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  • Writer's pictureRichard Mailman

There's No Place Like Home... If You Actually Have One.

On any given day as we navigate through our lives, it's become an unfortunate part of reality that we encounter people experiencing homelessness. At no time did this fact become more apparent than during the pandemic. At the height of Covid while everyone was being told to stay at home, it became painfully obvious who didn’t actually have one. Since then, the problem only seems to have gotten worse. And unfortunately, more times than not, when we encounter someone who’s experiencing homelessness, our reaction tends to be to try and ignore them: Avoiding eye contact and turning the other way in order to protect ourselves from the uncomfortable truth and heartbreaking reality of having to acknowledge them. This disappointing fact raises all kinds of questions about our willingness to show true empathy and compassion where it’s needed most. And just as important, is our lack of honesty about what contributes to our collective tendency to want to separate ourselves from the harsh reality of the less fortunate.

Years ago, when certain members of my family told me they were going to move into a gated community, my reaction was less than enthusiastic. Trust me, I know firsthand the issues around crime, fear, and homelessness. When I first moved to New York City I literally had to step over people sleeping in the doorway just to get into my building every night. I’m not faulting people for wanting to live in a community that’s clean, safe, and free of crime. It’s the concept of “out of sight, out of mind” that I find slightly disconcerting. And the even more aggressive mentality of building a wall to keep out the unwanted. As humans, no matter what our differences, we’re all connected to one another in the most intimate possible way. We occupy and share this space called Earth.

It's not just gated communities that promote the idea of segregation, tribalism, and protection from perceived “undesirables”. The media, politics, and economics contribute to the exclusion and fear of “others” that exists in this country as well. Society’s fear of crime and the anxiety around people that are different is often exaggerated far beyond any actual threat. The deliberate act of arousing public fear and panic around any particular issue or group of people has become an accepted political practice and economic maneuver. As a result, fear-mongering has caused us to take leave of our senses.

Not too long ago I was at a gas station on Santa Monica Blvd. filling up my car when a homeless man started making the rounds. He began asking people if they could help with some change so he could get something to eat. His clothes were ragged, his face was filthy, and his gaze was somewhat disconnected. I watched as everyone tried to ignore him. I could feel the awkward guilt and uncomfortableness of some, and the annoyance and judgment of others. I watched as one by one they turned away and tried to distance themselves both physically and emotionally. At first glance, it was easy for anyone looking at him to be fearful and judgmental. But what everyone seemed to be missing or just refused to acknowledge, was that he was actually pretty soft-spoken and fairly pleasant. Witnessing them all trying to ignore him, for whatever reasons they had, to me, was really disturbing. Every one of us standing there at that gas station was a human being with fears, needs, and desires. Traits and emotions every single one of us have. Especially that man who found himself in the unfortunate position of having to ask for money to get himself food.

Too often we’re so quick to jump to conclusions as to why a person might be homeless. And those conclusions, many times involve blaming the individual. “They’re on drugs”, or “They just don’t want to work”, are common justifications people often cite. It can be tempting to think a person experiencing homelessness is on the street because of their own bad decisions. But the reality is more complex. Many people find themselves without shelter because of issues beyond their control. What’s important to acknowledge is that basic structural issues like the lack of affordable housing, low wages, and deep-seated patterns of racism are baked into our society’s infrastructure. It’s important that we remind ourselves of this fact if we’re going to bridge the gap between turning the other way and having true compassion for someone who’s ended up in that unfortunate situation. Whatever the reason, it doesn’t change one simple fact. That we’re all human.

It’s not always easy knowing how to react in a compassionate way to people who are homeless or in distress. But when that man at the gas station finally made his way over to me, I couldn’t ignore him like everyone else had. It’s just not me. The problem was, I almost never carry cash. Like most people, I use my ATM card for everything. So, I just looked him in the eye and told him the truth. “I’m so sorry”, I said. “All I have is my ATM card.” Then, suddenly, I jokingly blurted out, “…And I ain’t giving you that!” And just like that, for a moment, the dethatched and disconnected look in his eye disappeared. It was as if for one split second he touched down on planet Earth. And he laughed. It may seem like a small thing, insignificant even. But it wasn’t. Acknowledging him as a fellow human being, with respect and even with a little bit of humor, had an impact.

P.S. When I got back in my car, I realized that I had a five-dollar bill stuffed in my iPhone case that I had totally forgotten about. Halfway down the block, I saw him standing by the curb. I pulled over, rolled down my window, and held it out to him. “I forgot I had this”, I said smiling. “It’s for you.” He gently reached in and took it from me. “Thanks man”, he said. “I really appreciate it.”

There are more than half a million homeless people in the United States. This epidemic may seem daunting and overwhelming, but it doesn’t have to be. We may think we don’t always have the time, the patience, or even the money to spare. But it doesn’t cost a dime, and it only takes a moment, to truly recognize the humanity in someone who’s feeling overlooked. And that can make all the difference.

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