Ever since I was a little girl, I have witnessed my father’s simple yet incredible treatment of people who live on the margins of society. He has always been incredibly generous, but particularly with people who are poor or homeless.
I would skip alongside my dad as we walked through the streets of the city where we lived, and observe as he greeted by name the homeless men and women who sat on the sidewalks. He would stop and joke like an old friend, and ask what they needed or if they had eaten that day. He gave what he could, even if all he could offer was his attention.
For almost ten years, my dad served as the guardian of a schizophrenic woman, Mary, who lived in our city. My dad helped her get into an assisted living situation, and he brought my family along with him to visit her for the rest of her life. When she passed away, my dad had Mass offered for her soul and arranged her funeral with the care he would have shown for his own parent.
My dad’s example forever changed my perspective of those who live on the fringes. He extended attentiveness and care to the people our society casts away and he treated them with dignity from the moment he met them until, in Mary’s case, the point of death.
Truth be told, as a young girl when I watched my dad as he stopped and engaged with the homeless men and women in our town, I would shrink behind him. They scared me, and I felt fear and disgust in their presence. My reaction as a child is sadly not uncommon; when we see people living on the street, most of us tend to drift a little farther away or avoid eye contact. In online forums and comment sections, it’s not unusual to see people bemoaning that homelessness would be solved if they just stopped being lazy and tried to get a job. They are treated like an inconvenience and the very shame of our society, and the commentary and assistance tend to end there.
My own previous prejudices had me ignoring and dodging, too. My dad’s example forever changed my approach, though. I don’t have a lot to offer. I usually can’t give money, but it’s more valuable than you might think to simply speak to someone, make eye contact, and acknowledge that they are a person and not a fixture of the street corner. I am not naive — I know that conversation and dignity can’t feed someone or provide shelter — but being seen in a world where we are increasingly valued for our status and appearance can’t be underestimated.
When people are no longer of use to us, we discard them and turn our backs — we quickly move on from contacts who helped us to get a job or a depressed friend who has become an inconvenience. The people who bear the brunt of this impulse are often the downcast, the poorest among us, or the homeless.
It’s currently popular to show care and attention to things that can be politicized such as race or the environment. We reuse our bags when we shop, make signs for our businesses that supposedly welcome all, and engage in Twitter activism. Don’t get me wrong, I am for all of these things, and I think the general shift toward being more protective and loving both to our fellow people and to our earth is important, honorable, and much needed. But the homeless and the destitute tend to get excluded from these causes and forgotten.
I think of Mother Teresa. She couldn’t give much, but she took people who were outcast and disregarded, those whom no one else dared touch, and loved them. The simple act of treating them with dignity and respect restored in them a fundamental idea of what it means to be a person.
I can’t give a lot the way my dad has done. What I have is more humble. But I can look at each person with dignity and remind them that they are seen and loved, and not forgotten or unworthy.