The other day, Nathan had a post over on Dangerous Harvests about “what “right action” is when it comes to interacting with people begging on the streets”. I started a reply there, and realized that my story would serve better as a post than as a comment.
I spent quite a few months homeless in Seattle when I first arrived on the West Coast about 7 years ago. The reasons for this were many, but I’ll just say that it was my choice, and that I wasn’t running from the law. It was a truly eye-opening experience. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I arrived in Seattle, and what to do when I got there. I tried finding jobs, and even tried joining the military (they wouldn’t take me – ADHD) but when my money ran out, I was left to figure shit out for myself. It was a tough experience. Luckily, I was in Seattle, where there is a good system in place for helping out those less fortunate.
I had no idea what to expect from the other homeless on the streets and in the homeless “system”. Would they be welcoming? Stab me in the back the first chance they got?
Their reasons for being there were about as varied as you could imagine. Of those that I met and was around, I’d guess that around 60% or so suffered from some form of mental illness, some more pronounced than others. For some, they arrived on the streets this way. For others, the streets simply magnified what was already there. There were those that simply fell on hard times, and a few people I met were part of the dotcom boom/crash that were trying their best to make it back into the workforce and afford a place to live. Some were criminals on the run, a few had warrants for petty crimes and had gone into hiding, and a few were here illegally. Many that I met were on some form of assistance, whether it was food stamps or Social Security.
In Seattle, it was possible to eat 3-5 times a day for free, find a place to take a real shower, do your laundry, and find a place to sleep during the night (usually in a church). The only people who went hungry were the ones that were banned from certain hand-out areas because they had been violent there, or those whose mental illness was so bad that they couldn’t function well enough to find assistance. And there were plenty of both. The violent ones were generally suffering from some mental illness, and of course not being allowed to get food at a soup-kitchen or church only made things worse for them.
At the shelter that I stayed at, everyone was pretty healthy mentally, and generally got along really well. Some of us hung out during daylight hours, and helped each other out. But the one thing that no one prepares you for is the boredom. It is excruciating. Imaging having nothing to do all day, every day, and not being able to look forward to anything, ever. Wake up, clean shelter. Take bus downtown. Do laundry, take shower, find food. Wander aimlessly for 4 hours. Find food. Wander aimlessly for another 2-4 hours. Get on bus, head to shelter, sleep. Try not to pay attention to those around you going about their lives, buying clothes, seeing movies, spending holidays with family. Repeat for the rest of your life. Repeat in your mind for the rest of your life.
Is it any wonder people turn to drugs and alcohol? For those that go down that path, it breaks up the monotonous nothingness of your existence. It is something to do. It is something to feel other than depression. Even though I really shouldn’t have been spending money on smokes, I did. They were terrible, 2$ a pack smokes from a res somewhere, and they got me through the day.
I never went down the drug path. My goal was to start a new life in a new place, without destroying myself in the process (though I dare say quite a bit of my “self” was destroyed…..). So regaining a meaningful life became my only thought. I had to find a job. I needed to find transitional housing so that I had a stable place to sleep and bathe and do my laundry so that I could show up to my job and not be a…… bum. When I asked my shelter-buddies about starting on this path, they all knew exactly how to help. But my question was then, “why aren’t you doing this?”
For some reason, many of them simply didn’t want that life. Maybe it had to do with the relative comfort in which many of them lived. As I said before, most had some type of income (SS), everyone had access to a shower, laundry, and at least 3 meals a day. Living that life, one could easily get by without much effort. It wasn’t the best life, but there was no boss to listen to. No responsibility. No struggle.
Some simply didn’t want to be a part of the society that had turned it’s back on them. Which was understandable given many of their stories. And for some, I just couldn’t understand. They had all the makings of someone with a successful station in life and for whatever reason they just didn’t try. Maybe life had beaten them down so low that they became satisfied with the homeless lifestyle. I still have no answers for many of the questions that confronted me during that time.
So back to Nathan’s question. What is “right action” when dealing with these people? First, see them as people. Some of them have chosen their position and others have had it thrust upon them. Regardless of circumstance, they are human beings just as you are. No better, no worse. They reflect the same potential we all have. They are experiencing the human condition in a radically different way than we are. Not completely a part of our society, though not completely apart from it either. Should you offer them food? Money if they ask? A cigarette if you have one? It’s really up to you. No dollar-in-the-guitar-box is going to put them over the edge for that down-payment on a condo. No one meal will stave off the hunger forever. One cigarette will burn away and the craving will return ever so shortly. These things are all band-aids for a more serious condition, though none of them do much harm. If your wish is to practice generosity, then practice generosity. You can’t save them all, and you should never feel like your efforts are going unnoticed or aren’t making a difference. Be generous when you can, but don’t feel obligated to hand out your change to everyone that asks it of you.
Besides the epic emptiness of life that comes with being homeless, there is one more crippling ailment. It is the isolation. You can’t help but feel like the stereotypical Dicken’s street urchin outside of a bakery window salivating over the freshly made cherry pie on the counter. Only the whole world is that bakery. Society as we know it is that pie, and it would bring such joyous comfort if it was even just a taste. When you walk down the street, you know you are not a part of their society. That bakery window is always there in front of you. When you get on the bus, it is there. When you come out of the bathroom at the library, it is there. It’s the look in their eye. Or rather, it’s the non-look in their eye. I can’t forget that. Ever. The fact that someone would cast me away simply because of the contents of my wallet was the most dehumanizing thing I have ever experienced. With the simplest of looks, I was negated. I didn’t exist to them.
So what is “right action” when dealing with those who call the street their home? Look them in the eye. Acknowledge their presence. Acknowledge that they too, are humans. Acknowledge that they deserve a “good afternoon” just as much as anyone else. Not only do they deserve it, they are probably in need of it more than anyone. A simple human connection goes a long way.