Friday, April 1, 2011

Ask Maggie: How Can I Help the Homeless?

"[I have a question for you Maggie.] It is about your picture today of the homeless man under the trees. it's a little easier to approach someone in need when you have a dog.....but I was wondering what you do or what you recommend in different circumstances (more direct contact).

Where I live, we don't really see homeless camping in parks like in your photo or as I've seen in California. Obviously we have homeless but they're not in obvious places. however, we're right along a major interstate and in some areas people stand at on/off ramps near Wal-Mart or other busy areas holding signs asking for help.

They usually are in a spot where I wouldn't be able to stop if I wanted to - but one time there was a young couple with a dog standing on a cement island at an intersection. it was a 100+ degree day and they  had a dog with them, so I got a few big bottles of water, a plastic bowl for the dog to drink from, some treats and cash - told them to take care of each other and gave it to them. They seemed sincere and thankful and I was glad I did it - but when it comes to single men standing by the road....admittedly I wonder if they really need help, or if it's a "scam" (since it's near the highway).

What are your thoughts on the issue in general? Some say "if they want money they should just go get a job!" but you and i both know it's not that simple."

That's a great question, and I'm glad you asked. My experience is different than many. First, years ago my human worked with people who were homeless and mentally ill. his clients regularly lived under bridges, in elevator shafts, and in boxes tucked away in hidden corners. He has a certain degree of comfort in these situations. Second, our experience in Harvard Square is also unique: the homeless people that we encounter are always in busy areas. There are lots of people around and it feels safe. The human has worked in the square since 2004 and gotten to know the regular residents of the area, the transient residents, and a few he just avoids because it doesn't feel safe. He and I might feel different in a different set of circumstances.

So first off, I am so proud that you even thing about these things. That speaks volumes about you as a person.

Second, pay attention to your safety. Know the area you are in. Do not approach people in hidden areas, do not poke people who are sleeping or appear to be unconscious (do call 911 if you are worried for their safety!), do not approach people who for whatever reason cause you to feel unsafe.

Third--then what? What do you do? Do you really need to know if the people area actually homeless? Does it matter if they are scamming you? Do you give money? A cup of coffee? Something else?

None of that matters for me. The folks who line the streets and are tucked away in hidden corners are invisible. Take a minute of your time to watch the folks who walk past them. Some pretend to talk on the phone. Some avoid eye contact. Some show great cruelty and laugh or even spit.

These people along the side of the street are just that--people. They are people who are for a variety of reasons hurt, lost, and forgotten. Many in our society like it just like that: we can walk past them, blame them, or tuck them away in places where they cannot be seen.

We've never given money, and rarely offer water or other creature comforts. We offer something else. The human and I choose to see the people who line the side of the road. We choose to take a moment, stop and make eye contact, and extend a little bit of humanity.

It's hard to do this. It is hard to recognize fellow travelers in life. It's hard to make eye contact with a person on the side of the road and let them know you can see their plight. It's hard to say I'm sorry I can't help.

It is worth it, though. It is so worth it to learn how to really see clearly, unadorned, and without modification. In bearing witness to the experience of those around you, the possibilities of what might be expand exponentially. 

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