In every community, we see them on street corners, under overpasses, and walking around carrying cardboard signs that say. “Homeless, any little bit can help.” But how many of us take the time to stop and help? How many of us get out of our cars, and spend a few minutes getting to know these individuals who are on a dozen street corners or stand in Walmart parking lots throughout our cities?
For most of us, we tend to look past them trying not to make eye contact. We drive past them glancing in our rearview mirrors as the view becomes smaller only to forget them by the next traffic light.
I have been guilty of this in the past. I would not make eye contact with these people because I felt guilty for having a few dollars in my pocket that I wasn’t willing to share. I would judge them for not being willing to get a real job and make a living like the rest of us. I would even rationalize my reasons for not stopping saying, “They will probably just buy alcohol with it anyway, so what is the point.”
One evening, a few years ago, I was leaving Walmart and saw a man standing under a tree holding a sign that said he was homeless. It was dark and bitterly cold. I was having problems getting warm in my car and could only imagine how he was able to stand there in the shadows asking for a handout. Driving towards him, something inside prompted me to stop and give him my last few dollars. As I approached, I rolled down my window and handed him my money. He gave me a smile and thanked me. Looking at my hands pulling away in my warm gloves, I asked if he had gloves and with a nod of his head, he pulled them from his pocket. I smiled and told him to take care of himself, but as I drove away, I wondered how long he would be standing there tonight. Where would he find a place to sleep and get warm? I thought to myself that maybe he would take my money and go to the store and get something to warm his bones. That night I didn’t care. That night, I looked him in the eyes and wanted nothing more than to help him with what I could and honestly, if that meant he was going to buy whiskey to warm up I was okay with his decision.
That night was a paradigm shift for me. I realized it is not for me to judge what a person does or doesn’t do with the money or the food I give them. If I give someone money to help them out, then it is no longer my money, and it is theirs. I have given them something they needed from my heart, and who am I to say how they should use what others give?
Since that evening, I find that I have found freedom in giving to those in need.
When prompted, I give without reservation, and I give because I am able. These days, I try to have some form of cash in my wallet whenever I’m out in the community just in case I have the opportunity to help another person out.
Over the past month, I have felt an urging in my heart to take this to the next level. I realize, for me, handing a few dollars as I drive by isn’t enough anymore. There is something deeper inside that prompts me to do more. Instead of driving by handing out my money, I have now begun parking my car and getting out to meet people needing help.
We Need To Stop The Silence
It is time we as a community start to hear the voices of the men and women who put their pride aside asking for a little help. I know it’s time for me to understand that these silent voices on our street corners wouldn’t mind being acknowledged as a person and give not only my money but maybe a few minutes of my time.
I truly believe we need to show everyone they are cared for and, regardless of their present circumstances, they matter.
I met Marcos a few weeks ago in our Walmart parking lot. He sat on a curb with his head cast down not looking at the cars as they drove past. He was hoping his sign would speak for him, and people would give him their money. As I pulled up to the curb he was sitting on; he glanced up seeing not only did I stop my car, but I was getting out and walking towards him. He stood up as I got closer and looked at me through the hair that covered most of his eyes. I reached out my hand to him and said: “Hello, I’m Kathi.” He reached out and shook my hand, moving the hair from his eyes and told me his name was Marcos.
He is 29 years old but looks as if he is 16. He came up from New Mexico to live with friends and after trying that for awhile, he admits it hasn’t worked out as he planned. He is trying to survive and get enough money to go back home to his family. I chatted with him a few more minutes, reached in my pocket and gave him a few dollars. I wished him well and walked back to my car to head home.
Once I arrived home, I told my husband about my visit with Marcos and felt like there was more I could do for this kid. Giving him money was good, but there was something else I knew I needed to do for him. I told this to my husband and shared with him what I wanted to do to help and my husband replied with a grin on his face “Do it!”
