The mornings are crisp as I leave for work. Unlike the East Coast, you can't look to the leaves in California to get a reminder that mother nature's seasonal cycle is underway. Yet the crispness in the air reminds me that fall is finally here. As I contemplate a jacket for the morning, I can't help but think of those who spent the night on the streets, beach, or underneath underpasses.
As we all sit in our homes, equipped with heat when needed, adequate food on the table, and electricity to power our electronics, it's worth asking: what can we do to help those living on the streets? Although Los Angeles and San Francisco are in the midst of a homeless epidemic, they are not alone. New York City has also seen a rapid rise in their homeless population, while Philadelphia has kept their population steady. If you're interested in why the homeless population is on the rise, here are some resources detailing this growing problem.
Yet the focus remains not on the data, but more so around the human element. It lies in the people we pass on the streets. Even if we don't witness homelessness on a regular basis, realizing that there are people suffering, and doing something about it, can make a difference for everyone involved.
Helping others- regardless of their living situation- is grounded in compassion. Among emotion researchers, compassion is defined as "the feeling that arises when you are confronted with another’s suffering and feel motivated to relieve that suffering." Relieving the suffering of those on the streets is one of the toughest tasks our country faces. We have yet to figure it out, so as we begin to search for answers, it's up to us to consciously reflect on what we can do to help.
With that in mind, I tried an experiment. The idea centered around two questions. First, and most importantly, it is up to the individual to recognize when should I help? With mentally ill individuals and substance abusers living on the streets, it's imperative to be cautious of your audience and who you engage with. Second, I focused on what can I give? You never know when someone will ask for help, and at times you can have nothing to physically give. What happens then? These were questions I hoped to better understand, and since I live in Ventura, California, which has quite a substantial homeless population, I figured I would work towards finding a solution. So I chronicled my experiences over the past month and included a poem and picture at the end of each section to further what I found.
1: Food Comes First
The first and easiest option is to give food. A lot of people on the street don't know where their next meal will come from. I remember my mom always packing a lunch whenever she headed to Philadelphia International Airport. By the on-ramp to 95 north, she would always see a man or woman on the curb by the traffic light with variations of signs saying: "anything helps" and "God bless." Food is a necessity that most will gladly welcome. Only one time did I come across someone who rejected my offering. With a sign reading "anything helps" I presented him with a burger, fries, and water. He asked for money and scoffed at the food. I promptly brought it to another man who gladly accepted it. "Pizza Please"
2: Ethical Dilemma of Money
Although everyone on the street prefers money because of the independence it provides, the fact is that major homeless organizations suggest avoiding the transfer of currency at all costs. The biggest reason for this is that you don't know how that individual will use the money. This is another ethical dilemma I kicked around. Stereotypes suggest that people on the streets are drug addicts, which is true in some cases, but if we generalize and put everyone under this umbrella we strip them of their individuality. So although it's best to not give money, sometimes it just feels necessary. "Change-ing"
3: Lending an Ear
This option may make people uncomfortable, but I find it to be one of the easiest things you can give someone on the street. Typically, I end up talking with people after I've given them a sandwich or water, but as of late I've found that some people just want to be recognized as human beings and yearn for connection- even if temporary. If you have nothing to give, you can always ask them how they're doing. Frank, a man I met on the pier, taught me this. "Frank Who Could Fly"
4: Knowing When to Walk Away
Sometimes people are asking for help, but maybe depending on the location, or person, you decide it's best to keep moving. I haven't experienced that often, but it is absolutely something I keep in the back of my mind when walking the streets. Although you can always give something and continue walking, sometimes it's just not worth putting yourself at risk. "Can You Blame Me?"
5: Donate to a Cause or Organization
If you don't come in contact with the homeless often, or don't feel safe or comfortable giving to people on the streets, I recommend finding an organization or cause designed to helping the homeless. During October, all of my classes engage in a service project titled "Socktober." The idea started when a young man in Alabama wanted to help the homeless, and upon doing some research, realized that socks were the least donated items. Over the years, his idea grew into donating not only socks but any basic need items (toothpaste/toothbrush, soap, deodorant, etc). Warm clothing was also accepted. I adopted this cause four years ago and it has been quite successful in helping provide relief to those on the streets. If you feel inclined, I welcome you to join our cause this year. "#Socktober"
My mini experiment taught me a few things. First, it's that we always have something to give. Even if we just recognize someone on the street and wish them well- that's something. I also realized sometimes you just can't help everyone. Some people just need more than what you can give.
I decided to grab the jacket as I walked out the door that morning. I pass a man going through the trash, searching for anything to help him get by. He asks for nothing, and I have nothing to give, yet we look at each other- in vastly different clothes- and wave as the sun begins to rise.