As I pulled up to the red light a couple months ago, which takes forever when exiting the Starbucks parking lot, I glanced over at the homeless man at the corner. This was the second day I'd seen him there. He carries a cardboard sign: “Homeless, Hungry, Willing to Work”, and a backpack.
The day before, I avoided eye contact with him because I didn’t have anything to give. The thoughts running in my head: If I offer him a kind smile will he perceive that as I have something to give and come up to my car? Will he perceive that as pity and be offended? Is it awkward for me to make eye contact? It’s more awkward pretending like I have something to look at while waiting at the light, to be honest. It's more awkward for me to actively attempt to ignore someone who needs help.
That day in particular, my mom was kind enough to have a chocolate croissant waiting for me when I met her at Starbucks so she could pick up AB for the day. I was half excited/half “shit, there goes my diet again.” Normally I would have started eating it before I left the parking lot but I was trying to be good and I didn’t “need it” at that moment. So when the opportunity presented itself, I waved the gentleman over and gave him my croissant and the two dollars I had in my purse. This was a very easy thing to do for me, because I had breakfast packed in my car. I had a guaranteed meal.
I don’t want accolades. I don’t consider it brag worthy to be a decent human being to one another when the opportunity presents itself. As he walked up to my car, I glanced at my purse, wide open, in the passenger seat. If I move it will he see me and be offended? If I don’t move it, is it risky to have it close within reach of a complete stranger? Am I an asshole for having these thoughts?
He took the croissant and cash. We made eye contact. He was on the verge of tears as he expressed his gratitude (an expression that still sticks with me months later.) A car almost hit him while he walked back. They didn’t even notice him. He’d practically eaten the entire croissant before he reached his spot on the corner of the street and it crushed me. To me, it had just been a croissant that was going to “ruin” my diet. A delicious treat that I would have gobbled up, without even thinking about it, and then still ate my entire breakfast I packed, at which point I probably would have complained about being full and fat. What a luxury. He was starving. To this man, it might be the only thing he gets to eat for hours. For a day. Nothing is a guarantee for him.
Homeless people, poor people, and struggling people get a lot of unreserved and unabashed judgment. Why is it that we assume it’s their fault? That they must have been their own cause for the circumstance? That they’re to be treated with such disdain? Even if it were their fault (sure, sometimes it is), is it up to us to punish them? Turn a cold shoulder? Pretend they aren't worthy of a second chance? We are all part of the problem.
I work extremely hard. A lot of the opportunities I’ve had come my way are because of my hard work, yes. But for some reason, there’s a belief that if you work hard, great things will come to you, no questions asked. There’s a mindset that if you hit a wall or a hardship it’s because you didn’t try hard enough. I’m not ignorant to the privilege I’ve had. Sure, I work hard. I’m educated. I have lots of work experience. But I had help. Lots of it. I have a fantastic family unit. My dad was able to use his intelligence to land good paying jobs to support a family of four kids. My parents have a relationship that’s going to last and worked as a team to raise us, giving us kids a lot of opportunity. They helped me with homework, encouraged my participation in activities, and helped pay for my college tuition. They let me live at home after college. Heck, they let us live with them 10 years later so we could save money for a house. I made good decisions along the way. I made bad ones. But no matter what, I was never in true jeopardy. Even when I rolled the dice and left my stable job for a casting job that disappeared. We had family we could have turned to if it truly got dire. I have a support system that guarantees that even if I make a horrible mistake, we will not be out on the streets. Not everyone can say that.
There are a thousand reasons why people end up in the situations they are in. The economy. A bad decision. A risk. Shit luck. Poor support. Layoffs. Tragedy. Disaster. The reason doesn’t matter. The way homeless and financially burdened people are treated in this society is shameful. It’s quite easy to live in our comfortable bubbles, turn our music up, and sip our lattes and say, “That’s not our problem.” You know what, it should be. And it shouldn't be a problem to help someone.
The next time you have an opportunity, don’t forget them. They’re people. No one deserves to feel embarrassed for needing a meal and a place to sleep. No one deserves to feel embarrassed for needing to ask for help. Every day we have a roof over our head. We can turn the fan off if we’re cold, add a blanket if we’re hot. We can grab a snack if we’re hungry. We can take a shower if we’re dirty. This doesn’t make us better than anyone else. It makes us very lucky and very fortunate.
Instead of assuming the worst in others, why don’t we take a moment and lend a helping hand. You never know when you’re going to be the person on the other side.
*** If you'd like to get involved on a local level with a nonprofit organization, Conejo Community Outreach, of which I serve as the vice president of, is a local organization in the Conejo Valley that works to provide resources to families and individuals in need of basic necessities. Our Community Closet has provided resources to low-income and homeless individuals and families, in addition to families that just need an extra boost or a helping hand for whatever reason.