Every day on my walk from the train to my office building, it never fails to jar me as I pass a different homeless person on each corner—sometimes two at a corner—holding up a makeshift cardboard sign, jingling a plastic cup of change, or even worse, just sleeping on the street as people walk past.
I feel frustrated as people walk past them, not seeming to care in the slightest, but then I have to take a deep breath and realize that I'm not doing anything different most of the time. What am I supposed to do? I feel helpless, walking past, thinking that even if I gave each one of them $1, or even $5, that's not going to do much at all.
My buddy, the man on the milk crate, isn't as consistently in his same spot now that it's warmed up outside. Sometimes, he's gone for a solid week, and I worry and wonder where he is, and if he's okay. But he always comes back. He was looking pretty rough for awhile, and then disappeared for a week or so. I had started thinking he was gone for good, but then one evening after work, he was back, sitting on his milk crate. It took me a second to realize it was him—it was the first time I'd seen him without a hat, and he'd shaved his head and had some "new" shoes that looked about two sizes too small.
Where'd he get his head shaved? How'd he get those shoes? How does he survive?
I think that maybe, I don't want to know the answers to all those questions. Today he was nowhere to be found. There was a different man sitting on his milk crate, which happens sometimes. The first time I noticed this, I got a little riled up, wondering if someone had stolen my "friend's" seat. But he was back on it the next day. Maybe they take shifts. I have no idea.
There were some new people out today. A young couple sat holding a sign with a picture of a baby taped to it: "Please. We R Homeless n Hungry. Help us Feed Our Baby."
I almost walked into traffic as I turned back to look at that sign. And I hate to admit it, but it wasn't out of a pang of sympathy right then, it was a shot of skepticism. A series of different, much less kind questions popped to mind.
Where's this baby? If someone's watching the baby, wouldn't that same person help them eat? Do they even have a baby? Are they addicts?
I didn't give the couple money. I didn't give any one money today. I haven't, in fact, even helped out the man on the milk crate with some spare change lately.
Recently, I was adding money to my train pass when a man using the machine next to me started talking to me.
"Ma'am? Think you can spare 10 dollars? See, I need to get out to my mom's in the suburbs, and I..."
I looked over at the dollar amount on his machine as he was asking me that, and saw that he had $15.75 on his card. And I couldn't help it. I pulled my ear buds out, shook my head, and pointed at the machine.
"You're trying to take the train? Fare is $2.25."
As I said that, he dejectedly shook his head, looked like he was about to protest, then just shook his head again and hit "Vend" on the machine. We both knew he didn't need 10 bucks to get on the damn train.
I walked down to the blue line and couldn't shake an uneasy feeling. I couldn't decide if I was proud of myself for not being my usual, overly polite self to people asking for money, or if I felt like a total asshole. At the same time, I felt unreasonably mad. If you want to ask me for money, just ask me for money! Don't pretend that you need it for the train.
It was the same way I felt one other time in the city when I stepped out of a cab with my friend Raj and we immediately got hounded by a man asking us for money. I had leftovers in my hand from dinner, so I offered it to the man instead of money. He protested, and continued to ask us for money, and I offered the food, again. He jerked it out of my hand, and I felt like a schmuck. And I was pissed. I was just trying to be kind, after all.
It's easy to think and assume certain thoughts about either of those men, or that couple I saw today. Maybe they were drunks or addicts and needed money for a quick fix. After all, I'm only human, and it's easy to feel jaded, or skeptical, particularly when people are rude. I don't even know if the man who asked me for train fare was homeless, but it's a safe bet that those other men are. So, no, the man who took my leftover food and still demanded money wasn't polite. He was aggressive and rude. Maybe he was a drug addict. Maybe he suffers from mental illness. But you know what? Whether it's the former, the latter, or both, that's all the more reason to show some kindness.
While I realize there's a fine line between being kind and just handing out money to everyone on the street, I think the reason I had an uneasy feeling both of those times was because I was upset with myself. Instead of having some compassion, I judged those people. I can be rude to strangers sometimes for no better reason than they stepped on my foot on the train. And chances are, I had something good to eat that day. I can only imagine how rude, tense, or aggressive I might be if I were hungry, scared, and alone. On top of that, I also can rattle off a huge list of family members and friends who would be there to help me if I were to, say, be evicted from my apartment or struggle with an addiction. I think about last year, when I had to move back in with my dad because I was struggling to support myself. What would have happened to me if I weren't lucky enough to have that option? Or any other options?
On my commute home from work today, I opened up my New Yorker and immediately became absorbed with a story by Lauren Groff, called "Above and Below." Go figure, it was about a young woman who becomes homeless. Once a university graduate student, after losing funding and getting evicted from her apartment, she starts living in her station wagon by the beach, surviving off of scraps and discarded food, sneaking into a condo's gym to shower. She continues to find various ways of surviving, and eventually, she winds up living in a squat.
While I read my magazine, a woman across the aisle was sleeping, sprawled across the seats with bags surrounding her.
Housing is a human right. For info on how you can help the homeless in Chicago, click here.