I just read a really interesting article (http://mashable.com/2013/06/25/homeless-man-and-blackberry/) and it reminded me of some of the interactions Chris and I had over the years with the homeless.
There are two in particular that stick out for me. The first was a night in Nashville quite a few years ago. Nashville has a huge homeless population and we had spent the evening handing out dollar bills and cigarettes and occasionally a beer. Save me your “you’re only contributing to the problem” speeches. On our way back to our hotel, walking up what came to be known as “the big damn hill”, we came across an elderly woman and a young man who seemed to be together. She was lying on a bench and he was sitting by her feet. It was a very cold night in late October and they were huddled with blankets but it was COLD. And she was OLD. She was coughing and he seemed to be comforting her. Well we were headed to our very nice hotel room and we had been out imbibing all evening and I was having NONE of this. It seemed perfectly reasonable at the time to send Chris to talk to the young man and let him know they could stay in our room. Really, some things seem quite logical after a few (lot) of beers. Well between the language barrier and their apparent distrust/fright/confusion about this drunk couple trying to lure them to their hotel room, it ended with them scurrying away to find a new bench. And me crying hysterically about the state of our society/healthcare/mental healthcare/social system. In retrospect I’m thinking the desk clerks at the Hyatt we were staying at probably would have raised an eyebrow, or a fuss.
It took me a long time to get past the horrid feeling I felt as we passed those two people. I can still very clearly see that womans eyes as she watched us walking by.
Fast forward a few years and we are up in Chicago engaging in our usual antics. We are meandering downtown after stumbling off the red line and decide to grab a 6 at an all night package store and head over to the bridge on LaSalle, running over the Chicago River.
I’m having a grand time playing the winnie the pooh game (drop a stick and run to the other side of the bridge to see it flow past you) crossing 4 lanes of almost non-existant traffic at 4 am and a homeless man wanders up. We say hello, introduce ourselves, offer him a beer and a smoke and get to talking.
His story was very similar to others we have heard. Hit a rough patch, doesnt want to ask his family for help. Most of them are barely better off than he was at the moment. Trying to find work, which is almost impossible without a place of residence. He was getting by. Hoping to have pulled out by winter, he wasnt looking forward to winter. He was decently dressed on this coolish summer night. a clean shirt and jeans. He was well spoken and at one point had held a professional job, tho the details now escape me. We talked for maybe an hour and he thought it would be best if we got moving on and back up to our room. We gave him another beer and half a pack of smokes for the road and he thanked us for hanging out for awhile.
He stuck with me too. And these interactions almost always brought me to tears. As we were out spending 100’s of dollars on craft beer whooping it up in Chicago, here is this guy, just trying to get a toe hold, trying to get his life back. By his own admission, he made some mistake along the way. He didn’t feel society owed him anything. He felt confident he’d get his life back on track. We offered him money. He declined. He was truly thankful for the camaraderie in the early morning hours and a drink among friends. He went his way. We went ours.
I rarely don’t make eye contact when I walk down the street. I am that person who says hello to everyone. Sometimes it makes me a mark. I can chose in that moment if I’m going to pay or pass. I never feel bad about either. Its my choice to do so. But I’ll damn sure smile and say hello.
For a more eloquent version of this type of story, check out the link above. It absolutely presents yet another layer of human to the homeless story.