As a child, I quickly learned from adults in my life that I needed to be "careful" around homeless people. These were not ordinary men and women--they were in a category to themselves. These people were "dangerous" and "unpredictable." If I gave them money, that was fine, perhaps even benevolent, but I needed to be aware that it would probably be spent on drugs or a pack of cigarettes. Certainly not on anything useful, anyways. All in all, it was probably better to just ignore them, not making eye contact and quickening my step as I walked past them on the street.
As I grew older, I accepted these things, and, although I thought of myself as a kind and caring person, even an open-minded person, I didn't really see a problem with avoiding homeless people like the plague. After all, I wanted to be safe and street-savvy, right? And what good would engaging a homeless person really do? I'd be better off contributing to the cause of ending homelessness in some other way, where I didn't have to be personally involved or put in a potentially awkward situation. Right?
It wasn't until I was 19 years old, when I spent a week working with the National Coalition for the Homeless in Washington, D.C., that I began to recognize that the attitude I had developed towards the homeless was wrong, and hurtful, even. I talked to men and women who had been homeless, and I was surprised at what I found. One man I talked to had a college degree and had held a well-paying job prior to being homeless. Another man revealed that, while he was homeless, he had started to lose his mind because no one had truly talked to him or said his name in over a year. He said that the worst part about being homeless was when people would walk past him as if he wasn't even there. They wouldn't say, "Hello." They wouldn't make eye contact. They might even cross over to the other side of the street to avoid him.
It was at that point that I realized that I needed to change my attitude towards the homeless. I was the type of person that this man was talking about--the type of person who ignored the homeless on the streets because it was simply more convenient and comfortable. I realized that I needed to replace my fear and discomfort with compassion. These were people just like me, just like any other human beings. If my life had been a little different, I could easily be in their situation. Any of us could.
So I started talking to homeless people. If I saw someone living out of their backpack, I smiled and said, "Hello." I asked them how they were doing. I looked them in the eye.
Of course, I'm not advising people to enter into situations that could be potentially dangerous. But, if it's broad daylight on a crowded street and you see a homeless man or woman, go ahead and smile at them. Say hello. Give them the same dignity that you would give to any other person. You have no idea what kind of impact it could have on someone.
In the video below on homelessness, one of our employees here at Prodigal Pottery is interviewed about her experience with not having a place to rest her head at night. Her perspective is incredibly eye-opening, and I think it will give some valuable insight into a struggle that plagues over 600,000 people in our country.
For tips on talking to homeless people, click check out these resources: