How do you treat the homeless?

City scapeYou pull up at a stop light in the inner city and see a man sitting on the median, head lowered, holding a cardboard sign with crude lettering: “Homeless veteran. Will work for food. God bless.”

You’re in a hurry to get back to your car before the meter runs out, and a disheveled woman stops you and pleads for spare change.

Or you pass an agitated man on the street who is talking nonsense and cursing loudly at someone who isn’t there.

How do you treat these people? I’ve responded in a variety of ways to situations like these, ranging from buying people a meal and talking with them for a while, to ignoring them and denying them even the most basic courtesy–my acknowledgement of their existence and a moment of my attention.

I struggle with how to relate to these people, how to regard them, whether to do anything to help them. I make excuses–they might be dangerous, I’m too busy, they should just find a homeless shelter and get on welfare.

There aren’t always easy answers to the question of how to respond to the homeless. But I’ve tried to learn from some of my mentors about how to handle situations like these. Let me tell you a story that made a profound impression on me, even as a young child.

***

My dad takes my younger sister Stephanie and me into Baltimore city for a family outing one day.  My short six-year-old legs lag with weariness as we walk back to the car, so my father trims his stride to match me and my sister’s trudge.  But the memory of the bright orange cheese curls and the swiss chocolate rolls with sleek white filling that are waiting in the backseat of the car spur me forward.

The environment of the city is foreign to me.  I enter it from the world of tidy suburban houses and pruned hedges.  Tattered saplings stretch timidly from the desert of stained gray concrete.  Soggy newspapers with bleeding print clog the street gutters.  I notice crumpled masses of red and blue cloth in the middle of the sidewalk.  To my surprise, two men are asleep inside them.  Their hair hangs in dark points that pierce the pallor of their faces.

Why are those men asleep on the ground? I want to know.  My dad can explain any question my young mind can think to ask.  He can tell a tiger swallowtail butterfly from a monarch; he can unravel the mysteries of grown-up words like “insurance” and “budget” that I’ve never heard before; he can tell us stories about pirates and princesses and enchantment.  He can tell us why we should never look at the sun so that it doesn’t damage the little rods and cones in our eyes, and he can make a model with a plastic container full of juice that shows us how the liquid in our inner ear always tells us which way is up.  These men sleeping on the sidewalk are homeless, my dad explains, and a lot of homeless people sleep in the day time because they don’t have jobs.  They wake up at night because it’s safer for them that way here in the city.

We cross the street to reach our car.  But instead of leaving to go home, my dad takes the plastic grocery bag of the long-awaited cheese curls and swiss rolls out and turns back across the street again.  What are you doing, Daddy? Stephanie and I clamor.  He is taking the snacks—our snacks—to the homeless men so that they will have something to eat when they wake up, my dad tells us.  He does not listen when we whine about not getting to eat the goodies.  We can have some other snacks when we get home, he promises us.

My dad does not wait for our stubby legs to keep pace with him now.  He moves purposefully toward the bulky caverns of blue and red fabric.  My sister and I catch up and watch him tenderly set the grocery bag on the sidewalk near the sleeping men’s heads.

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