Saturday, March 15, 2014

Nobody should feel invisible

We’ve all done it. Driving down the street, stopped at a light, and to our right, a person holding a sign.

“Homeless. Anything will help.”
 
“Lost my job. Need food.”
 
And so, and so on…

I’ve seen people stop and give money or food. But then there are so many who, like me, are skeptical and give nothing. We’ve all heard it.

“If you give them money, they’re just going to use it to buy drugs, or cigarettes, or alcohol.”

And I’m sure that’s true in some cases. There are those who use panhandling to make a living. There is a guy here in Kansas City that has been doing it forever. He wears a Chiefs jacket and pretty much harasses and insults people who don’t give him money. I’ve heard that he actually has a decent home and lives well enough, but makes his money panhandling. How sad. And people like that make it harder on those who really need the help.

And sure, there is a chance that the people you give your money to are going to squander it on alcohol or cigarettes…but what if they don’t? What if they really use it for food? Or for a place to stay? What if it is the only thing keeping them alive?

I’ve thought about it a lot. I’ve driven by people on the street. I’ve passed them as I walk through the Plaza or downtown. Sometimes I smile and say I’m sorry, I don’t have any cash, and usually that is the truth. I don’t carry cash most of the time. But if I had it, I usually still shake my head and keep on walking.

But most of the time, I try not to look at them. Especially if I’m in my car. I stare straight ahead or fiddle with the radio and the window is usually up. And I try not to smile, because I don’t want them to feel bad that I’m having a good day while they are standing on the street, hot or cold, dirty, hungry, looking for a little bit of light in the darkness that they live in. I also don’t want them to see that as an invitation to approach me. And if I’m walking down the street and pass them and I’m with somebody, it’s even easier to pretend I don’t see them.

It’s sad that I’m like this, and I know I’m not alone. It’s easier to pretend we don’t see them, so they won’t try to talk to us, or so we won’t feel so guilty when we see the pain and loneliness in their eyes but don’t do anything, and just go on about our lives.

I feel for these people. I wish I could help. I wish I had some spare change to give them, or a snack of some kind lying around in my car. But I don’t, so I pretend to ignore them and cruise right on by. Feeling that twinge of guilt…for about a minute, until a great song comes on the radio and I start singing along, while wondering what we’re going to have for dinner.

But something hit me today, all because of a small quote I read on my Facebook feed from HuffPost Good News. It read:

“Here is a man who most likely spends every day getting ignored by people who are trying not to make eye contact with him so that they don’t feel bad not giving him money.”

And then it hit me. Without even reading the article, it hit me what I’ve been doing wrong this whole time. One of the worst feelings as a human, in my opinion, is to be ignored. To have people act like you don’t exist. To feel like you just fade into the scenery and mean nothing. I’ve experienced that to some extent – we probably all have at some point in our lives.

These people are already going through so much. Most are wondering when their next meal will be, where they are going to stay the night, if they will have to defend themselves from someone trying to take what little they might have. I can’t even imagine what kind of pain they are already feeling.

But then to add to it by ignoring them, pretending they are not there, and making them feel even less than human is even sadder.  I think I always told myself that it was better to just look away and not make eye contact. That I was doing it for them, not for me. The truth is it was probably ONLY to save myself from the guilt of not having anything to give, or not wanting to give anything if I did have it. I don’t know that they truly needed, they could be playing on people’s emotions and then using the money for alcohol, or cigarettes, or even fancy electronics. Why should I give my money to someone who might not be what they say they are?

But does it really matter?

What if they ARE what they say they are?
What if they truly have no food, no place to stay, and no one to turn to?
What if the smile you give them is their only proof that day that they do exist and they aren’t invisible or less than?
What if the one bag of kid’s fruit snacks in your purse is the only food they will eat all day?
What if one “Hello, how are you?” is the reason they don’t just finally give up on themselves?
Isn’t all of that worth the “risk” of saying hello and giving $5.00 to someone who has a small home, lives on food stamps, and uses your money to buy the party beer that night?
And even if you have nothing to give them, don’t you think a smile and recognition might just be better than nothing?

We aren’t rich, we don’t have a huge disposable income that we can blow on just anything, but God has provided us with so much more than we deserve! We have a huge, loving support system of family and friends; we have a wonderful church family; we have the physical and mental capability to earn a living, provide for our families, and enjoy our lives.

Some may argue that they’ve done this to themselves with the choices that they’ve made, and there are some who even choose to live on the streets. That all may be true. But we’ve all made bad choices with bad consequences. But not everyone has the same resources to bounce back from those choices. Not everybody has a support system of family and friends who can help us get back on our feet.

So what does all of this mean? For me, it means I will no longer pretend that they aren’t there. I will no longer avoid looking at them just to avoid feeling uncomfortable.

It’s not about me, it’s about them. It’s about making people feel like they matter; that they are just as important as anyone else. Nobody should be made to feel like they just fade into the background. Nobody should feel alone or unwanted. This world is lonely enough, why are we making it more so? I know that a smile, or a little money or food won’t change their lives, but it could make their day just a little bit brighter. Even if it’s just for that moment.

So please, the next time you see someone asking for change, or holding up a sign asking for help, please don’t just ignore them. If a smile and hello is all you have, then give it to them. It could mean more than you will ever know.

*The article referred to is about a homeless man in Colorado, standing on the street corner, who saved the life of a woman who had a seizure and passed out in the front seat of her car, and possibly several others. You can read it here: Homeless man risked life

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