The Worst Thing I’ve Ever Said To A Homeless Person

If you’ve lived or worked in a major city for as many years as I have, you’ll know that there are 6 types of homeless people:

The Con Artist
This is the guy who is always “just $1 short of buying a train ticket or metro card, if you could please help out.”

The Addict
When this guy asks for spare change, you don’t give him a single penny. The stench of alcohol in his breath, his profuse sweating, and the crazed, desperate look in his eyes give him away. You refuse to support his destructive habits.

The Psycho
This angry guy can be found screaming at people as they avert their gaze and avoid contact with him. You’re not sure what this dude’s diagnosis is and you’re not waiting around to find out.

The Regular
You pass by this guy on your way home from work every day. Sometimes you give him a dollar or a banana. You trust him. (Meaning that you trust he’s not any of the 3 types listed above.)

The Telemarketer
He has perfected his elevator pitch – the 10 seconds he has to quickly share the top 5 saddest details of his life before people walk beyond earshot of his voice. Like a telemarketer on the phone, or a spammer sending junk to your inbox, he believes that if he can just get in as many people’s faces as possible, he’ll eventually find someone who will cave under the world’s most annoying marketing tactic.

The Human
This is the lucky guy who, for whatever reason, has pulled on your heart strings. Maybe it’s because of what his cardboard sign says. Maybe it’s because he reminds you of someone you love, or of yourself. You don’t see him as a lazy, crazy, smelly bum who made all the wrong choices life – you see a person who is a victim of poverty and hunger. You see a human.

Everyone has a heart for the homeless…until they become surrounded by it on a daily basis. That’s when you realize that there are 6 categories. It’s also when you notice that your feelings about how to help these individuals are much more complex than they were back when you rarely encountered them.

4 Stupid Words

It was 2 am as I walked the New York City streets alone one night about ten years ago. I was heading to my college dormitory when a homeless man approached me asking for money, and based on his demeanor I was fairly certain that he belonged to either category #2 (The Addict) or #3 (The Psycho).

Either way, he was not the “type” of homeless person I wanted to give money to.

Still, I didn’t have the heart to simply ignore him. After his final request for help, I turned around, looked him in the eyes and said:

“I’ll pray for you.”

And without missing a beat he answered, “I don’t need your f*cking prayers– I want a damn dollar.”

Samuel L. Jackson couldn’t have said it better himself.

The Take-Away

I’ll pray for you. Hmm. It’s not the meanest thing to say to a person, but the irony of that statement haunts me to this day. Those words were all I could come up with in a moment of panic and indecision.

You see, while I did indeed pray for that nameless face as my head hit the pillow that night, I knew that my spiritualized concern for him served as a very comfortable buffer between us — it excused me from having to think critically or act purposefully when the opportunity for actionable Love presented itself.

The experience also made me think about how we are all less inclined to help out in a situation when we are afraid of being taken advantage of.

We make decisions based on the fear of being tricked or hurt. And in the end, we end up doing nothing for fear of doing the wrong thing.

After that incident I was determined never to be put in a situation where I’d be caught off guard again. I hated the idea of having to choose between compassion and self-protection…and then choosing the wrong one because I’d failed to think critically beforehand about how best to handle various situations.

A Few Ideas

For the rest of my time in college I began packing brown bag lunches and keeping them in my backpack as I walked to and from my classes, distributing them to homeless women and men. These days I’ll pop into a store to buy food for a homeless person sitting just outside of it, or I’ll give out my leftovers after leaving nice restaurants.

My husband Brian takes things a step further. He befriends the homeless. He shakes their hands, introduces himself, asks them about their lives, tells them about his, and then maybe gives them some money depending on what his intuition tells him. He surprises these men with his warmth. In fact, on more than one occasion Brian has put a dollar in someone’s cup and asked “What’s your name?” only to get an auto-response like “Thanks for your help, have a nice day.” Brian has to repeat his question a second time in order for these men to realize that he sees them as potential friends, not just beggars.

This Is Where The Balls Come In

None of what my husband and I do is by any means an answer to the global issues of poverty, greed, deeply flawed public education systems, inefficient social service programs, untreated mental illness, and other factors that to contribute to homelessness.

But for us, part of brave living is the unceasing mission to find good solutions to people’s suffering, followed by the search to find even better solutions.

