As a young kid living with my mother and brother, there were some difficult days where our dwelling was without power or gas or running water. We moved quite a few times in those early years, typically within the same neighborhood. We knew a little bit of everyone, which was normal in the 80’s. Despite not having a whole lot of stability we usually made our way to church to drop a few coins in the basket. Needless to say, I absolutely hated going to church. Between giving my good candy money away to a guy driving a very well-maintained Cadillac, and banging the doting choir members, along with not having enough money for the church plates they were selling, it was like torture. I always wondered, what this seemingly well paid pastor needed with my candy money.
In high school I took public transportation to get to and from the South Side of Chicago. Each day I had to pass through downtown Chicago, which is home to a lot of money, and a lot of homeless people. One day I was standing there waiting on my bus and a homeless guy asked if anyone could spare some change. I knew my budget for the month, and I literally only had $5 left over if I really took it easy through the month, so I apologized and said I didn’t have any money to spare. However, there was a guy that looked like he may have had some spare cash to give, instead, he told the homeless guy to get a job. The look on the homeless guy’s face was pain mixed with anger, as I’m sure he heard that condescending phrase more than once. I felt bad for the guy, so I decided to tighten my belt a bit and I gave the guy $2. Not much, but it was all I could reasonably spare in my mind.
Given my humble beginnings I have a soft spot for those suffering in this manner. I always wonder about their backstory, but I never ask them how they found themselves in this situation. There was one guy that I met who was probably a genius that crossed the line of insanity from time to time. He never asked me for money, he just felt the need to educate me on the world around me. He spoke like James Baldwin, very proper, almost royal. If you couldn’t see or smell, you’d think you were speaking to a politician or something. He explained to me one day that he at one time had a high paying job, but when he lost his wife and kid (how was never mentioned) he stopped caring. He stopped working, and just started wandering around. He abandoned the home he had and took to the streets. By the time I met him, he had been out there for a few years like this. He always gave sound advice, sometimes his rants were a bit extra, but outside of that solid guy.
Years later I met a woman as I was leaving a Panda express in Las Vegas. Coincidentally it was pay day for me. She was carrying her belongings in a tattered suitcase with her daughter, no more than 5 years old, walking with her. She very reluctantly asked if I could spare anything to help feed her and her daughter. I treated them to Panda express and gave her the $20 I had in my pocket. She was appreciative, but even that wasn’t enough to truly help her. She was newly homeless at the time; I can’t imagine how difficult that must have been for her. I met another guy in Chicago that was homeless because when he got out of jail no one would take him in. He tried applying to jobs, but of course they aren’t hiring felons, in addition to that, they want their employees to have an address. He was already planning on committing a crime just to go back to jail.
They’re Humans Just Like You
Of all the homeless people I’ve talked to, short of mental illness, most found themselves in the predicament due to a few bad decisions or misfortune with their employment situation. It’s a slippery slope when you factor in public sentiment towards homeless people and the obvious bias that employers have for people that have permanent dwellings of some sort. There are just over 550K documented homeless Americans, that’s roughly the population of Tucson, AZ. This doesn’t factor in the 38M or so people that are in the working poor population. Folks are making it the best they can, but it’s not getting better or easier to do so.
There are millions of homeless people in the world because humanity does not have a proper conscience!Mehmet Murat Ildan
Why You Should Care
It’s likely that over time, automation will eliminate the need for many jobs and once the need is gone it’s only a matter of time before the position disappears as well. Unless we see a sharp decline in population, there will be more people competing for fewer positions. Meaning some people that are currently comfortable may find themselves with their backs against the wall in the not so distant future. On the less gloomy side, some jobs are being replaced with other jobs, however, these replacements obviously aren’t 1 for 1, and they aren’t always available in the same area.
With this in mind, it wouldn’t hurt to be a bit more compassionate towards the homeless people you encounter. They don’t all make this easy, the last time I was called the N-word to my face it was a homeless guy. Excluding that guy and the few scammers, most are simply trying to survive in a country that has a sign at the door stating “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses” which to me, sounds a lot like the homeless population. We graciously accept new people that can afford to come and give this American experiment a try, but we disregard those that have fallen victim to good ol’ American greed that put them in this position.
Our sentiment towards homeless people is partially because we can’t see ourselves in their position. We fail to realize that they are people with feelings, needs, good days and bad days. They were at some point the kid the political right wanted to save from abortion. They were loved by people and many still are. They fell upon difficult times, sometimes because of their own action, sometimes due to the action of others, or a general lack of support. No matter what the situation is, they deserve dignity just like anyone else. They also need more help on a community level. Singular acts of generosity, unless it’s Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos, are good, but unlikely to have mass impact.
America is a place historically driven by the have/have-not balance, also known as capitalism. Our current way of life “lowest possible price at whatever cost” is creating a cost that is untenable for the survival of many. Visible in LA’s skid row, the homeless camps in and around Las Vegas, Lower Wacker Drive in Chicago, all over Washington D.C. and Atlanta. The collective way we treat those with the misfortune of being too poor to survive is harsh. Hip hop, despite the current over reliance on bragging, is the child of mistreatment and struggle. As the late great Tupac Shakur alluded to in this interview , the song of the people in need will change as those needs are repeatedly ignored by the masses.
Another great post, Doug. You pushed a few buttons for me today. Years ago, I was adamant about tithing to the church we attended. Well, we literally tithed ourselves into debt. Yep, we couldn’t pay all of our bills, but I was determined we would be blessed by being faithful. Ha! Learned that lesson the hard way.
I do try to be merciful to others, because I want mercy for myself. There are always people in need standing at the bottom of the off ramps with signs like in your picture above. I know some people who are not needy make this an additional source of income; hence, I never wanted to give money. What if they spent my hard-earned money for cigarettes or alcohol rather than food? However, it was eventually put on my heart that I simply had to trust. Give what I could to those in need and let God sort it out in the end. Now I give what I can, and if I have a $20 bill in my wallet, I always give that. Twenty dollars will feed someone for more than a day.
It wasn’t too long ago, our local food bank helped us for many months when my husband couldn’t work. Now that my circumstances have changed, I did my best to give back with a decent donation. I think you are right. Most people can’t see themselves in the same situation as the homeless, but my family was one paycheck away from homelessness for years, and I was always aware of this. I hope my eyes will always be opened to help where I can.
Thanks for your thoughts today.
The church we went to was in a poor neighborhood, and we were certainly qualified to live there. Most of the congregants lived check to check, in addition to missing meals, not having certain utilities or a means to change the circumstances. However, the pastor had a very shiny Cadillac and the members treated him like a celebrity. I never saw any of the money going into the church, reinvested into the neighborhood in any measurable way.
A few years ago I was home and decided to walk through downtown Chicago early in the morning. I came across this homeless guy and he asked for spare change for food. I didn’t have any, but I offered to buy him a meal from wherever he wanted. We walked and talked for about 40 minutes before he decided on McDonald’s. I learned a lot about him and the overall struggle he was going through. These last two posts are heavily inspired by that walk.
He went to jail for selling weed, did some kind of work program while he was in and was denied employment at every twist and turn. His parents passed away while he was in jail so he was living with his aunt and volunteering at her church. She eventually put him out. He said his only options were to sell drugs for someone or commit another crime to go to jail again just to have shelter.