One Step

We all encounter homeless ‘types’. I remember my Great Aunt Frankie as one of only two homeless people in my hometown of Ashland, Ky., while growing up. (The other was her long-time boyfriend.) We would roll the window down and talk to her or wave when passing by; my dad would give her rides and buy her groceries; and she and her boyfriend toured the town on foot with the typical grocery cart of belongings.

I assume that homeless, crazies, beggars, or bums have made some very bad decisions and taken wrong turns in life, either too hard to fix, or too permanent to undo.  I know that life can change in a New York minute and that I could be homeless if my road took a slightly different path. I grew up hearing ‘we are only one step away’.  So sometimes, while riding the long bus home, I see a covered bridge or obscure-looking hideaway on the side of the highway and note, “that could be a good place to live if I’m ever homeless”.

Some homeless people can be dangerous and/or crazy.
Some homeless people may also, simply put, be ‘people without homes’.

On my trusting way through life, money often leaves my hands simply because someone asked for it.  At least I decided to stop giving out dollar bills and stick to the change in my wallet!   Because I empathize, I can only hope, as I roll down the window at stop signs, that the money is actually used for food or shelter.  It might not be, but I cannot decide for them. I cannot make their better choice this time. As in all things, I can only hope for the best.

There is a raging debate, in San Francisco and probably all large cities, whether to give anything but food to panhandlers, so they can’t get ‘high’…. but that feels a lot like signs in the park that say ‘don’t feed the pigeons’.

Do I need to know the plight of each bum? Do I need to APPROVE what they’re going to do with the money I give? Do we think that, by withholding money, we are actually protecting them from themselves? Is “nothing” the best answer, when all they have left to swallow is pride? Imagine the humiliation, the feelings of self-degradation one must conquer in order to stand on a street corner and beg for help. How hard it must be, to sit outside a linen-clad restaurant, knowing that food is on the other side of a thin sliver of glass, as wide as an ocean. And then, to put on a show of forced cheeriness to a short-term benefactor.

I befriended EHM (my nickname for Ernie, homeless man) for almost a year.  We became friends because, one day while having a cigarette break in downtown Oakland, I watched men and women in suits so utterly ignore that he had spoken to them, that I asked him how he felt when he asked passersby for money and was ignored as if he hadn’t spoken or was invisible.  By the way, it hurts them too. Over the course of my nine-month contract, I probably gave EHM a few hundred dollars.  He knew my paydays; I gave him a couple of extra bucks on weekends since I wouldn’t be around.  I bought him an umbrella and tried to buy him some Sears shoes.  He wanted Air Jordans.  Dude, I’m not stupid! I participated in his well-being, I hope, and he participated in mine, to the extent that he could, by going to the food bank for groceries – cheese, canned goods, grains.  Which I accepted graciously and re-gifted in my work cube with a note for housekeeping to freely take, if they wanted. And someone did, every time.

When I told EHM of my last day, he tried to hug me and give me a kiss, which I backed away from. Yet, years later, I still look for him on that corner in downtown Oakland.  If we can’t give cash, can we at least give respect? We are, after all, in this thing together.

As for Aunt Frankie, she actually owned a house beside her sister, my Grandmother.  She just didn’t live there.  The rumor is, that when she died, her boyfriend took $20,000 in small bills hidden under the dilapidated floorboards that she had been hoarding for years.

One step.

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