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COLUMN: The Homeless Paradox

Published: Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Updated: Wednesday, February 27, 2013 23:02


The hardest part about being homeless has got to be being ignored. But I can’t smile at every single homeless person I pass. If I acknowledge their presence, I have to acknowledge that they need help, and that I can offer that help, and I just can’t give money every single time I see someone in need. So I ignore. I ignore because I’m a young woman traveling alone in the city and I need to not get taken advantage of. There was one night over Winter Break when two people showed up at the door asking me to support a child in a third-world country. They showed me a picture, tried to make small talk, and asked me to donate 50 cents a day, at which point I told them the classic “I support your cause, but I’m a college student and don’t have the means to give this sort of support” excuse and made the retreat back into my house. But he had his foot propping open my door, and kept telling me I could terminate the account later, and asked for my email. I gave it to him thinking he would spam me and nothing more, but then he started asking for all my contact information and putting it into the iPad in his hand—at which point I told him I would terminate the account if he started one, but he proceeded to ask for credit card information anyway (which is when my dad came to the door and told him off). I was so angry that he had taken advantage of the fact that I was polite enough to give him my time. I obviously did not want to donate and he kept pushing to sign me up. You can’t just give money to a cause. You have to believe in it. You have to feel like you are doing the right thing. A better way to solve that problem would involve encouraging fair international trade practices, or supporting the U.S. to spend more on humanitarian support—anything that would prevent the condition those children face. So I hated that that man made me feel so insignificant, because I really did want to help—just not in his way.
Then there was one time in a Subway in Boston when a homeless man approached me and asked me to buy him a sandwich. Before I had time to think it through, I said, “No, sorry, I can’t” and turned back to the counter and he walked away and I never saw him again. I felt horrible immediately after. The extra minute it would have taken to pay for another sandwich, the few dollars it would have cost me, mean nothing to me, and everything for the dignity of that man. And it would have communicated to him and to the people in line that it is important to look after one another. And I could have set that example. I didn’t and I saw the dirty look that the guy making my sandwich gave the homeless man as he walked out. That dirty look should have been directed at me. A week later I saw a man asking for money on the street and went into the CVS I needed to pick up groceries from, and I bought him some water and pretzels, to reassure myself that I was a good person. And I felt really good about that, until I realized how dangerous it was to feel that way. Doing that one good thing does not make me a good person. I have to live in a way that keeps that man from falling prey to poverty and homelessness. I go home and buy into the systems that put people like that on the streets. My life is run by consumerism, materialism, propaganda, white supremacy. So yes, I can take a minute out of my day to give some money to a man I’ve never met, but then I continue with my day, texting on my smartphone that I didn’t even know I needed until Apple told me so, and I go back to my 50-something-thousand dollar school because employers now value a school with a quality reputation more than a person with a quality character. I buy clothes I don’t need because appearing a certain way is more of a priority than putting money into programs that might provide a safety net for people along the poverty line. I was raised in a good area with a good school and had people to rely on and sports to play and clubs to join because my county has zoning laws that keep the people with money in, and the people without money out, of my neighborhoods. Only when I start speaking out against the systematic injustice of poverty can I truly feel good about giving something to someone on an interpersonal level.
Editor’s Note: The views presented in this column are those of the author alone and do not represent the views of The Heights.

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