As part of our training curriculum for the Acumen Fellowship, we were required to spend a day on the streets to better understand the poor. As soon as we arrived in the office one beautiful fall Friday, we were required to empty our pockets of our wallet, cell phone, keys, etc. We were given a $6 metro card and $5.
I have often wondered what is the most appropriate response when faced with a beggar in the street. Too often, I have balanced the choices of giving or not giving in favor of the latter, without truly understanding the person behind the request. Through spending a day on the streets of New York City, I was able to explore the lives of the very individuals that I have passed without even a smile or a kind word. Much to my surprise, my stereotypes of the urban poor were thrust back into my face.
Rose passed by carrying a small, black suitcase and a clear plastic bag full of cans and bottles. She eagerly accepted my offer to help her on her quest. Her slight smile, gentle eyes, and grandmother charm immediately made me feel comfortable. Rose taught me which cans were acceptable and which grocery stores accepted our booty. Every day of the week, she started work at 7:00am sifting through trashcans to collect the five-cent rewards that were hidden along her treasure route. On the day that I worked with her, Rose only managed to raise just over $3.00 after four hours of work; that is less than $1/hour. What struck me most about Rose was that she didn’t appear homeless at all. She was quite intelligent, very articulate, and knew more about literature then I could ever know. As I said goodbye to my new friend Rose, she asked, “Can I have a hug?” “Of course,” I replied. “I don’t get many hugs,” she responded.
Shirley caught my eye as I entered Penn Station. She was a small black woman, sitting in a motorized wheel chair with a sign that indicated that she was a veteran and in need of help. I struck up a conversation with her and was immediately taken with her jovial laugh and joyful demeanor. She told me how she often comes to Penn Station to raise money to live on. I asked her if people were being generous and she said, “Well, you came by and it is a blessing to talk to you.”
Peter sat on the gum stained sidewalk, cowering next to a hand written sign and cup full of change. I sat down next to him and noticed the sadness radiating from him. I learned that he was from a part of Hungary that I had visited in May of this year. He had come to the U.S. in 1999 at the age of twelve with his two parents. Since then, both of them have past away from AIDS. Peter lives in a cardboard box on the street. He told me how he has regulars who give him money, but he remarked that no one stops to really ask how he is. When asked what he likes to do for fun, Peter remarked, “I don’t really have fun.”
The homeless don’t have feelings. They are a group of nobodies with no life worth living and no real value to society. That is how you and I treat these human beings when we speedily walk past to escape their disheveled appearance and jingling cups. Oh, we may give a few coins or even several tattered bills, but contributing to their plight doesn’t lessen the dehumanizing behavior that we engage in.
Each of the 35,000 homeless in New York City has a story. Many are just as happy as you or I, if not more so. Certainly, some have mental illness and others are drug or alcohol addicts, but that does not give us the right to treat them as if they are not human. During my day on the streets, I met eight individuals who marveled me with their resourcefulness, touched me with their affection, tickled me with their laughs, and rebuked me with their humanness. No longer shall I walk by without acknowledging their humanity. To give money to their cause is a matter of personal choice, but to give a smile or kind word requires nothing but a little courage. The next time, you pass a beggar in the street, remember that he or she had a mother and a father. He or she has intellect and emotion, likes and dislikes, strengths and weaknesses, just like you and I.
Photo Credit: Franco Folini