I used to see homeless people a certain way, mixed with pity and sometimes fear, occasionally contempt.
Those feelings changed over time.
The first turning point was more than thirty years ago. I was driving in Austin with my mom and we stopped at an intersection. A homeless woman was begging for money, and my mom rolled down the window and gave her five bucks.
“She’s not even hungry mom. Look how overweight she is. She’s just going to spend it on drugs or booze.”
“She’s a person,” my mom said.
From that time forward I saw them less as homeless people and more as people.
About a year ago I was talking to a guy in Santa Monica. He told me his story, which was a mixture of pathos, humor, and tragedy, i.e. life. “Can I take a picture of us?” I asked him.
“Sure!” he beamed.
But in order to get us both in the picture I had to stand right next to him, and he was really dirty and smelled bad. I was repelled. And in that instant I wondered why I was repelled? Dirt and strong smells are part of hard living. They have been part of humanity since humanity was a thing. I put my arm around his shoulder and literally embraced the thing that repelled me.
From that time forward I ceased caring how dirty people were or how they smelled.
The final turn ‘round the corner happened a couple of weeks ago in Ashland. A black guy said, “I been traveling all up and down the West Coast. Every town I come to, they say ‘Go away,’ ‘Get the fuck out of here,’ ‘This is no place for you,’ ‘Keep moving.’ So much hate, man, so much unwelcomeness. Then I got to Ashland and you know what happened?”
“People said ‘Stay here, man. You are welcome here. We will take care of you.’ So I stayed and it’s true. People here, they care. They don’t judge, they care.”
During that time I saw how groceries were given out for free on the town square, and how street people lived amicably and freely among people with a fixed residence. Although I’m not strictly homeless, I don’t have a fixed abode. Yes, it’s by choice, and sure, I could stop my peregrination at any time, and settle down whatever that is, but at the same time I feel like I have more in common with homeless people than with people who are not.
Even though I don’t look especially kempt, it’s obvious that a guy on an expensive bike with fancy touring gear who buys organic food with a credit card is teetering on social respectability. And let’s not forget “white male.”
Still, not knowing where I’m staying each day, and not knowing what I’m eating for dinner, and being at the mercy of the weather makes me relate to homeless people differently, without the pre-judgment and without the pity. Lots of homeless people are homeless by choice, enjoy it, and prefer it infinitely to the enslavement of work. I’ve seen so many homeless people who are in a state I’ve never seen in a law office, ever, the state called “happy.”
More importantly, I’ve yet to meet a homeless person who hasn’t responded with smiles and good cheer when treated to the same. At least one scary situation got diffused with a simple smile, this one under a bridge by Hawthorne Park in Medford.
This particular place is a gathering point for drug dealing, especially meth, and there is a large encampment along the river. While riding along the bike path as the sun was going down, a knot of men stood next to the bike path. They were scowling and checking out the nice bike as it approached.
As I got closer I saw the six or seven faces all staring at me intently. I smiled and waved. “Hey, guys!” I said.
To a man they broke out in smiles and waved back. Why, I’m not sure. Maybe because they thought they’d already been judged by some prick on a nice bike, and were taken by surprise when they were greeted and smiled at instead of having me try to speed by or stare at them in fear.
But I think the real reason they smiled and waved back is because they are people, and when given a choice, most people would rather smile and wave than gnash their teeth and shake their fists.
Haven’t subscribed yet? Maybe it’s time! Your $2.99/month keeps the pedals turning, the shutter snapping, and the pedals cranking. Please Go ahead and hit this “subscribe” link. Thank you!