The homeless fellow pictured here didn’t do me any favors. As much as I want to admit — wishful thinking I guess — I wish homelessness would become a thing of the past. But images like this are a sign that’s not happening anytime soon.
You see, this fellow was right outside my doorsteps and woke up at the sound of my footsteps. I’ll circle back to him further down.
Growing up in a small southern town, homelessness was largely absent from my experience. People who found themselves without a home always had someplace to go. But it was not that long before I came face to face with the reality of homelessness until I lived in big cities where I witnessed and developed a “look away” strategy when confronted with people on sidewalks, at stoplights or on corners requesting spare change with the word “homeless” etched out on slivers of cardboard.
Here’s another incident from a few years ago that forced me to confront my uneasiness with homelessness.
After settling with the driver, I stepped out the cab into the face of a luxurious hotel in Washington, D.C., and was descended upon by bellhops, their hospitality overwhelming. This continued at the front desk check-in. When the elevator door opened on my floor, I stepped out into a continuation of grandeur.
My room was immaculate. I felt pangs of guilt as I plopped my suitcase down and scanned the incredibleness of the place.
The bathroom was better suited for magazine covers; surely not for what humans normally use bathrooms for. I stared into that bathroom mirror and into the reality that I was surrounded by luxury, and I was uncomfortable with that. A $69 a night special would have been OK with me. But I had no choice since everything had been paid for because I was a conference speaker.
After a night of tossing and turning on bedsheets too crisp for my liking, I decided to escape it all early the next morning with a walk down the block. From a distance I spotted a Starbucks, quickened my pace, but didn’t get far before the contours of my discomfort got stretched even further.
You see, there was this little city park I had to pass. It was peppered with homeless people, and as hard as I tried not to notice them, I couldn’t help but notice them. They stood out in stark contrast to people crisscrossing the park on the way to work, bus or train stops nearby, or to other places. Can’t say that I was surprised by how everyone was so at ease at not noticing the homeless. It seems so natural for both them and most of us, does it not?
One homeless person in particular got my attention. It seemed that she had all her possessions on the bench and in a shopping cart overrun with clothes and blankets. I was struck by how casually she plucked a half-smoked cigarette out of a wrinkled pack, lit it and stretched an undernourished arm across the top of the bench.
She then launched into an animated conversation with someone — or with some voice — that only she could see or hear. I had this urge to join her on the bench, to strike up a conversation. But about what? As quickly as it came, the idea vanished like the smoke in the air from her cigarette.
Two hours later I was back at the hotel seated around the table in a plush meeting room with 30 others. The place was pristine; tea, coffee, donuts, fresh fruit, pinstriped suits, nicely coiffured hair and smiles, lots of smiles.
A shameful admission here! I drifted in and out of the meeting. Thoughts of the homeless people just down the block continued to gnaw at me.
What was that homeless lady up to right now? Whose mother is she? ... or sister? ... or daughter? What were the circumstances within or beyond her control that led to her current situation?
Ah, relief! We broke for lunch. I snapped out of my imagination.
At lunch we were seated around tables with elegant white tablecloths. Between mouthfuls of roast chicken — and polite conversation — I started to drift again, wondering what the lady in the park was having for lunch. Was hers hot or cold? Was it nutritious enough? My appetite evaporated.
At 4 p.m. I stepped out of the hotel, hailed a cab and was off to the airport. We drove by the park where I had seen the homeless lady. Hoping to get one last glimpse of her, I scanned the park but except for flocking pigeons, her bench was empty. She was gone, leaving me alone in the depths of my insecurities.
Now how do I bring closure to this exposé? When it comes to the homeless, what can we do? Now the easy answer is to find out what’s available in your local community. Short of that, Google “Things You Do to Help the Homeless” for ideas.
But there’s something more we can do, something intrinsic, something immediate. Do not wait to interact with them as I did with the lady in the park, or as I’m about to do with the fellow on my doorsteps.
Oh wait, I’m too late. He’s gone.
I missed the moment!
Terry Howard is an award-winning writer and storyteller, a contributing writer with the Chattanooga News Chronicle, The Douglas County Sentinel, The BlackMarket.com, co-founder of the “26 Tiny Paint Brushes” writers’ guild, and recipient of the Dr. Martin Luther King Leadership Award.