A while back, I spent a year researching homelessness in preparation for writing a play on the subject. I read tons of books, attended conferences, met with a professor who’d recently written a book on it and mostly spent just spent a lot of time thinking about homelessness. I realize it’s a controversial subject. I know it’s a problem that plagues our country and so many others and that there are lots of opinions out there. I know that my willingness to give money to the homeless hasn’t always been met with positivity from friends and family and I’ve learned, for the most part to just keep my feelings about it to myself.
Living in London gave me my first real experience with homelessness and I really struggled with the emotions that came to the surface when I’d see people sleeping on the sidewalk or benches or down in the subway system. It particularly got to me if they had a dog with them, and they often did. I didn’t really have any money, but I felt increasingly worse each time I passed someone covered in a cardboard blanket or looking broken down and defeated as they watched people pass them by.
So I did the only thing I could at the time. I gave them bagels. I saw that a nearby bagel shop would bag up all the un-sold bagels at the end of the day to throw away and asked them if I could have them to give to the homeless. I did that for a while and then, to be honest, I stopped--though I can’t recall why.
In Hawaii the homeless population is enormous. Right now the number reaches approximately 17,000 and a street not far from my house was often converted into a large tent city. As much as I hate to admit it, I became very immune to passing homeless people on my way to school and it wasn’t long before they just sort of blended into the landscape.
That is until, very late one night when my ex-husband and I came home and noticed a man huddled near the trash cans by our building. Suddenly the faces and the tents and the people no longer blended together in one ignorable clump, and we were face to face with a person who was, in some way, struggling.
We walked past him but he’d gotten to both of us. Once inside our apartment we looked at each other and then began pulling food out of the cabinet. We put together a bag and my ex-husband took it to him. When he came back, I asked what happened and all he could say was, “He just kept telling me thank you, God bless you, thank you, God bless you.”
Not surprisingly, here in New York City, I'm faced with it again. But having watched other people walk by the homeless for months know, seemingly not seeing them, I figured it would happen to me. I'd become immune to it. It would stop tormenting me because, let's face it, what could I do about it anyway? I don't have the money or the resources, so why even bother looking at them as I walk by? For a while, it worked. I'd plug my earbuds into my ears, I'd talk on the phone, I'd focus on Fable as we were out on our walks. But then, this happened.
There's an African American gentleman, probably in his late sixties who stands under the awning of an old, abandoned pharmacy down the street from me. He wears the same tattered white shirt and dirty khakis with beat-up tennis shoes and rarely strays far from his post. The first few times I walked past him he made a noise I didn’t understand and couldn’t decipher. I wasn’t even sure he was addressing me. I walked past him without making eye contact, but felt guilty.
In the past two months I've walked past him at least once a day but though I know he's there, I really don't see him anymore.
A few weeks ago I saw him standing under the awning to the pharmacy like he always does and as I walked by, I looked at him. He met my eye and he uttered the same undecipherable noise. I shook my head, not understanding and kept going. By the time I reached the end of the block I realized what he was saying.
Each time someone walked by, he said "change." Over and over and over again. In a deep baritone that was so gravelly and worn that it buried the word in sound making it almost impossible to decipher.
I stopped in my tracks. The weight of that word struck me and I couldn’t get it out of my head. Yes, of course I know he was asking for my spare change, any coins I might have lining the bottom of my purse. But what I heard had nothing to do with money.
That’s all it took. I started thinking about him. How he got there. What happened. Where his family was. If he struggled with mental illness. If he was an addict. If he was a war veteran. If he’d lost his job. If tragedy had befallen him and he hadn’t been able to recover. If he was a scam artist. How he’d gotten to the point where his home was the storefront of an old pharmacy on a street in Queens.
And once I started thinking about it, I couldn’t stop. I was ashamed at how many times I’d walked by him, watched him look at me and then dodge his glance, talk louder into my phone or change the song on my iPod in lieu of making a connection with him. I wondered what he thought each time he saw me walk by in my Lululemon yoga pants or on my iPhone.
And with that, it changed. I don’t have any money for him. And maybe that’s where my guilt comes from. I want to give to him and I can’t. Not right now. So instead of giving him anything-- a smile, eye contact, or the simple acknowledgement of his human presence, I ignore him and walk away.
I’m not proud of that. I don’t wear that as a badge of honor that in a city so filled with homeless that I have become one of the many who walks by, un-moved and un-changed by another’s misfortune.
I see him almost everyday. Last week he stopped saying “change” to me when I walked by. It would appear that he knows now that I am not going to give him any money.
That breaks my heart. I suppose, in a way it means he’s given up on me, on the chance that I’ll extend my hand and pass him my change. He recognizes me now as one of the many people who walk by him by on a daily basis without thought or care. He knows that his word, the one word he has to offer, falls on deaf ears.
But it doesn’t. I hear him. I see him. And I think of him often.
It needs to be asked of all of us from time to time, I suppose.
I know that while I may not have any change to put in his hand, I can give him the time of day. I can give him respect as a human being. I can look him in the eye and see that the change he’s asking for might not have anything to do with money at all.