This morning I went to a convenience store to get a cup of hot chocolate. It’s something that I’ve missed doing for about a month and a half now. With the health issues that I’d been going through I have been avoiding drinking anything other than water. So for me it was a type of treat.
Out in front of the store was a homeless man who was seated off to the side on the ground near the trash can. Despite the early hour, one look and it was quite apparent that he had already been drinking. Not a totally uncommon occurrence amongst many homeless.
When I came out of the store with my hot chocolate, he called out to me and said: "Hey, uh, excuse me, sir. But do you think you have some change you could spare?"
I walked the few steps over to where he was sitting and I found myself "squatting" in front of him so that he wouldn’t have to look upward at me. I asked him his name, which he told me and I told him my name. Without thinking I looked him in the eye and said: "Let me ask you a question – and tell me the truth, okay? What do you want the money for?"
Still looking me in the eye and not missing a beat he said: "I wanna get a beer. I already had a few. Can you tell? And I just wanna get another one."
I had to chuckle. At least he was honest about it. He could have gone through the whole "I’m hungry and I want to get something to eat" routine like many homeless do, but he didn’t. He came right out and told me what he wanted the money for.
I stood up and reached into my pocket and pulled out $5 or $6 and handed it to him without a second thought. As I did I said to him: "I saw a police car go by a few minutes ago. Don’t let them see you with the beer, okay?" With that I went my way.
I’m sure that there are some folks who will think that what I did was irresponsible. Some may believe that by giving that gentleman money I was actually doing him a disservice by providing him a way to further abuse alcohol. There are folks who may even believe that all I did was throw away money. But, I don’t.
I gave him that money as a gift. What he chose to do with that gift was entirely up to him. Who knows? After I went my way he could have changed his mind and bought something to eat. While that may seem unlikely to some, it is nonetheless a distinct possibility.
I personally may not approve of a person getting drunk, but it isn’t up to me to make that choice for them. I’m accountable for my own actions, just as everyone else is accountable for theirs.
It’s true that there are many homeless who get drunk or use illicit drugs. But, there are many non-homeless persons also abuse drugs and alcohol.
I’ve known many a professional who is addicted to alcohol or drugs. But, seldom are they looked down upon as though they were some sort of aberration. For the most part, we are willing to forgive them their addictions simply because they are professionals or well known business owners. And, because they are looked up to as "pillars in the community" we find it easy to look past and excuse their addictions.
In contrast, we seem altogether too ready – almost eager – to point a finger of condemnation at a homeless person who has an addiction and say: "See? I told you so. They’re worthless." Instead, we should be diligently trying to seek remedies and ways of helping them overcome their addictions so that they can once again become a productive part of our communities.
I’ve met many homeless persons who have addictions. However there are quite a few of them who didn’t have addictions prior to becoming homeless. To be sure, some of them were "social" drinkers before they found themselves homeless. But, the stresses of homelessness just "pushed them over the edge" and before they knew it, they found themselves enslaved by drugs or alcohol.
I’m not making excuses for those homeless who have addictions. And as I said before, I don’t approve of drunkenness or drug abuse. There are, after all, many people who become homeless but never develop additions. I, for one, never had the desire to use drugs or alcohol as a way to escape the horrors of homelessness. Yet, after having experienced homelessness myself, I can completely understand how a person could become entrapped by drugs or alcohol – or both. And, once that happens, it becomes that much more difficult for them to find a way off of the streets.
There are no simple solutions to ending homelessness. There is no magic formula – or at least none that I’m aware of. Still, I have this firm belief that we can find a way to significantly reduce the numbers of persons who are homeless.
It won’t occur as a result of passing laws and ordinances that criminalize or penalize the homeless for their homelessness. It won’t happen through trying to make them leave our communities. And, it most certainly will not happen if we continue to ignore the situation; convincing ourselves that there is nothing we can do to help.
I’m convinced that the first step in combating this disruptive condition known as homelessness is for each of us to look deep within ourselves. We need to locate that small seed of compassion that is inherent in all of us. Then, we need to tend and nurture it with the waters of humanity.
I suspect that once we allow our compassion to take root, it will move us to positive action… and, we’ll be able to find an effective way to help our fellow citizens who call the city streets of this nation home.