And none of this is possible without difficult conversations in which you name your fears, acknowledge your biases, lay out your options, and choose what’s compassionate toward both yourself and the nameless face on that street corner.

Which reminds me…

It’s Your Turn: What are your experiences with ambivalence, fear or apathy with regard to social justice issues and charitable giving? What suggestions do you have for those who want to contribute in more significant ways?


Photo Credit

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8 Responses to The Worst Thing I’ve Ever Said To A Homeless Person

  1. Good stuff,
    #1 I’m proud of my son and how he conducts himself…how he endeavors to see people and not categories or labels. Once we take the attitude that there is NO SUCH THING AS “THE HOMELESS” and rather see individuals whose lives are shaped by complex circumstances and powerful forces, we can nurture our own compassion, compassion that powerfully helps us shape our personal responses to these persons and situations.

    But it seems to me that something more is needed. We need to enter into relationships with those whose lives are impoverished. The best way I know how to do this is to find a church or organization that spends considerable time nurturing relationships with those whose lives are lived primarily on the streets. Everyone, even the psychos and con artists deserve the chance to be in relationships that nurture inter-dependent respect and dignity. In one organization I was part of (including being on the Board of Directors), we were serving 2 meals a day to about 20 street-dwellers in Bangor Maine. At dinner, we held worship and Bible study. The problem was, we knew the street population numbered in the hundreds, hundreds that showed little interest or trust in what we were offering. So what we did was invite 4 individuals from the street population to become voting members of the Board of Directors. Taking an active interest and having gained voice and authority to shape an effort to address the real needs and desires of “their community” our storefront ministry was soon serving more than 150 persons. Soon, we were walking the streets our neighbors and being “introduced” as good people (rather than do-gooders) to those who had not joined us for a meal or conversation. And what I learned is that most people living on the streets are no more dangerous than our more “affluent” neighbors. Few are those who con or beg out of “bad intent.” After all, what human dignity is there in “begging or coning?” So find out where the impoverished and the un-impoverished mingle to improve the physical and spiritual lots of both. Go and spend time. It will likely change your life forever (maybe unburden you of your “FEAR OF THE HOMELESS”) and maybe change the life of someone who has been forced or “chose” to move to the margins of an otherwise affluent society.

    • Kimberly Eclipse says:

      I’m proud of Brian’s compassion, too…and I know where he gets it from. :)

      Loved your perspective on this topic. What you guys did in Maine was divinely inspired, genius (very “outside the box”, sadly!), and yet so simple. Also interesting is how you were “introduced as good people (rather than do-gooders)”. I can see how there might be a huge difference between the two in terms of how they’re perceived, despite the fact that they may be involved in the same activities.

      I wonder if “good people” vs. “do-gooders” is anything like the difference between compassion vs. generosity — the former is a world view/ way of life/ state of your heart, while the latter is a kind act (or a string of them). Although both virtues are valuable and needed, I would think compassion is in some ways more challenging than generosity because one can do a generous deed while still (intentionally or unintentionally) keeping a comfortable distance from those he or she is trying to help.

  2. Sheryl says:

    Growing up in an average-sized city (in Canada, that means about 100,000-200,000 people) I realy didn’t encounter a lot of homeless people. Then again, the way my mom describes the city is “white-washed” – and that honestly says a lot about where I grew up. Then, I went to university in another similarly sized city.

    Which is to say by the time I moved to Toronto in my early twenties I had encountered the homeless so rarely I could count the numbers on one hand. A lot of how I deal with the homeless tends to be based on where I encounter a person.

    I live in an um …. up and coming? neighbourhood, and just across the street from what has historically been the poorest, poorly planned neighbourhood in the city. The homeless people in my area tend, by and large, to be addicts and of the slightly deranged/dangerous variety. I make it a rule to not really engage with them – partly because it breaks my heart, partly because it’s not something I want to encourage in my neighbourhood, and partly out of fear. (Also – to make things tricky, I know that once upon a time this group of the homeless included my schizophrenic aunt, and that makes my heart flip flop in other ways.) This is not to say that I’ve never broken that rule and if someone tugs on my heartstrings at the right time I’ll take them in the store and buy them a meal, or even occasionally give them cash. Not often though. And it’s frankly exhausting to approached outside my front door by homeless people. It sort of breaks your sympathy after awhile.

