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As we opened the back gate of our garden towards a wooded area behind our house, we noticed a white tarp bunched on the worn ground.
My husband and I had been taking a little walk around the inside perimeter of our fence, checking its condition and notching up what might need repairing.
Having spotted this discarded tarp and having just read a great psychological, detective story called In The Woods by Tana French,(See Amazon link at the side of this page) our minds were racing.
We speculated aloud about what could be underneath…..
Had someone been dumping their garden waste?
Was it left over from a paint job?
Our imaginations escalated and the thought of a corpse was suggested.
Human or animal? we muttered.
Our nerve to peek under the tarp failed. We pulled ourselves upright and shook our heads at the preposterous thoughts we had entertained.
Deciding to leave well alone, we turned on our heels to amble back through the gate.
But something stopped me,
and I turned back to the tarp, lent down and gingerly, taking hold of a loose corner, began to pull it back.
To my horror, it started to unfurl on its own and I found myself screaming out in fright.
From under the white plastic blanket, peaked 2 startling, azure blue eyes. framed by a head wrapped in plastic bags.
Gradually a diminutive woman in a matted maroon t-shirt revealed herself and apologized for being there.
I knelt back down to her eye level and apologized for screaming.
I questioned if she was ok. She answered that she had come up to the spot to shelter from the cold wind.
I acknowledged that the wind was particularly strong and offered her a hot drink or something to eat.
She politely refused and lifting one thin jeans-clad leg from under the tarp, revealed her foot covered in a white rag that she began to insert into her worn sneaker.
Again I echoed my offer of something warm, but she politely refused and said she was fine. Reluctantly we turned and left her, plodding back into our garden, closing the gate behind us.
My brain was racing with ways I wanted to help her. I had socks and a warm sweater, sandwiches and coffee just a few steps away. I could gather them anyway and bring them to her. It would take just a few moments.
But how many times can you offer something and be rejected?
Our son, a volunteer EMT( emergency medical technician on an ambulance) was home that morning. He has often been called to homeless shelters, picked up people off the street to take them to hospital and interacted far more times with street dwellers than I have. I was so sure I could help this woman in some way, with a drink or something softer than a tarp to wrap herself with. So at my hubbie's insistence we went and asked our son for advice.
We repeated the story and I argued my case for going back out with a steaming cup of coffee and socks.
But my son's answer, stopped me in my tracks.
"No," He said. "You asked her more than once and she politely declined. If you go back out there, she may become angry with you. You have no idea what she wants or needs. She probably thinks you are calling the police right now to haul her off your property. "
And then it hit me. What did I know about what her needs and wishes were? I can't impose what I think she wants, because it's what I want to do. Or because it is what I can offer.
I asked and she said, "No thank you," politely and with grace.
In this case, bringing this woman comfort was to respect her wishes, make eye contact and treat her with dignity.
Helping her, it seemed, was to accept she didn't want our help.
And to walk away, so that she could leave in privacy, in her own time.
.....and so, reluctantly, I did not go straight back out. And when I went back half an hour later to check on her, she was gone, with no sign that she had ever been there at all.
We live in an affluent neighborhood. Many homeless people stand at major street intersections asking for money. Do you give them some? Do you offer them something else instead or do you avert your eyes so as not to catch theirs? I know I have done all three.
The Huffington Post recently reported on a new ad campaign called 'Make them visible'. In it, actors dressed as homeless people, took up spots on a Manhattan street. Their relatives having been invited on a false premise to the studio nearby, unsuspectingly, took a route that meant they walked past their 'homeless' family members, posing on the street.
Not one of them stopped or recognized their loved one.
Watch to see how the relatives of the 'homeless' reacted afterwards, to discovering they had walked past their family.
There was much discussion at the end of the article about how/why the homeless are invisible. Many comments criticised the experiment because many of the actors faces were partly covered or facing the same direction their relatives were walking in.
However the message was clear. Each of these 'homeless' people was someones' mother or son, aunt, cousin or sibling. Just as are many of those who are really homeless. Each homeless person has a life time of stories to tell and a unique reason for ending up on the streets. Collectively they are ignored on a daily basis
We did ask the lady we found under the tarp, if she had somewhere to sleep and she assured us she did.
I have thought about her so much since. What life events had brought her to that moment when she found comfort on a windy day, hidden under a tarp, behind our back fence? Did she have relatives who worried about her? Was she ignored on the street?
I am glad I took a peek. I'm glad I looked into her eyes and asked if I could help.
At least I can live with knowing I tried.
Did I do enough?
What would you have done?
Let me know what you think, about this scenario, the experiment or how we can best help the homeless, in the comments.
Looking forward to hearing from you.
Have a good week
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