I think it is in most of us to want to do the right thing. That doesn’t mean we know what the right thing to do is or that we even take the steps to turn knowledge into action, but I am going to naively believe that most people would rather help than hurt others.
As an addict, I know the benefits of compassion. As someone who struggles with mental health, I rely on empathy and safe places for vulnerability. As a marginalized person, I ask others to be uncomfortable when it comes to learning about LGBTQ topics. I try to be my best self for others, but recently I realized that I struggle with my own biases too. And I, like so many others, allow fear to negate my ability to help.
While traveling one weekend on a business trip, I was approached several times by homeless or housing insecure people and instead of being kind and empathetic (like I generally aim to be), I was judgmental and scared. I avoided positive forms of communication, and honestly, I kind of hate myself for my recent actions. That’s why I’m owning them, publicly, and unpacking these feelings. I want to be better, to do better.
In the 2017 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress, an estimate of 553,742 housing insecure people were reported to have been sheltered or unsheltered on any particular night. That is a homeless rate of 17/10,000 people in the United States. A half a million people do not have a permanent place to call home.
There are many factors that lead to homelessness, and many (contrary to popular belief) are not self-written narratives. Access to affordable housing, mental health care, substance abuse treatment, and stable employment are major contributing factors to a person maintaining permanent residency.
And when someone does become homeless, their risk of illness, death, and mental health problems only worsen.
The CDC reports: “With an estimated 39.7 million Americans living in poverty, 19 million experiencing housing insecurity, and 27.3 million without health insurance, the risk of homelessness and poor health is a concern for 1 out of 8 Americans.”
This country lacks the proper resources to support its houseless citizens. There are many people working really hard to make ends meet who just can’t seem to make it happen. They are suffering. Their kids are suffering. And when held at a distance, I feel sadness, anger, and compassion. I want to help.
The National Low Income Housing Coalition reports that the cost of a two-bedroom rental in the United States requires a renter to earn a wage of about $21.21 per hour. Yet, the federal minimum wage is only $7.25 per hour; the average hourly wage renters earn is $16.38. The numbers don’t add up. Housing is not affordable for too many people. But it’s not for a lack of working. The National Coalition for the Homeless, reports 40 to 60 percent of the homeless population fluctuate between full-time and part-time work. The Urban Institute, reports that about 25 percent of the homeless population is employed. It’s not just a matter of “get a job” for most people. Americans are working and still homeless.
But then a stranger on the street gets too close, asks for money, or wants to talk, and I resist that urge to help. I place emotional and physical barriers between me and the person approaching me. I assume they are only looking for money for booze or drugs. I am fearful they will hurt me or mug me out of desperation or a lack of lucidity.
I am a nonbinary, trans masculine person with a female body, and I see them trying to figure out if I am a man or woman. People “bro” me, then “ma’am” me, then look at me with confusion. That place of uncertainty is where I am at the highest risk for danger. I become fearful and forget that there may be nothing to fear. I lack compassion and turn their need for self-preservation into a weapon, which I shield with my own self-preservation that looks like apathy.
While on that business trip, after getting fries and a Diet Coke from McDonald’s, I saw a woman sitting on a step. She asked me for change. I walked by at first, then guilt crept in. I realized she was someone I could safely hand a few dollars to without feeling compromised. I also felt more compassion for her because I assumed she was a woman based on her physical appearance and gender expression. Maybe she was a victim. Maybe she had a kid to support. Maybe she was just a lure for the man sitting behind her. I didn’t ask her about her story. I quietly handed her three dollars, sort of felt good about myself, and then kept going.
Then I felt really shitty.
I thought about all of those viral videos of people (usually straight, white, cisgender men) who hand out sleeping bags and food to homeless folks. I remember the video of the barber who gives shaves and haircuts to men on the streets. It’s not that white, straight dudes are nicer; it’s that they have the most privilege. Especially with a buddy recording their every move, they are safe to do good things. Their privilege protects them. Their privilege allows them to be kind without fear.
There is a chance I am just as safe to do good things too. But when a man extended his hand to me, asking if he could bother me for a little help, I froze. Would reaching my hand out mean I had one less to fight with if he decided to pull me in? Would that hand use the loose change from my pocket for something other than basic necessities? And why do I care? Something failed that man—maybe the system, maybe his family, or maybe himself. I was probably failing him too. I was not the compassionate person I know I am and want to be.
I know how valuable human connection is. I know how important it is to be seen and to feel like more than what I consider my flaws—which, honestly, are illnesses. Addiction and mental illnesses are not my fault. I have had the resources and support to get clean and work my way to better mental health. Yes, I have done the work too, but I am not any more deserving of empathy and trust just because I have a roof over my head each night.
I don’t know what the answer is, but there has to be something in between avoiding human connection and over the top, viral videos of helping homeless people. I don’t want to go viral for being a helper. I don’t want a camera documenting my good deeds for social media. I will look into volunteering at local shelters. I will find places to donate money that will directly benefit housing insecure people. I will try to find ways to make connections.
Because sometimes people don’t want a handout; they want to hold someone’s hand.
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