A couple of weeks ago I was celebrating Mardi Gras with friends in the French Quarter. It was Saturday afternoon, and we were trying to kill time before the Endymion parade started. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed a scene. A homeless man lay sleeping in a doorway, while a man in a bright orange t-shirt posed over him as his friends took a photo. I was disgusted by the lack of human dignity these men portrayed. “Being homeless doesn’t make him less of a person,” I thought. “Being homeless does not make him an object of scorn and ridicule.” I thought these things, and yet I did nothing and said nothing. My mind justified that it was better to give them a disapproving look than risk instigating a fight. Still, when I looked back on it later I regretted not sticking up for that man. I was better than that.
Yesterday, I was driving home from work on a beautiful day, a perfect 75 degrees without a cloud in the sky. There’s a particular corner on my commute that is a popular spot for panhandlers. On this day, I saw a man I’ve seen there before, wearing jeans and a dirty blue sweatshirt. His sign was simple, “Homeless Please Help.” As traffic stopped he began walking up the line of cars. When he reached my car, he looked at me, smiled, and waved. I immediately averted my gaze so we wouldn’t make eye contact. He continued on. When traffic began moving I looked in my rearview mirror to see him walking back to the corner, his sign at his side and his head hung down in defeat. I felt immense shame and guilt in that moment. By refusing to look at this man, how was I any better than those who were posing with the man in the French Quarter? We have been conditioned to treat the homeless as sub-human. Don’t look at them, you’ll encourage them. Don’t give them money, they’ll just spend it on drugs. Don’t you know some of them have regular jobs and are just trying to scam you? I’ve heard it all and more. Somewhere along the line this type of thinking was burned into my brain. I’m ashamed that I’ve felt this way, that I’ve thought these things. I’m ashamed that I didn’t have the decency to return that man’s smile. He may not have a home, but he is not any less of a person.
I vow to no longer treat the homeless population with anything less than kindness and respect. I pray I will see the man in the dirty blue sweatshirt again, so that I may apologize to him for averting his gaze and give him some money to make his day a bit brighter. It is not my business what he does with that money. I get to keep driving to my beautiful apartment with central heat, air conditioning, and a refrigerator stocked with food. I am in no place to judge him or anyone else in his situation, and I will do my best to remember that every day.