This blog comes with some hesitation on my part, because it’s admitting to something about myself that I’m very uncomfortable with, and I’ve tried to avoid for a very long time. But let me just put it out there: I’m afraid of homeless people.
Why, you ask? I don’t know. Precisely because I don’t know is likely why I’ve made little progress on this, either.
When I think about this logically, I can interpret many a reason to not be afraid: they are people. Anyone could be homeless. I could one day be homeless. So could my parents, or my uncles, or my best friend, or anyone else for that matter. I don’t think people who are homeless are bad people – rather, I think they are in an unfortunate situation. And if I myself were to become homeless one day, I would hope others would give me compassion and love. Certainly, I would at least hope to be seen, to be acknowledged as a person.
But so many of us avoid eye contact – myself included. I first realized this a couple of years ago. On a street corner not too far from where I live, I noticed a very nice looking business man having a conversation with a homeless man. It struck me as odd, and then it struck me that it shouldn’t strike me as odd, because people are just people. I tried to picture myself as the business man in that situation, and I found that invoked a lot of fear. I tried to picture myself as the homeless person, and I found that invoked a lot of shame.
Since then I’ve made it a point to not avoid the eye contact with the homeless. The only thing worse, I can imagine, than being without regular shelter is being invisible. If nothing else, I could offer a smile and a wave, an acknowledgement of their person, a radiance of compassion. But I must admit, I’m still a bit nervous to chat… My parents groomed me to not look, and to be fair, there were plenty of wild and unpredictable people roaming the streets of Chicago when we visited, and the memories of the ranting and wild arm motions and intense staring has left me with fear that will not leave.
This past week we went on a vacation to Charleston. I could tell you how much fun it was (it was) and the wonderful meals we had (we did) and the dolphins we saw while kayaking (pretty freaking awesome), but the thing that I remember most is one particular encounter I had with a homeless man. Keith was a tad hungover, so I walked the two and a half blocks to get us coffee and breakfast alone, and en route I was stopped by a fellow who was missing several teeth, walked with a cane, and was dressed in a disheveled suit and tie that was an uncharacteristically warm choice for the hot South Carolina weather. He told me I looked pretty, and then told me he was looking for money to buy a soda-pop (his verbage, not mine) and a sandwich. I told him I didn’t have any cash, apologized, smiled, and we walked on.
But the truth was, I did have cash. I could have given him money to go buy breakfast. Or, even better, I could have invited him to come with me to the cafe to buy him a coffee and a bagel, too.
But I didn’t.
So what was I so afraid of? Being a single woman in a new city afraid of getting attacked by an older gentleman who couldn’t walk without a cane? Losing out on a couple of dollars? Having to eat breakfast next to someone where by golly someone else might judge my company?
These were the disturbing questions I entertained while I walked on to get breakfast.
During this trip, I also started to get angry about feminisim, thanks in large to this article, which, although I don’t agree with much of it, still got me thinking about the discrepancies in treatment between men and women. It did make me want to quit drinking (but not enough to not go to the fancy wine and cheese bar that evening, which led to Keith’s subsequent hangover), and it started my gears turning on social injustices, not just for women, but for the homeless, for people who aren’t white, for the many layers of unfairness we have in our society. Charleston is a very segregated city. In fact, an usher at the Riverdogs baseball game explained to us that, “Black people and white people don’t go to the same churches. It’s not that we can’t – it’s just that we don’t. And everyone is okay with it.”
I wasn’t quite sure how to interpret this. On the one hand, if everyone is in fact okay with it, then is it a problem, really? But who decided that everyone was okay with it anyway – was there some kind of poll taken where everyone’s thoughts were considered in maintaining this status quo? And how much are they each missing out on by skipping over each others’ lessons – how much education, how much learning, how much progression?
These are very uncomfortable things to talk about, to consider. And it’s hard to find people to talk about these issues with who don’t get automatically defensive in either direction… My point is, I want to learn. About both sides, of maintaining segregation and finding integration. About caring for the homeless population and not pitying them. It’s hard to discuss because someone inherently thinks something is “wrong” and something else is “right,” but what if there are no rights and wrongs, what if there is only learning opportunities? Then what are we missing? Am I alone in feeling this way?
This week, I encourage you to explore that one little thing that makes you uncomfortable, regularly, repeatedly, but you never explored why. Have some conversations about it, get a therapist, write a blog, meditate – however you want to explore, explore. Good luck to you. ❤