I’m heading down Boylston Street to grab a cup of coffee and do some writing. It’s 5pm; I’m done with work for the day, my headphones are in – I’m a man on a mission. As I weave in and out of foot traffic (go to your RIGHT, people. This ain’t Europe), I am repeatedly interrupted despite my music and rampant Resting Bitch Face.
First, some irritatingly chipper environmentalists wearing, you guessed it, green vests. Original, I think to myself because I’m mean. They call me sir and ask if I have a moment for Mother Earth. Now, I’ve already politely nodded through this donation pitch before, then lied and said I was too young to donate because I’m mean, so I avert eye contact and keep walking.
Next, a woman at the crosswalk waves to signal my attention. I take out one earbud (a telltale sign I’m not looking to chat),and she asks for directions to the nearest T stop. I point, since we are literally directly in front of it, and keep walking.
Then, I hear a man call out from the orange bucket he sits on. His sign reads “Anything helps God bless,” he likely hasn’t showered in a while, and looks malnourished. His voice whistles through a few missing teeth as he cries out to passersby.
“Anything helps. Anything at all.”
Still newly minted to big(ger) city living, I have developed my own response to folks asking for money on the street. We all do, as it’s devastatingly common wherever you walk. Some people give when they can, most avert eye contact and pretend they don’t see what’s happening.
Pretend they aren’t witness to the suffering of another human life.
I really do try to give when I can; though I rarely have cash, I will give smaller bills and loose change when I have it on me. Often struggling to make ends meet myself, I do what I deem possible given my financial situation. It’s modest and realistically, I could probably do more. If I can’t help them out, I try to offer a regretful sorry, no cash! and be on my way. But, since I was in the zone, I just kept walking.
“Honestly, y’all can keep your change. I just need a smile today. Can someone please just give me a smile?”
Through my music, my stream of consciousness inner monologue, and the sounds of the city, my heart breaks. Removing both earbuds this time, I turn on my heel to see him sitting on his bucket, smiling out with open arms, simply asking for the return of human compassion.
People, set in the routines of their day and routines of their privilege, continue on.
It never ceases to terrify me how being inundated with an issue can desensitize us to it.
Learning about those less fortunate makes us uncomfortable; as a result, we establish routines to protect from feeling the gravity of their situation.
This helps us cope and leaves us numb, a sacrifice sadly easy to make.
This man, so disenfranchised by life that he’s literally begging on the street, asked only for a smile and couldn’t even be afforded that. While personal financial woes are a good reason not to give money, I struggled to find a good reason why a smile wasn’t possible. While I know he also needed money, he was simply asking if he mattered enough to look at. If he mattered enough for a smile.
If he mattered enough for anyone to care.
The fact that he had to ask is devastating enough; a testament to a societal unwillingness to care for the most vulnerable among us. The fact that his call for help would go unanswered is unforgivable. I greet him with my biggest smile and an outstretched hand.
“Hi, I’m Colin. Sorry people aren’t very kind.”
“Oh, it ain’t that.” He replied, “We all got shit.”
After a brief conversation, he thanked me for stopping. Aghast, I reminded him that demonstrating compassion shouldn’t warrant a thanks.
“Well it helped, so thanks.”
I share this story not to perpetuate an image of selflessness. Rather, I share to perpetuate the reminder that everyone deserves basic human dignity and respect.
The fact that homelessness makes us uncomfortable can never be an excuse to diminish their worth.
No matter how difficult it may be to acknowledge their misfortune, we must remember that many of us are only one paycheck away from homelessness, and those struggling with it will always be more than the sum of their scars.
We all are.
We are all complete, whole, and beautiful people. Homelessness, and other adverse life experiences, can never rob someone of what makes them a person. The only ones with the power to do that is us.