When You Pass a Homeless Person, Do You Ignore Them?
When You Pass a Homeless Person , Do You Ignore Them?
[Image] A man sitting on the ground next to a wall, looking toward the reader, while blurred silhouettes of people walk by. A sign saying “Spare Change” is in his lap.
[Caption] When you pass a homeless person, do you ignore them?
[Image] A man standing and looking at the reader. His clothes are dirty and torn. His knees are bleeding. He is holding a rotting sandwich in one hand.
[Caption] I grew up poor. I wore dirty old clothes. I ate food from dumpsters. At times I was homeless. I was exposed to crime.
[Image] The man, shrunk down, in front of an open box with his arms out in a defensive motion. Two persons, shown from the waist down, much larger than the man, face him. They are holding a hammer that says “Shame” on the head and a broom that says “filth” in the bristles.
[Caption] The way I was treated taught me to be ashamed of my existence.
[Image] A man, well-dressed, stands in line at a coffeeshop. The barista looks bored. The man looks nervous.
[Caption] This will be ok. I just gotta fake being ‘normal’, middle class and well-adjusted… no one will find out.
[Image] The man is at the counter talking to the bored barista. The man still looks nervous.
[Caption] I’ve grown to be scared of social interactions. So to be “normal” I learned to rehearse them.
Barista: Can I help you?
[Caption] It’s exhausting. I struggle against an overwhelming feeling of worthlessness. I know I’m not worthless. But knowing isn’t believing. This is the legacy of my childhood, my homelessness.
[Image] The man leaning against the wall, will “spare change in his lap”. But this time the man is blurred out, in a silhoueette and the passers by are detailed and highlighted.
[Caption] So when you pass a homeless person, don’t ignore them. Ignoring is an attempt to annihilate their very existence, and can have a greater effect than you can imagine.
This is me. Standing in line at Starbucks, I mentally rehearse my order and try to predict the small talk that will inevitably accompany it. Through my nervousness and fear, I force myself to smile, to make eye contact, to avoid mumbling. I try to uphold the momentum of the exchange. On particularly bad days I just freeze, having forgotten everything – from what to say to what I want to order, despite the fact that I order the same thing day after day. It’s exhausting, awkward, and almost always embarrassing. I struggle to fake being “normal” and “well-adjusted”.
I grew up well below the poverty line. At times I was homeless. I ate food from dumpsters. I wore clothes that seemed forever to be damp, dirty, and reeking of filth. I was exposed to crime and addiction. I found myself alternately ignored and actively punished for my station in life. My nine-year-old self equated the punishment with responsibility and fault. I was taught, by classmates, parents, adults, teachers and strangers that I was deserving of both that life and their dismissive and often spiteful treatment. The alienation and dehumanization I experienced as a boy taught me that I wasn’t worth happiness, respect, charity, or friendship.
I believed it was simply the way I was: I was born this way, to live this life.
I learned that it was safer not to interact with others. I learned to distrust other people and their attention. Then distrust became fear. I socialized infrequently and with only the few people I believed I could trust. I therefore never got the practice, never built up social skills that come naturally to most people. That lack of practice, that fear of other people, and an overwhelming sense of my own worthlessness – things beyond my control – would direct the course of my life as a boy and young adult. It remains to this day the strongest influence on my life. I try, in my better moments, to divorce myself from the belief that this is who I am and what I deserve, but knowing that this is not true is not the same as believing it isn’t. I still live with the legacy of my childhood. I will forever struggle against my fear of other people, my low self-esteem, my anxieties and other aftereffects of my homelessness.
This is me, but it isn’t just me. Others shared that life with me, including my younger sisters. Some are experiencing something similar now, and more will come to experience it in the years to come. None of them chose, or will choose, that life, and none of them will walk away from that trauma unscarred.
It’s no secret that poverty, homelessness, and addiction can cause a person great harm. Yet society, on every level, still reinforces the harm and disadvantages of poverty and addiction by so thoroughly stigmatizing and marginalizing them. Fighting against this starts with the simple act of acknowledgement. When you pass a homeless person on the street, don’t ignore them. That is, essentially, an attempt to annihilate their very existence. Instead, look them in the eyes, say “hello,” spare some change if you can, and say “sorry” if you can’t.
Because, as it stands, this society gives up on, ignores, or actively antagonizes these people.
Because, at its worst, it (we) can teach a nine-year-old boy to be ashamed of his own existence.