The idea of being homeless really troubles me, as I am sure it does most people. More than just being upset that the homeless lack food, warmth and shelter, I find myself worried about what their situation must do to their psyche. Home is a refuge. It is a place to which you retreat after a difficult day. It is full of good smells, warmth, security and love. I understand that not everyone who has a home views it as a refuge or has all the items I listed a home having, but if nothing else, a home does provide them shelter and a sense of place and belonging. My heart goes out to every homeless person I encounter and I immediately want to help them.
Yet, I never quite know the best way for me to help a homeless person. I have tried a variety of approaches. When we lived in the SF Bay Area I would save spare change and whenever I went into San Francisco, Berkeley or Oakland I would fill my pockets with change to hand out as I went along. I have bought coffee, breakfast and a slices of pizza for homeless people. I have given homeless people food when volunteering at the food pantry. I once paid an artistically talented homeless man, whom I had gotten to know in Berkeley, to draw a picture for me which hangs on the wall in my home to this day.
This past weekend my family went to Washington, D.C., and while there we encountered what was for me a new homeless situation–a homeless child. I have encountered runaway youth who are living homeless on the streets and homeless people with a variety of pets, but I have never knowingly encountered a child. We were walking to the restaurant where we were going to have lunch and a few doors down from the restaurant was a homeless mother and her little girl. The little girl was coloring and beside her was a teddy bear. I was upset by the sight and in my embarrassment I just rushed past and into the restaurant.
I had decided shortly after sitting down that I would put a few dollars in my pocket to give them on my way out. We ordered our food and talked about the museum we had just visited. As we sat eating, my youngest son out of the blue asked, “Are we going to do something for them?” I knew immediately what he meant and told him I had taken some money out for them and if he would like, he could give it to them. As we left the restaurant my son, with money in hand, approached the mother and daughter. He gave them the money, but as he returned I could tell he was still really bothered by their situation. He had not finished his meal of French toast and I asked him if he would like to go give the little girl his remaining slices. After deliberating a few seconds, because he really likes French toast, he said that he would like to share his meal with her and took his doggie bag over to them. We were both still heavyhearted and talked as we walked about our feelings and frustrations.
Included in my frustrations if the fact that homelessness, like food insecurity, is a problem we can almost entirely eliminate, but as a society, we seem to have chosen not address homelessness in any serious manner. I am assuming we have made this choice because, like eliminating food insecurity, significantly shrinking the homeless population will cost money. The homeless population would undoubtedly shrink if we adequately funded society’s safety nets, the resources available to our veterans, resources for those needing mental health assistance and universal healthcare.
Recently I have heard comments about not taking in any more refugees or other immigrants until we can take care of our own, including our veterans. This statement is said as if the United States is currently doing everything it can to care for its citizens and that is stretching us too thin to shoulder the responsibility for any others. I would argue that we have done pitifully little to care for our own. I told my son he had done a really good thing and that he helped that mother and little girl, and he did, but the painful reality is that the solitary actions of my family will do nothing to truly help that mother and child in any meaningful way. This inability to truly help or change their situation upsets me greatly, and is the cause of the embarrassment I felt when I first saw the mother and daughter. I want to help this woman and her child, but I am powerless and saddened by the knowledge that it doesn’t have to be this way.