Caring for the homeless: Do we?

I’d like to think that homelessness is a problem which has a solution.  But, until nobody has debilitating mental illness (which will never happen unfortunately), homelessness is here to stay.  People mistakenly believe that homelessness is due to abject poverty, and thus, is more fixable.  Sometimes it is, but the majority of the time, it is due to mental illness.   This is just my opinion, however, based on the research that I have read.  It is impossible for mental health experts and researchers to know exactly how much homelessness is caused by mental illness.  It’s presumed at least 25%.

Homelessness saddens me.  Any time I see it, it puts a damper (not like the pedal on a piano of which has the opposite effect as that makes things louder, accentuates the part of the music you want to emphasize) on my day.  Any time I visit a large city on vacation, and I see a homeless person or group of them, it makes me feel guilty for enjoying myself.  Like I should be doing more for them if I really cared.  I always buy them a meal, though I don’t have deep enough pockets to buy a meal for 50 homeless people.  The very wealthy man in Atlanta a few years ago who was surprised I didn’t recognize him gets it; he does just that (according to his wife) who was with him.  And, pays for meals for young couples.  Other random acts of kindness.  (It still kind of bothers me that I don’t know who it was; he wouldn’t tell us).

What made me think of homelessness on this sunny Wednesday?  It’s not in my neighborhood.  It’s not even all that prevalent in the small city in which I reside (though it’s still prevalent enough).  And, it’s certainly not in my currently messy house which I am supposed to be cleaning on my day off (getting back to it soon if you’ll just allow me these few minutes).

This past Sunday after going to a wonderful church service, going to our usual family restaurant for lunch, and then taking my traditional Sunday nap (twice a month on my Sundays off, though I don’t intend to mislead you.  I take naps more than twice a month, and I enjoy them), and then going to Publix to grocery shop, I saw what looked to be a homeless man.  We had just grabbed a sub, a Publix Philly, to enjoy before doing the week’s grocery shopping and were sitting outside at the typical metal table you’d find at a park. 

As the homeless man walked over, I saw him briefly mutter to himself while holding his 8 oz Publix brand milk and carrying a backpack that was probably at least 10 years old.  He walked right past us, and sat 2 tables over from us, the furthest table away.  This information was not gleaned from staring at the both literally and figuratively poor man for minutes; I just got this in the few seconds that I saw him as he was in my direct line of sight.  Made a point not to stare as I’m sure he already gets enough of that.

What did I do?  And, what did I want to do?  Well, as the sun was setting, it was now twilight, and my quick judgment of the man told me that he likely suffered from mental illness.  Maybe schizophrenia of the paranoid type, maybe not.  Impossible to tell.  So, because of this knowledge (though it’s important to note that most people with mental illness are not aggressive), instead of sitting where I sat, I moved across the table so that I could see him the entire time (my back would have been to him otherwise, and this way, my back was to the wall of the store; I just wasn’t comfortable not having the opportunity to be aware of my surroundings).

What did I want to do?  I wanted to invite him over to sit with us because he didn’t look like he got an invite like that ever.  But, I was scared.  Even though the odds of him being aggressive to me if I talked with him were minimal, I didn’t want to risk my safety.  For which I feel guilty.  I feel bad for the homeless and want to help them, but I’m also scared of (some of) them. 

Though if the same thing happened tomorrow or next week, I would do the same thing.  Self-preservation kicks in.  I wish that I could show more genuine kindness to people that need it without worrying about my safety in so doing.  But, that’s just the way it is, and I’m not willing to risk my safety to help someone that I think may hurt me.  Most people would say that what I am saying is just good sense, nothing to feel badly about.

But, I do.  Every time it happens.  If you’re living on the street (not by choice like the few who do by choice as part of their social experiment, experiment in living, which I find insulting to the homeless)…. Anyway, if you are living on the street, have nowhere to go (or at least feel that you don’t even though there are shelters), small kindnesses make a huge difference, I would imagine, though I can’t really, as I’ve never been homeless. 

Does the homeless person know I’m thinking of myself, my safety, when I make it a point not to take out my wallet in front of him?  (Most of the homeless I have encountered are male).  Maybe very astute ones.  But, I just go to the nearest eatery, and buy him a sandwich if he asks me for money.

My conscience kicked in this past Sunday, and I felt guilty.  Guilty for not doing what was probably the right thing: inviting him to sit with us.  He was just so alone.  One could argue:  well, even people that are well dressed could be just as alone as him.  It’s just less obvious.  That’s true.  But, he was obviously very alone, very poor, and likely suffered from mental illness to boot.  And, out of fear, I did nothing. 

I remember whispering to my husband.  “We should invite him over to sit with us.  It’s probably fine, and he’s probably harmless.”  Husband whispered back, “I know.  I was thinking the same thing.”

To the man who probably doesn’t have the luxury of the Internet, I’m sorry.



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