I live downtown in a relatively small city. Since moving here over the summer, I don’t think a day has gone by that I didn’t encounter a person on the street without a place to live.
Of course, this type of encounter is not unique to me. According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, on a given night in January 2015, 564,708 people in America were homeless, which includes those who have to sleep outside, in an emergency shelter, or are put up by a transitional housing program.
What do you do when someone on the street asks you for money?
Personally, if I have cash, I generally give it. However, as a 28-year-old in 2017, I typically only carry a debit and credit card.
Either way, the answer to the question doesn’t come down to whether or not I should give money. Instead, the answer lies in how to treat people that are homeless. No matter what, I always politely respond, look them in the eye, and wish them well.
With confidence, I can say that this interaction is difficult for both parties. Typically, I feel embarrassed and guilty. However, what’s even more difficult is that I might actually feel some of their pain or realize their situation more fully.
This sentiment was expressed perfectly by Mark Horvath on the website for Invisible People — his nonprofit to raise awareness for homelessness in America.
“If we make eye contact, or engage in conversation, then we have to admit they exist and that we might have a basic human need to care. But it’s so much easier to simply close our eyes and shield our hearts to their existence.”
To see someone struggling is difficult — it makes us uncomfortable so we want to look away. Unless you’ve experienced homelessness, you can’t totally comprehend the fear and anxiety someone who lives on the street or in a shelter has experienced. The thought of even sympathizing with their situation can be intimidating.
But to look into the eyes of someone who may not know where their next meal is coming from, shows a level of compassion and empathy — and might be the most meaningful thing you can give a person who has almost no worldly possessions.
Perpetuating the homelessness stigma
However, many people often ignore the homeless people they encounter because of a negative perception or they feel awkward and even scared. They assume they are alcoholics or drug addicts, and that anything they give them will only be used to purchase harmful substances, so instead they put their head down and walk a little faster.
This stigma is often made worse, even by initiatives that are meant to help the homeless.
Sometimes, walking around downtown areas I see signs or hear unsolicited advice saying, “Do not give to panhandlers.” The people advocating for this approach probably believe that the best thing we can do for the local homeless population is donate to organizations dedicated to helping them.
While that may be true, my fear is that this advice is potentially ostracising the same people they intend to help.
Often times, I see people walk past a person who is homeless without acknowledging them — following the “do not give” directive, but failing to offer any human connection.
Panhandling may be a temporary solution or even detrimental, but as human beings, we should remember that the signs don’t give us a license to ignore those who are in desperate need of help.
It’s also true that many people simply hate making eye contact and would rather not talk to strangers. But the purpose of eye contact isn’t to make anyone uncomfortable. It’s for you to acknowledge that they exist.
The inspiration for Mark Horvath’s project was the story of a homeless man living in Los Angeles.
For years, the man assumed he was invisible because no one would look at him. That is until a boy handed him a pamphlet one day and the man responded, “What! You can see me? How can you see me? I’m invisible!”
Just remember, you don’t have to be Pope Francis to encounter the poor. You don’t even have to do it by visiting a shelter (although, that would certainly help).
Instead, be like the boy in Los Angeles, and do something to acknowledge that each and every homeless person you encounter is a human being, just like you. Look them in the eye and respond with an, ”I’m sorry I don’t have any money today,” or a simple, “God bless you.”
Pope Francis tells us, “We are called, then, to draw near to the poor, to encounter them, to meet their gaze, to embrace them and to let them feel the warmth of love that breaks through their solitude. Their outstretched hand is also an invitation to step out of our certainties and comforts.”
Encountering the neediest people we see means acknowledging our shared humanity, including the pains and stresses that come with it. But in that moment of encounter, we create a moment of peace and comfort for the other — a simple act of love.