A few days later, I drove by looking to see if Marcos was back at his spot, and I was excited to see he was sitting where I last saw him. I once again pulled up to the curb, got out of my car and walked up to him with a smile. Again, he stood up but this time he had a smile on his face as I approached. I asked him if he remembered me from the week before and he nodded yes. I reached in my pocket handed him a few more dollars and told him I had been thinking about him. I asked if he was closer to his goal of getting enough money for a bus trip back home. He told me he was getting closer, but it would take some time to get what he needed for a ticket.
It was then that I looked at him and told him that I wanted to help him get home. I told Marcos that if he really wanted to go back home, that my husband and I were willing to meet him at the bus station when he was ready, and we would buy his bus ticket back to Sante Fe. Marcos looked at me with surprise and said “What? Really? You would really do that?” I nodded yes and told him he just needed to let me know what day he wants to go, and we could make it happen.
Marcos said he wasn’t prepared to go back right away, so I gave him my cell number, and told him whenever he was ready, we could work out the details. (Marcos has a government cell phone for those with low-income). Marcos and I hugged goodbye, and I told him I would be waiting to hear from him.
Earlier this week, I received a text from Marcos, and he said that if my offer still stood that he thought he would be ready to head home the 2nd or 3rd of July. I replied back that my offer was still there and to text me the date and time he needed me to meet him at the bus station to purchase his ticket.
As of this writing, I am still waiting to hear more from Marcos, but as I wait, I have learned a lot about myself, the homeless and those in need.
Lessons In Breaking The Silence
First, I have learned my heart wants to help everyone, and that helping isn’t necessarily always about giving money or buying bus tickets. Sometimes, the best way to help is by taking a few minutes out of your day to show someone they matter. Everyone has a voice and a story, but we as a society often silence those who sit on street corners holding their signs by stereotyping them as drunks or addicts. If we would take five minutes out of our week and spend that time getting to know their story, we might find that we are not so different after all.
People deserve kindness.
People need to know they are seen and not shunned. I have also learned that while everyone may say they want help, sometimes they just want your money, and that’s okay too. I am not sure if Marcos will text me again, but that is his choice. My choice was to listen to my gut and make the connection with him. However the story turns out with Marcos, I know he knows that one day, someone took the time to stop and break the silence.
Secondly, the majority of homeless people are not a group of lazy individuals who want to sit on a corner begging for our money. Yes, there are some who will take advantage of any situation, but we have this mentality in every aspect of life. However, the homeless want a job, a home and a life where they can support themselves and their families. Sometimes, situations and circumstances happen and change things in an instant that give them no choice but to reach out the only way they the can to ask for help.
Thirdly, those in need are not always homeless, yet. They may be one week or one month away from being homeless. This weekend I met a family who was sitting at a local gas station holding a sign saying “Need gas.” This young family of four live with a relative here in the city and said month end is the hardest time for them. They have jobs to get to, kids to clothe and feed, and bills to pay. By the time the last week of the month arrives, they just do not have the means to buy gas to get them through to the next payday. It is not hard to figure out what I need to do in this situation. So, I have them pull their car up to the pump, and I fill their gas tank up. While we stand there waiting for the car to reach full, we talk. I hear their voice and give them a few moments to tell me who they are, and to show them someone cares.
I understand that what motivates and drives me to connect with people is not for everyone.
It is up to each individual to evaluate where they are in life and do what they can. Several years ago, I just gave money, and that was enough. Now I am in a place where I can do more than hand a few dollars out of my window as I drive past. I can get out of my car and do a little more by giving a few minutes out of my day.
I also understand that I will make mistakes, and there will be some people I come across who will not be quite as receptive as most people. But I would rather try to reach out than to do nothing. I believe we all have a calling and a greater purpose in our lives than just going to work, raising our families and calling it a good life.
The silent voices of our communities are out there waiting for someone to show they care and help give them something to hope for and believe in again. And while we can not help everyone, we can help make a difference in the lives of one or two.