Today I fed a homeless man and tomorrow he’ll be hungry again.
More likely, he’s already hungry. I’ve eaten three times since I fed him and between feeding him and eating my own breakfast, I walked past three other homeless people. I saw countless more populating the street while I rode through on my company shuttle and I felt the presence of all 400,000 Philadelphians living below the poverty line who are now, or may be at any second, homeless.
400,000. That’s an impossible number. I finally understand why I can’t walk three feet without tripping over a man who deserves a bed that isn’t made of concrete and a source of heat that isn’t the steam rising from the subway grate.
Why are there so many homeless in my city? A better question: Why don’t they have any place to go? Are the shelters full? Are these individuals too proud to go? Are they giving up a spot for a woman or a child?
More importantly, why are we conditioned to walk by, eyes forward, pretending they don’t exist? Why do we shoo them away from our storefronts and chase them away from their makeshift beds like they’re vermin? What’s our plan, here? Walk until you die. There is no space for you anywhere.
I saw a man with his hair still buzzed and his clothes still clean. His sign held a disclaimer.
He promised not to use my money for drugs because he knows that’s why no one wanted to help. He knows because he was on the other side of the beggar cup not that long ago.
This person was walking around inconspicuously only days ago. Weeks ago, his life was that of a person who is not homeless. Now, he’s sitting on the street mourning his life, letting tears fall off his cheeks because dignity is a luxury he can’t afford. That’s how it happens, one day a person has a home, a family, a job and a life. Then, either without warning or perhaps with all the alarm bells in the world, this person is out on the street.
What’s frightening is the perceived worth of a homeless person. Rats, cockroaches, pigeons, impoverished men– all vermin. They’re in the way, they’re dirty, they’re scary. Why? These were once functioning members of society. Some even with college degrees and military medals. Most who once finger-painted and ate Cheerios dreaming of how they would become Batman when they grew up.
The whole situation is bizarre. The lengths to which we go to convince ourselves that these people aren’t worthy of our time, attention, patience, and compassion are devastating. We justify our withholding of help by declaring the man eating out of the garbage a drug addict. 34.7% of homeless people have a substance abuse problem, and many times the problem developed post-homelessness. 26.2% have a mental illness. Have you experienced the pain involved with strolling past a person who is in an active argument with himself while he digs through the dumpster for food? It freezes your insides.
So my question is, why is this still a problem? We have 3d printed houses, mass produced shelters, floating shelters on the Parisian Seine away from all the “normals” who can’t be bothered. Where is our big solution? Why are millions of people still living on the ground, eating trash and dying of treatable disease? Why is homelessness so glaringly invisible and boldly ignored? Why am I constantly being told I’ll “get used to it”? I won’t ever get used to it, so let’s maybe fix it. Permanently.