Original photo by PhoeebStock
I passed by three homeless people while riding my bike tonight. They were somewhat in my way, squatting on the sidewalk where it opens into a parking lot. One of the men said, “You should be on the road! Not on the sidewalk! Use the bike lane!”
I was angry at first. He was taking up space on the sidewalk meant for pedestrians! I thought of comebacks to shout at him. “You should be in a house!” I thought of rational arguments to throw at him. “The bike lane isn’t the best option in every situation; sometimes going on the sidewalk briefly is safest, especially on large streets.” I knew these thoughts were bullshit self-defense, so I said nothing.
I chained up my bike, walked to the pharmacy, and picked up my hormone refill. I looked up and down the convenience store aisles for a sensible Christmas card for my brother. I didn’t want to have to write my own words, but I didn’t want anything gushy either. That would be insincere. I wanted a card that says, “You exist, you have a blood relation to me, and I acknowledge this. Here’s a card.” (With the subtext being, “Please start calling me by my actual name and stop talking about me as if I’m a guy. Also less abusive treatment in general would be nice, as I am, in fact, a human being.”)
Nothing fit the description. I decided my brother wouldn’t get a card this year. It’s been crickets on his end for years, anyway. Before I left the store I remembered I needed to get some cash for bus fare. I grabbed a random item (some makeup, which I needed anyway) as an excuse to get cash back at the register. I waited in line, full of people buying small things like I was. Small, inconsequential, but important enough for a trip to the convenience store: a stick of gum, a few AAA batteries, a folded piece of cardboard with words on it, NyQuil. I kept thinking about the people on the sidewalk, and their shopping cart piled high with belongings. I knew they’d been homeless for awhile. Beards on the two men, scraggly hair on the woman. The particular patch of sidewalk they squatted has been occupied for half a year now. Other patches of sidewalk in the neighborhood have taken up long-term residents as well. I pressed the non-existent touchpad button for $20 cash back.
“Could I have that in fives?”
I’d done the math wrong, I realized. I had believed I could give each stranger a fiver and have enough money left over for bus fare. Not even close. I put the money in my pocket and prepared myself mentally for what I was about to do. How might they respond? Would they be angry at me for offering money? Was I making an arrogant assumption? Was I pitying them? What if that guy was really mad at me for driving through their space on my bike? What if they told me to fuck off?
I strolled down the lot on my bike with caution. I pushed down the light on my bike so it didn’t shine rudely at eye-level. I spoke to the three homeless people from a distance, as if I needed to signal to them I came in peace. I briefly felt like I was in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, and perhaps I was.
“Sorry about earlier,” I said to the man that had scolded me.
“Don’t worry about it,” he said. “I was just joking.”
“Hey, awkward question. Could you use a few bucks?”
“We could always use a few bucks.”
“I have a few bucks.”
I handed out the fives one at a time, like a dumbass. I had no idea if they all knew each other, if they were family, if they were strangers who had banded together, or what the deal was. I felt stupid, and it was deserved.
“God bless,” the man said to me. I’m an atheist, but I say “God bless” in return in these situations, because the meaning isn’t literal and atheists like that are douchebags.
“Merry Christmas,” all three of them said to me.
“Merry Christmas.” Not sure what else to do, I made that half-wave half-salute gesture, and rode off. There was an ATM for my bank down the street, so I could just withdraw another $20 and get change somewhere on the way home. End of the night’s errands. The Event was over, my life was back to normal, and I had a plan.
Halfway to the ATM I was in tears.
I think we forget that homeless people are people. Even I do, and I make an effort to interact with homeless people when they’re in my neighborhood, or when I pass them on the way to public transit. I’ve been homeless before, and I might be homeless again, depending on my luck. I’m “white people poor”, which means I have connections and other privileges that shift the odds in my favor, but it’s still possible I could lose the gamble. Even knowing that, I fight back reflexive judgments when I see people camped out on the street.
Do something. Any tiny, small thing outside your comfort zone.
Despite my former homelessness, people tell me I have value. They say I’m talented. They say I’m good at game design. They pay me money for the things I write. They say I’m smart and educated. They buy my art when I make art, and they’ve bought my music in the past. They see me as a good person. Their jaws drop in disbelief when I tell them I’ve been on the verge of homelessness for most of my adult life, and have spent time in a homeless shelter. They tell me I don’t deserve to be out on the street. These are all, on the surface, very kind words, but they create a binary: the people who deserve it, and the people who don’t. Unsurprisingly, in this binary, the people who actually are out on the street all deserve it.
