Rethinking your interactions with the homeless

Classes had just let out for the summer, and I was catching up on some work. I needed some staples, and it was late at night, so I drove to the gas station down the street from my apartment. On my way inside the gas station, I walked by two gentlemen sitting on the ground. When I approached, they asked if I could give them some money.

I responded with the boilerplate response that society had conditioned me with: “Sorry man, I don’t have any cash on me.” Persistent, the gentleman asked if I could use the ATM to spare him a few dollars. 

I paused. It was just shy of 1 a.m. I had a lot of work to do, but, realistically, it could wait. I asked the gentleman: “If I come back out here with a few dollars for you, will you sit down with me and tell me your story?” He affirmed, and I went inside.

A few minutes later, I came back out with a few dollars for the gentleman and his friend. 

I asked him to start at the beginning. We backtracked to his childhood: where he was from, his family, the mistakes made, the time spent in prison and what he learned from it. We continued forwards, debriefing time spent in middle school, high school and later at community college. He was aspiring to study graphic design. Then we hit an inflection point.

I found out he’s only a few years older than me. He told me how his girlfriend got extremely sick while he was enrolled at community college. He said he dropped out of school and has been working to support her ever since. He told me how his mom was also sick and explained what he was doing to help her.

We rounded out the conversation with the gentleman telling me a bit about what he believes to be true about the world and the god he believes in. Before I let him and his friend go, I wanted to ask them one more thing.

Everyone has a story. Whether I got 100% of the truth of this gentleman’s story, doesn’t matter to me. I don’t care what caused him to find himself out on the street asking complete strangers for help. Maybe it revolves around mental illness, depression, bad luck or exactly what he detailed to me. It doesn’t matter to me, and I don’t think it should matter to you. 

For those who might suggest that this man could be a con artist, I acknowledge the possibility. It’s possible, but even so, I still wonder what might have caused someone to select a life of cons for themselves—probably nothing pleasant.

Before I left the gentleman and his friend, I asked them one final question. I told them how I had seen multitudes of people from all different walks of life act incredibly rude towards them, myself included. I asked what they wished the general public could know. Acknowledging that they are putting people in an awkward situation by asking for money, how do they want to be treated when they encounter random strangers every day? I told them I wanted to be an agent of change, even if it was likely to be something small like sharing their message with my friends and being better as an individual.

At first, he talked about carrying around an extra few quarters in your pocket to share with people like him. 

I pressed him a bit. I told him to forget the money for a second. What message can I share with everyone, regardless of their ability to help out financially?

He paused, considering my challenge. Then, he told me it has to do with respect. He doesn’t mind that you aren’t necessarily going to give him any money. He asked, however, that you look him in his eyes, acknowledge that he exists, and just be sincere. There’s nothing wrong with saying ‘no.’ What there is something wrong with, is being disrespectful. Just because a person is sitting on the side of the road, doesn’t mean they deserve any less respect than your boss or professor. 

For whatever reason, they got there, to the side of the road. I don’t care if this guy was lying to me about his girlfriend or mom being sick. It truly doesn’t matter to me. At some point, you just need to take a step back and remember this is a human being—a living, breathing, creature, nearly identical to myself. We aren’t that different. 

You don’t have to give any money. Maybe you shouldn’t actually give any money at all; I’m not sure what’s most effective. 

But what you should do is give some respect. Give a guy or a gal a handshake, a nod, a smile or literally anything to reaffirm they exist, and that they matter. 

Life is too short and too fleeting. Just be nice to people, I guess that’s it. I guess that’s the point. I’m no hero. Hopefully what I detailed here is obvious. I wish I could say it was already obvious to me, but it wasn’t.

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