Where I’m living right now, there’s an interesting separator between the neighbor’s house and mine. It’s a recession about four feet wide and 1 foot deep. Since it’s walled off by bricks on both sides, I don’t see what’s in the middle until I walk out on the street and pass my neighbor’s house. It’s crossed my mind that it’s not a bad place for a homeless person to sleep. But I never expected to actually see somewhere there.
This morning, I walked past that separator and saw an old homeless lady there. It felt like I “caught” her, because she was sitting up and had a look of surprise – almost shock – when we made eye contact. It was the most uncomfortable 0.5 seconds I’ve experienced in a while.
I can’t help but feel that quick twinge of sympathy when I see homeless people. The way I protect myself from going down that rabbit role is to avoid eye contact. That homeless guy on the freeway exit? Read his sign, quickly scan his person and avoid the eyes like hell. To me, I do this because I feel that sympathy does nobody good. If I give him money, I know it’s not enough to make a real difference. I get into a self debate in my head about the effectiveness of doing something like volunteer at a soup kitchen instead of being compelled to give out whatever change I have, triggered by guilt. Regardless, I feel like the biggest asshole in the world when I don’t look them in the eye and ignore them.
I always wonder if it’s hurtful for homeless people when people like me straight up ignore them. Is that just a non-issue because they’re so used to it? Or does it not matter because they’re crazy anyway? Thinking a little more about it, there’s a wide range when it comes to homeless people, and here are 3 types if I had to categorize:
- The Hustlers – Probably the most normal of the bunch, hustlers are the hardest to resist because they attempt to engage you in normal conversation, and always have a good (specific) reason for why they need money. “Do you have $5 so I can get a ride back to my neighborhood?” I’ve straight up ignored these people in close proximity like I’m deaf or they’re invisible. But I’ve also given the most money to hustlers, since the weight of social pressure is heavier in this environment. When someone asks you a question nicely, even in public, you’re compelled to respond in some form. “No” and a meaningless “sorry” without hesitation often works best for me.
- The Newly Homeless – These are the ones who look slightly out of place on the streets because they don’t look that different from you or me. Their clothes look relatively new and they don’t look that dirty. Also, you’ll notice that the newly homeless avoid associating with the really homeless folks. The newly homeless often have the most creative signs. I think the cause for their temporary homelessness is mainly personal finances. Wait, you mean people aren’t homeless just because they’re poor?
- The Deeply Homeless – These folks look the most unsanitary and usually have a slightly crazy glaze about their eyes. That’s just the thing – they most likely have some type of mental illness. Because they don’t have much control over their mind, they also have the lowest chance of survival. I avoid the deeply homeless out of fear that their supposed mental instability will result in fearful situation if I roll down my window to make contact.
As a kid, I used to think that homelessness was a choice and that it’s not my problem that people can be so lazy as to give up on life. This was because I didn’t understand mental illness. But it makes so much sense now that there really are people who can’t help themselves. When your faculties are gone, even the simplest actions and motivations escape you. Recall your last time being under the influence, alcohol or otherwise. The next day is spent in some foggy haze. Imagine that but 4x worse, and if that was your mental state every day. Homelessness might be like a bad hangover you never recover from.
Is it just me or do homeless people not really register in the mind as “real” people? Their lifestyle – or lack thereof – is so far removed from our reality that it’s hard to imagine having a real conversation or be having dinner with a homeless person. The Catch-22 is that I feel self-serving if I do give homeless people money or the time of day. It’s not for them – it’s to soothe my own guilty conscience that I can’t do anything for them.
I’ll leave with some questions:
- on popular intersections, I notice an ongoing rotation of different homeless people. How do they work this out in between themselves? I’m guessing there’s no sign up sheet, much less a shared Google Docs so that everybody’s on the same page.
- Where do homeless people go when they need to use the restroom? What do they use if they don’t have toilet paper?
- Do a lot of homeless people commit crime just to be clothed and sheltered in prison?
- Since tomorrow’s election day, which platform provides the best solution to homelessness?