The time with which I entered university was life changing for me in a lot of ways. One of those ways, in large part, was due to some of the new people that had entered my life. They were people with very big hearts. Their big hearts led to actions that taught me things. I was in the presence of discussions that I had never participated in before, where the topics unfolded amidst strong levels of empathy and concern. It was their subtle actions that really got to me, and helped slowly change me. I am referring to my attitude towards the homeless.
This is a topic that is hard for me to dive into with others, mostly because I feel ashamed. I am ashamed of my fear towards the homeless. Whether I have change in my pockets, or whether I don’t, whether I choose to drop change in their cups, or don’t.
I usually don’t drop change in their cups. I also usually…choose not to look at them.
I recall a discussion I had in one of my classes with regards to the homeless. We were talking about the stigmatism that exists in our society when interacting with the homeless…if it can even be called interaction. In particular, the topic of physical contact left a very deep impression on me. For a lot of us, we do not like to have physical contact with the homeless. If we were to end up on a train, or a bus, and there was a homeless person huddled in one corner- we may choose a seat very far away. We may be overwhelmed by their smell, and in the scenario that we somehow brushed against them- we could suddenly be consumed with repulsion. We think- this person is so dirty. Now I’m dirty, because I have touched this person. This classroom discussion left its impression because I have had all these thoughts. I have done these things. I steer clear.
I know now that one of the reasons I chose to grow up not looking at the homeless was not only because I feared of them, but because I feared for them. But still- to fear for them- doesn’t necessarily even mean that I cared. It simply meant that I could not imagine to live life as they did, as they still do. I wanted to pretend that all this- all this poverty- did not exist. So I wouldn’t look. God forbid that I look too long and I would understand- and truly see- what was going on.
I’m one of those people. And I’m ashamed.
It’s not even as bad in this beautiful, first class, modern city that I currently live in. I have travelled in parts of Asia where the display of the homeless is beyond words. I was very young, walking along with my family in the busy, jam packed streets of an urban business area. And all of a sudden, in the middle of a sidewalk, can be this homeless person, missing a leg, sprawled on a cardboard. He’s just lying there on his stomach. His hair a nest that covers this face. There was something very cruel, very strange, very heart wrenching to witness in that missing limb. The mess he looked. I wish I could explain more in detail how terrible, how painful of a sight it was. But I can’t. Because I looked away. I looked away as fast as I could. My memory is thus very hazy, and yet, I haven’t forgotten the shock and the immediate thought that followed, which was that something was really wrong about that scene. But I cannot remember. I chose not to.
And he was only one. There were so many more shocking displays of homelessness during my travels there. But I had never seen it in such close proximity, as the divide towards where the poor “belonged” is usually quite clear in larger urban cities. The poor are easy to avoid. Easy to ignore.
There was another experience a university friend of mine had shared with me during my time at school. Another one of those stories that stayed with me. He told me of how, over time, he had come to form a friendship with one of the homeless youths that sat everyday out on the street of a well known intersection. And one day, my friend simply sat down next to him out in the open. They were just chatting. While sitting there in the heart of downtown along that busy crossroad corner, my friend recognized familiar faces over different intervals. His friends, and his classmates were making their way on foot through town, and through that area, just doing their errands and minding their business. He saw a lot of them. And it dawned on him that the strange feeling he was getting was in realizing that no one saw him. No one even thought to look in that corner where he was seated with this particular youth. Some of them literally walked right past him, in front of him, and didn’t see. He was dressed well, a school jock- and it didn’t matter. Somewhere amidst the list of busy errands everyone was running, out of the corner of their eye, they had seen someone homeless. There was no need to verify whether or not the person next to him was also homeless. Never a need to look close enough at the faces of the homeless to question- do I know you. He had become one and same as his friend: invisible.
When he told me that story, he was not telling it to me laughing. He was baffled. It made me wonder if I have ever done that. If I have ever so blatantly “not seen” someone.
If I hadn’t met the friends that I did in university, I wonder how different of a person I would be now. I’m not a charity donar, nor am I doing anything particularly noble for the poor, but I believe that the smallest changes in our mentality and our attitudes affect us in an almost cosmic way. But I attempted to, for the first time in all my life, look at the homeless when I walked past them. I was about 21 when I decided to challenge myself with this. I know it sounds small, and inadequate- but it was a big thing for me. And it was really difficult. I did not find this task easy, because my whole life- I had conditioned myself to turn away.
And so it began. My walks up and down through the downtown area of my college town. It felt like my head was pushing against some sort of resistance in my every attempt to make eye contact with the individuals huddling in dark corners. I was fearful each time, but I’m not sure what I was fearful of anymore. I would like to think that I was more fearful of myself and my inability to open my eyes- literally and metaphorically speaking.
I will share one last experience in this long blog today (thank you for reading, if you have made it this far)…of one homeless man that I made eye contact with. I have never forgotten it, and I hope I never will. As I walked past him that day, he asked a classic question, “Do you have any spare change?” I said no, I’m sorry. And I looked him in his eyes.
What I saw there was compassion. It hit me so hard. That I could walk past, and choose not to drop change, and that he could look at me so.
Why do we say “sorry” when we walk past the poor? Are we sorry because we don’t have change? Are we sorry because even if we had change, we might not drop it? Or is it because of the class divide that exists right there, between the two of us? A boundary both so evident, and so invisible.
He is stuck. I walk away. And when I walk away- I say “sorry.” Sorry you’re standing there. I’m so glad that I’m over here. … Is that what I’m saying? How could I. Why do we?
But that is what happened. I said sorry. My pathetic acknowledgment of his situation. And he responded in a strong, gentle voice, “Don’t be sorry. God bless you.” The look in his eyes never changed. It was love, understanding, and acceptance.
I walked away in tears because his eyes and the compassion behind them struck me so deep in my gut. If he can be on that side of the divide and still feel that… what does it make me- as I walk away? I give him nothing. He gives me his blessing.
That was many years ago. I have since then, moved back to a more urban city. It’s a place where there are a more homeless in the poorer districts. The inclination to turn away is higher than ever. But I am trying hard not to forget how I felt that evening with that one particular homeless man. I am trying to at least, change just one bit of my attitude towards the poor. Hopefully, in time, even more will have changed. And with that- maybe I can do something more concrete for them.
For now, it’s work in progress.