We used to go to downtown with my dad when we were little. The cement benches were host to sleeping homeless men (I don’t recall seeing homeless women in my youth). The homeless men of my youth were Vietnam Veterans and drunks, almost without fail.
I don’t remember how the discussions begun, but they always ended the same way. My father would say to me, “That man was someone’s baby. Someone rocked and kissed him when he was a baby, and someone still loves him.” I was never taught to be afraid of homeless people, nor to pity them too much. I was weaned on a steady diet of compassion. Perhaps that’s why I’m drawn to the work that Mark Hovarth and Matthew Barnett do. It’s like they set the table for dinner and invite people to join, they give folks an opportunity to work things out.
Today when I went to CVS there was a man out front holding a pack of cigarettes. He was in his 20’s tall and unremarkable, except that he needed a shave. He asked me if I smoked. “Nah,” I chuckled, because he was just so hustle-y (shaddup it’s a word!). He continued, “Well, would you mind giving me some change for food?”
It took me a moment, and then I realized that he was standing in front of a drugstore, selling single cigarettes at a markup in order to raise money, and that he was probably homeless. I only had big bills so I told him I’d get him on the way out.
I spent a hundred dollars on something, odds and ends that our house needed. On the way out I stopped to give him two dollars (I’m a sucker during the holidays), and I took a closer look. He was a young, articulate man, broad shouldered and appeared quite sober.
“You’re too smart for this.” I said.
“I know.” He replied. “I’m going to get a job, next week. I promise.”
“You don’t have to promise me, if you’re smart enough to make money selling cigarettes people could buy 10 steps away, then you’re smart enough to work. Do you have a home?”
“I’m staying in my car right now.” He put his hand on my shoulder and I saw that his knuckles were scarred. He wasn’t clean, but I let him make the connection. I think we both needed it.
We talked a little more, I told him that the Dream Center might have some resources for him. He told me that he had dreams.
And then I gave him ten dollars. Because he told me that he was a good guy, and I believed him. And if he wasn’t? Well, he was a good enough salesman to have earned it.
It probably wasn’t the right thing to do. It’s just what I did.