Friday, April 14, 2006

If Compassion Is the Basis of All Morality, then We All Should Really Start Praying for My Eternal Soul

My Evil Safeway has a Starbucks nestled in it, right near the front door, which makes it convenient for those times when I haven't managed to make coffee before leaving the house. (And by "convenient" I mean "slow service and sucky baristas are better than no caffeine at all.")

Last week I stopped at the Evil Safeway and found myself at the end of a rather long, slow-moving line. As I was waiting, I spotted a man drinking tea and eating his breakfast of what looked to be cooked chicken and a baguette at one of the little round tables near the coffee counter. His general appearance was unkempt and I couldn't help but wonder if he is homeless. I tried to look for signs to confirm or deny my suspicion. At one point he stood up to adjust his jacket, and I noticed that his hands were definitely swollen and extremely weathered, leading me to conclude that, yes, he is in fact homeless. That being the case, I wondered where the breakfast came from. If it was Safeway leftovers, I love them for that. If it was donations from others, then I love them for that, too.

Homelessness is a "thing" for me. I don't really understand why, but it is. Other social ills are sad and worthy of our attention, but the issue of homelessness just gets to me in a way that other issues don't.

I've lived with homelessness since college. First in Madison, then in DC, now in Sacramento, I see homeless people daily. A decade later, I still don't know how to deal with those situations. Most of the time I end up ignoring people, which mostly makes me feel like shit. It's not that I don't care -- I contribute both time and money to organizations that help the homeless and the hungry -- it's that I don't know how to handle these one-on-one, face-to-face situations.

I stood in Safeway wondering how I could help this man. I knew it was not enough just to feed him, I needed to do so in a way that treated him with dignity and humanity. How, exactly, to do that was not apparent. Can I offer to buy him breakfast or a snack or food for later? But what if I'm wrong and he's not homeless and is offended and it's some horrible "oh-when-is-your-baby-due?" moment with someone who's not pregnant? We were too far away for me to make such an offer discretely, and I didn't want to broadcast this kind of information. Do I just pick out a pastry and give it to him on my way out the door? Is that condescending? What if I select something he doesn't like or can't eat? Then what? It's a nice gesture, but that won't keep one's stomach from growling at lunchtime. I went round and round with these thoughts as the line crept forward, realizing how lucky I am that I can spend $3.00 on a cup of coffee without a second thought.

In the end, I did nothing.

I was in tears before I reached the automatic doors. I cried because no one should be homeless or hungry, and yet so many are, and I can't possibly help them all. I cried because eighteen years of school and plenty of social consciousness didn't teach me how to react to these situations. I cried because that's what I do when I am hopeless or powerless and don't know what else to do, because if I knew what to do, I'd be out there doing it already, now wouldn't I? I cried because I'm a girl and I can. But most of all, I cried because I still have no idea how to treat this man with the dignity and humanity he deserves. I cried for half my commute, until 7:58, when I had to pull myself together for a conference call.

And when I got to work, I wrote another check. It is but a drop in the bucket toward solving the problem of homelessness. It does not assuage my guilt in the least over my interaction (or lack thereof) with this man. It is not enough, but it's something.


At Sat Apr 15, 07:51:00 PM PDT, Anonymous Kathy said...

At least you are doing something. There are many people in this world who would do nothing, not even think about this person, let alone all the factors that lead up where they are now and why. The really crappy thing is that the whole social services "world" does not pay enough for those who care and want to help these people but still need to provide for their family. Talk about a double edge sword.


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