I walked home last evening, flushed with the pleasure that comes from a great new hair cut and a beauty makeover. I had my Macy’s bag full of new Clinique skin care products, swinging back and forth in time with my steps. I felt on top of the world.
The man struggled with his cart. He had the entirety of his belongings with him: a moving dolly loaded with old blankets, flattened cardboard boxes, a milk crate stuffed with clothing, and plastic bags of every sort dangling precariously from the stretch-cords he used to hold everything in place. The man was trying to cross from one side of the street to the other, but as the signal light changed, he was still in the traffic lane. A group of women, waiting to cross with the other light, completely blocked his path.
The well-dressed women, designer hand bags adorning their shoulders and wool coats protecting them from the increasingly chilly wind, stepped off the curb. The man pushed, but he had lost his momentum. He stepped backwards, further into the oncoming traffic. Grunting, he shoved hard, but his cart stubbornly refused to go over a raised spot on the sidewalk. People walked around him, completely unaware of his distress.
I reached down to help him. He smiled, a nearly toothless smile, and waved me on. I realized he was not an old man, as I originally believed, but a hard life was written on his young face. After making sure he was finally out of harm’s way, I continued towards home.
My husband Matt has a corporate law job which pays, in his words, “an obscene amount of money.” We have a fantastic apartment, right in downtown DC. If I stand in the right spot, I can see the top of the capital dome. Hard work, and a bit of luck, has brought me to this place where I can indulge in the best restaurants occasionally, spoil myself with Starbucks daily, and worry rarely about our financial status.
I have one of those invisible disabilities, one which could just have easily landed me on the street, homeless. Early in my relationship with Matt, we were less than a paycheck away from being out on the street many times, but we always managed to find a way to work things out. Not everyone is as lucky as we were.
The young woman stood on the corner across from Union Station, a small child beside her. The people coming and going from the busy train station flowed around her, parting like ocean waves around an outcropping of sand. She asked, again and again, for a small bit of change, a cigarette, something, anything… but there was no acknowledgment that she had even spoken. I caught her eye and smiled. Her lips tried to match mine, but sadness and desperation filled her eyes. I handed her a couple of singles from my pocket, and told her I wished I had something more.
Washington, DC, our nation’s capital, is filled with invisible people. The homeless live in the shadows of churches. They sleep near subway grates where warm air rushes out with the passing of trains below. They build homes of cardboard back under the brush of abandoned lots, and they look forward to the van that circles the city each night, handing out hot meals.
My secret shopping assignment was to visit a Popeye’s Restaurant. I had a specific list of food items to buy, and a lengthy form to complete for my experience with the staff. As I made my way home, carrying the bag of food, I passed a grizzled old man, dressed in layers of torn T-shirts, pushing a Safeway shopping cart. There were no groceries in the cart, only empty plastic bottles, rags, newspapers and and worn plastic bags of every sort. I asked him if he would be interested in some fresh chicken and potatoes, still warm. His face lit up. “I haven’t had Popeye’s in months, Ma’am,” he replied, eying my bag. “Bless you. Yes, please!” I handed him the bag, and as I walked away, I could heard him make “mmmmm” sounds as he began to eat.
During the holiday season, news stories encourage (or more often, applaud) actions to help feed those who do not have enough to eat and help provide clothes, blankets, life essentials. When the weather grows colder, there may be an article about overflowing shelters. Missing from the mainstream media outlets are stories of police harassment, fences installed to wall off sanctuaries, deliberate beatings, rampant theft of what little property remains, and so on.
The vignettes above are of my own experiences. The homeless and needy of DC do have a small voice, a newspaper called Street Sense. It provides a chance to earn a small bit of money. It is an opportunity for self-expression through writing: news articles, personal statements, and even poetry. I highly recommend it.
Poverty and homelessness are not only current “holiday” events, they are constant and ongoing events. Those affected are so invisible that what passes for local news ignore them; just like the stream of consumers, executives, and tourists that parts around them on the street. This lack of notice borders on inhumane treatment of fellow humans. The government spends billions a day on an increasingly unpopular war, promises aid to foreign countries, and yet cuts the budget again and again for social services here at home.
So, the next time a homeless person approaches for a handout, take a moment to count life’s blessings. They may be invisible to most, but they are still people. Respect their experience, their situations; do not jump to conclusions. Let them know, in some small way, that they can be seen, they can be heard.