    When I’m more in the city centre (the business area) I find myself more and more willing to engage with homeless people. The regulars who I’d see on my way to/from work I got into the habit of at the very least smiling and saying hello to. I’m more willing to buy a coffee or a sandwich, or if I had money to give some. Bunny and I are both known to empty our pockets of change when homeless people approach us in the truck and ask for help.

    And then – then there’s the stories about people who make damn good livings as professinal beggars, and that makes me sick. (I know there were a couple in Toronto until recently, at least.)

    What I find, when I look at myself, is that how I treat homeless people has a lot less to do with them than me. Sometimes I’ve given money because I felt like I really needed a boost of karma. Or I’ve thought “if I were in that situation, I’d hope someone would believe/help/listen to me”.

    A homeless peron also taught me one of the biggest lessons about human decency ever: acknowledge their existence. In one of the days I just couldn’t emotionally handle an approach and to decide to either give or refuse, I flat out refused to look at a homeless man on the street. And good for him, he stood up and screamed at me that “You don’t have to give me anything, but don’t pretend I don’t exist.” So – even if I can’t or won’t give, I make a point now to make eye contact and smile or nod at almost every homeless person I meet.

    /end ramble

    • Brian says:

      “You don’t have to give me anything, but don’t pretend I don’t exist.” So – even if I can’t or won’t give, I make a point now to make eye contact and smile or nod at almost every homeless person I meet.”

      That’s been my golden rule for the most part. I at least want to have the decency to make eye contact, say hello, or smile like I would any other person I encounter. There is this strange fear we all seem to have of the homeless and I have it myself every time I walk by them on the street. So I try an make sure to wave or nod and to not let that strange unfounded fear get in the way.

      • Sheryl says:

        I definitely get the fear you’re talking about. I know for me a lot of that fear is a feeling that too easily it could be me in their situation – which is something I don’t really want to think about, and that makes it even more important to think about. Because I don’t like the idea of letting fear determine how I treat other people (especially subconsciously).

        One huge thing I noticed in writing my (novel of a) original comment was that the language we as a society use to describe people who don’t have homes is very … sterile and impersonal. I had to go back because I was very uncomfortable finding myself just typing “the homeless” or “them” instead of “a homeless person”.

        • Kimberly Eclipse says:

          Yes, fear. The reason I wrote this post was not because I have all the answers or that I want to give instructions on how to treat homeless individuals, but more so because I want people to speak freely about what scares them from taking actions that are in line with their values.

          Speaking of taking action, one of the things I felt guilty about with my Samuel L. Jackson-style encounter with that one man was that I panicked and didn’t know what to do in that situation. So I ended up saying something kind of pointless. (Not that prayer is pointless but declaring my intention at that moment kinda was!) So the other reason why I wrote this post is because I want to encourage everyone to lay out all their options in terms of good responses to the various “types” of homeless people, choose the ones that resonate with their hearts, and be intentional about them when the time comes.

          As for our language being sterile, yes, I can see that. Very good point. In some ways it’s an easy way to categorize people so that we don’t have to think about who they are or how they got there. What comes to mind is my friend on death row “Matt”. Many consider him a murderer but I consider him a man — a friend — who murdered two people. There’s a difference. And to me, it’s an important one.

      • Kimberly Eclipse says:

        Brian, you have a heart for the suffering of homeless people — and it’s such a rare and beautiful thing. (I’m guessing your parents and your upbringing contributed to this.)

    • Kimberly Eclipse says:

      This is such a complicated issue and I could see why you choose not to interact with homeless individuals in your neighborhood. As much as it is heart-wrenching to see impoverished people struggling on the street, there is the very real issue of safety.

      You’re right about people making a decent living from begging. There was a documentary about people who panhandle on New York City subway cars. If they got $1 in change from each car, and there are 10 cars, and they can get through two trains in a single hour, then they’re “working” a $20/hr job, which is more than many people make. Crazy. Yet I don’t want a fear of being duped (nor resentment toward “professional beggars”) to deter me from helping those who could use a meal and a conversation.

      And I love the story that you shared about the guy who demanded to be acknowledged by you. So powerful. I’m glad that you took his words to heart and shared them with all of us so that we can learn the Big Lesson right along with you.

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