Homelessness

A young couple walked at a leisurely pace down a quiet street. Their dog, a 75-pound retriever, pulled them along as he looked for attention from any of the passing pedestrians. The night was beautifully clear and the stars illuminated the city street with an otherworldly glow.

As they reached a staircase that led up to the bustling Main Street, the dog quickly scaled the concrete construct forcing the couple to break into a half-jog to keep up. At the top, the well lit sidewalk was suddenly filled with the roar of conversation from the crowd of diners, drinkers, and date goers. The couple turned the corner and headed up the street in the natural flow of the surrounding flock. As they did so, there was a faint voice from behind them, muffled and well hidden beneath the noise of the busy street. The young man heard the voice first and looked back. His wife, seeing his sudden stop, halted the dog– or at least attempted to slow him down– and joined her husband’s interest. Behind them, leaned against the bridge railing of the Reedy River, there was a frail man crouched down in the shadows that form just between two street lamps. By the looks of him he was much older than either of them, and he had certainly seen better days. His snowy white hair was messy and unkept, but the way he compulsively pulled his hat down over it implied a certain level of shame in the way he felt it looked. His hands, which were as wrinkled as a well-worn map, delicately held onto a small plastic bowl that appeared to contain spare change. He was, by all appearances begging for money. Out of his mouth, which was lined with yellowing crooked teeth, he gently confirmed the speculation by asking whoever might be listening, “Is there anyone that would be able to help a hungry old man?”

The young couple heard him. The young man new it, his wife knew it, and everyone else that passed on that busy street knew it, but for whatever reason each person that heard the man pretended to not notice, and continued walking up the street instead. The couple, still following their dog’s persistent pulling, moved at a steady pace until the young wife stopped and asked exactly what the young man was thinking, “What did he want?” The husband felt a sudden weight of guilt pressing into his chest and responded with a lie. He said, “I think he was talking to someone else. It was really hard to hear him out there so I have no idea what he said, but I’m sure it wasn’t directed at us .” His wife agreed, knowing that she too was lying to herself about it, but also not wanting to disrupt their pleasant evening downtown. They continued onward.

After a few more feet it began to eat at her. She stopped again, turned back to her husband and said, “I’m really surprised you didn’t offer to help him. That something that you did back when we first started dating. You used to help people that you saw.” She looked ahead following where her dog was sniffing, afraid of looking like a hypocrite for not saying something sooner. Still moving forward the young man began to notice the people hurrying by them. Each of them was happily walking toward something. For some it was dinner plans, for others it was to a favorite bar, and maybe some were even heading back home for the night to sleep in their warm bed. This hurt his heart deeply. His wife was right. He used to look for people to help. Now days though he acted like he was too busy to even be bothered by it. The more he thought about it, the more he realized the he was no better than those corrupt politicians that he always complained about on social media for not caring about people. They may have created the system in which this man suffers in, but he and the rest of the people on that street neglected the homeless man in a much more personal way. They literally turned their backs and ignored him just so that their perfect night wouldn’t be bothered.

In reality this is the reaction most people have when they encounter someone who lives on the street. It’s much easier to avoid eye contact, to ignore the situation, and to move in willful ignorance than to take a few moments to offer help. During an interview with various members of the homeless community in Greenville, South Carolina, one specific gentleman claimed that the worst part of being homeless was the day-to-day rejection by those passing by. He said, “It makes you feel as if you are not even human. People will avoid eye contact and walk out of their way to avoid you.” Digging a little deeper revealed that this avoidance does not just happen when a person is asking for money. The gentleman interviewed sees this daily, but understands how awkward it might be to pass a homeless person, especially for someone who does not have the means to help. Apparently though that’s not the only reason that people avoid eye contact. Often times, as the man explained, “People pretend you’re not even there. It’s easier for them to view us as something different. Maybe it even gives them a sense of comfort to not have to think about the way we live.”

Perhaps there’s truth to this. Despite how this makes us feel, those men and women who live on the streets of Greenville— or any other city for that matter— are as human as we are. The reality of what they face is not all that different from the troubles we have faced. In fact, most of us have probably been one bad decision away from being in a similar place. Until we stop seeing them as being so different from us, not only will they keep suffering in their need, but we will keep suffering in our ignorance and greed.

The young man looked at his wife and said, “You’re right.” He turned around and went back to the man, finding him exactly where he had been. When he approached him, the old man started to speak in an alarmed and apologetic tone, but the young man stopped him, and began to apologize himself. He looked the old man in the eye and made sure he knew how sorry he was that he and his wife had continued walking, and reassured him that he would be happy to help him in any way that he could. The old man was brought to tears and opened up a conversation that made the young man feel as if he was talking to an old friend. After a few moments of chatting this way, the young man realized that this guy, though they seemed worlds apart, was very much like him indeed. Not only did this homeless man have a wife, whom he loved dearly, but he also had similar dreams and aspirations. This became a sober dose of reality for the young man, one that he desperately needed. He understood then that no matter what choices or sequences of life events that led this old man to the point of homelessness did not change the fact that he was human. Both of them were human, both of them felt joy, both of them felt pain, both of them felt love, and both of them just wanted to survive.

In reality all anyone on this planet– regardless of race, gender, sexual preference, religious affiliation, or economic level– wants to do is survive. We are all the same. All of us. Let’s survive together.

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