Last night I was in downtown San Antonio and I saw two cops with a homeless person. I and the riders I was with began talking about the homeless people and one of them used the term ‘professional panhandler’ to explain why they wouldn’t give money directly to a homeless person.
First, that’s their choice and I can respect that. But as I got to thinking about it, I realized that ‘professional panhandler’ is more of a means of survival than anything. Yes, I’ve heard stories of panhandlers on street corners getting into nice cars and driving off. But what if that nice car is all they have and they’re actually living out of it, or if there is some other circumstance that makes panhandling a means to survive? There is an old saying that appearances can be deceiving, or as I like to say, a single appearance doesn’t tell the whole story.
I was reading an article recently about homeless shelters in which homeless people described the shelters as shittier than the streets they were living on. They said these places were unsafe dumps with rules and people who were more focused on enforcing rules than making these places safe and secure in order to build trust and find solutions. And that got me thinking about how to make these places work better:
Listen to the stories people have to tell and are living, then work to earn their trust by creating a safe environment of people who will listen, and help without shame and guilt.
Because as bad as life on the streets can be, communities can be formed there, too. I’ve read interviews with homeless people who won’t leave the streets because they have people there they can trust, and because the people trying to help them haven’t done anything to earn that trust. Safety isn’t built on four-walls and roof, but from the people that live inside those four-walls-and-a-roof and take care of the people inside. It’s also people not forcing others into a box of their own choosing without listening to what that person needs or wants. And yes, homeless people can have both needs and wants because wants are hopes and dreams. Some people can spout beautiful bullshit about people needing hopes and dreams but will only apply that to people who they deem worthy.
Now another criticism I hear is how people are given a million chances and still piss on them. I know addicts can break trust repeatedly and there is a question of how many chances someone should get. That’s not a question I can answer. But I’ve read how a lot of addicts try to hide their relapses because of the shame and guilt they feel. So if someone is feeling shame and guilt because they’re human and make mistakes, I don’t think we need to pile more shame and guilt on top of that. No one can go back in time and do things over so why do we think that people who fuck up are supposed to do that? Instead, I say focus on the present and move forward because all we can do is learn from the past. We sure as hell don’t need to force someone to stay locked in the past when they’re right here now.
Now I will admit there are people out there who refuse to deal with their issues and use substance abuse or shitty behavior to avoid doing that. This to me is an absence of emotions such as empathy, compassion, and conscience. Because I feel that if you care about the world around you and the people in it, you’ll care about yourself. And caring about yourself does mean dealing with your issues and not projecting your shit about them onto the rest of the world. People who won’t deal with their crap because they can’t feel any empathy, compassion, or conscience may have to be avoided in the need for self-preservation because of that. Emotions and the ability to feel them are what makes a person human, and makes them understand their actions have consequences. So if I can sense emotions in a person and the ability to feel them, I say there is hope, and with enough time and patience, help and solutions might follow.
I think the age-old question of whether we are our brother’s keeper doesn’t have a single answer, or an easy one. But I feel we have to keep asking it, and keep working to find answers to it on an individual basis. And that’s why I always say everyone has a story to tell, a story that they’re living. If we truly listen to these stories then I think we can start to find solutions to some of the problems out there. And in order to help, we need to keep that story in mind and take patience from it when obstacles come onto the road to the answers. Because as long as we can feel empathy, compassion, and conscience in ourselves, and in others, then we can learn to trust. And with trust comes what I believe may the greatest gift to anyone: hope.