Once you’re no longer “between jobs” or “down on your luck” or couch-surfing, and are instead Really Really For Real Homeless, people don’t act the same. Maybe a few still talk to you, if you’re lucky. In general, though, you are lumped into the “Didn’t try hard enough to not be a lazy bum” category, and everyone moves on with their lives. Even if you search for work every day. Even if you’re skilled but disabled and can’t hold on to regular employment, like me. Even if you’re amazing and not disabled and still nobody wants to pay you a living wage. Even if there are literally no jobs available that you are qualified for. Even if you’re working three jobs and still can’t make rent. Once you cross the threshold into Actually Homeless, you’re not a person anymore. You’re a stereotype. You’re a movie extra dressed in a barrel everybody laughs at as the main character rides a horse toward something important.
That is a disconnect, and that disconnect is violence. It’s not just violence toward homeless people, but toward everyone. We live in a bubble and pretend homelessness doesn’t exist. We tell ourselves it’s someone else’s fault, that the homeless shelters are supposed to take care of them, or it’s just not something we can do anything about. So we look the other way. We ignore the increasing number of homeless on the streets. We pass them by without saying hello or even making eye contact. We step on the gas pedal to get away from them a little faster. We disconnect. And for the convenience of that disconnect, we suffer.
The tears I cried on my way to the ATM were a teeny-tiny drop in a vast ocean of collective pain. It is a pain we all share. Homelessness is a wound we all carry as members of a society that produces homelessness. Like any ecosystem, our health is tied to the health of the community we live in. When we neglect the homeless, we neglect ourselves. Even if we personally can’t solve the problem; even if we can’t fix people’s illness, or ensure people have stable housing, or give people jobs; even if the solution isn’t obvious and it isn’t immediate; even if the money we give to them goes straight to alcohol and drugs to numb the suffering they endure, avoiding the problem does not help. Apathy is itself a drug to numb the pain, and it too is addictive.
So do something. Any tiny, small thing outside your comfort zone. Wave and say hello. (And make eye contact when you do it.) The interaction can end there. You don’t have to make friends. In fact, that would be awkward for everyone involved. Just be a person. If they have a story to tell, listen. Many homeless people just want to be heard. Don’t treat them like a charity case or something to pity. Don’t treat them as if they are dangerous criminals, either. If it feels right to do so, give them money. Even if they take that money straight to a liquor store. I’m sure some will disagree with me on this point, but I know people who’ve drunk themselves to death in stable, comfortable homes surrounded by loving family. You think anyone can kick a habit like that when they’re sleeping out in the cold, starving and dehydrated, alone without friends or family, and could get beat up, raped, or arrested at any moment? If ever there is a situation a pain-killer makes sense, it’s on the street. If you are offended by homeless people drinking or doing drugs to numb their pain, I recommend pressuring your city to enact Housing First legislation. I’m serious too, that isn’t a snappy comeback. Do it. Send letters, make phone calls. Protest. Until homeless people can find stability, they will continue to find ways to dull the pain. Absent any other solution, it is a rational, sane decision. I’d argue it’s more rational than the judgmental way most respond to homeless people.
Do assert your boundaries. Do understand that just like anyone else, homeless people can be assholes. Don’t use that as justification for their homeless status. It isn’t relevant. Assholes come in all varieties, rich and poor. If you try to help someone out with a few bucks, they might even be an asshole about that, too. Let it slide. Charity is only charity when there are no strings attached. Groveling at your feet is not a reasonable requirement. If you can’t handle this possibility, then you might be giving money for the wrong reason. Giving isn’t about feeling good about yourself or getting a pat on the back. There is a power imbalance at play here, and you will always come out on top, guaranteed. However, do understand the difference between assholish behavior and abuse. Don’t accept abuse from anyone. That distinction can help you in the rest of your life as well.
Our society thrives on exploitation and dissociation.
Don’t make fun of homeless people for any reason, but especially not for their appearance. That’s a basic lesson in human decency that can also apply to the rest of your life. Many people think it’s ok to make fun of homeless people, even right in front of them, as if they weren’t even there. It isn’t ok. And even if you’re down the street when you crack jokes, they can hear you.
While not all homeless people have schizophrenia or other severe mental illness, many do in the US because we lack a social safety net for the mentally ill. Know that people with schizophrenia might seem strange, but they are almost never dangerous. People with schizophrenia are more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators, in greater numbers than the general population. I’ve lived with people who have schizophrenia before. When I sit on the bus now, I’m often the only one who sits next to a schizophrenic person willingly, while the rest of the people on the bus needlessly panic as if something bad is going to happen. It never does.
Worry about the “normal” people you interact with every day. Especially the ones in positions of power. The ones who, for example, collapse an entire economy and throw people out on the street because they think the world is a casino and you should foot the bill. Our society thrives on exploitation and dissociation. To maintain this division, it teaches two key values: Trust those in power, because they will make you into an obedient robot that serves their needs. Beware the homeless, because they will make you human.
Don’t fall for it. Be human.