Almost every time I get off the highway when I drive into “my” city there is a person standing at the top of the off ramp holding a “Homeless and _____ “sign (Homeless Vet, Homeless and Hungry, Homeless with Children, Homeless and Unemployed). The other day 3 out of the 4 off ramps had someone standing there.
I hate this.
I used to give them a dollar or two, handed out the barely-opened window of my locked car door, until I was told (by someone who is fairly cynical, but also probably right) that these are usually people who are not actually homeless, but who do this as their “part time job,” and that there are plenty of services in Our Fair City designed to help them, of which most of them do not avail themselves.
But even when I would give them money I hated it.
I would like to give them cards for the organizations that will help them find homes, or jobs. I would like to give them a sandwich and a bottle of water. I don’t believe they want these things from me.
And I hate it.
I hate being confronted by my guilt, and my luck, every single time I drive into town. I sit there in my nice car, drinking coffee from newly-roasted beans out of a well-made insulated coffee mug with a full belly and a nice coat around my shoulders and a house to come home to that has electricity and heat and running water. I know I’ve worked for all of this, but I also know that I have been amazingly lucky — born to good parents who fed and housed me and expected me to do well in school and an exceptional education and some natural talent that I had the good sense to utilize and a husband with a good job. Some of it I’ve earned, and some of it I’ve tripped and fallen over.
It’s even worse with Only Daughter in the car. She hates that she has so much and so many have so little (and by so much I mean a full belly and a coat around her shoulders and a house to come home to that has electricity and heat and running water; we’re not rich, unless you compare us to the rest of the world). She feels terribly guilty and sad every time we encounter someone on the street or on one of these off ramps. She hates the idea that people sleep on sidewalks or park benches and pee in doorways and eat the stuff they find in garbage cans. She sees them and lets out this short little groan of despair; and I tell her “don’t make eye contact.”
(I’m such a good mom.)(I never have kleenex in my purse, either.)
There was this homeless person in the town I used to live in in central Illinois. Everybody knew him — his family had money, he struggled with mental illness, he didn’t want to be hospitalized and couldn’t live with his family so he lived on the streets, wearing his tattered coat and pushing his little shopping cart around and mumbling to himself. He was gentle and completely harmless, and I used to try to bring him coffee and sandwiches when I saw him, but invariably by the time I returned with the coffee and sandwiches he would have moved on.
I’m not heartless, but you can’t help everyone, and some of what I do professionally raises money for these very agencies which are there to help these people, but I still hate it.
Is it just me? Are we being manipulated by these people, standing there on off ramps with their not-as-tattered-as-might-be-expected coats and their pathetic little cardboard signs? Are they using our guilt, and our awareness of our own luck, against us? Or is that just the cynical me talking?
Why do I hate this so much?