Monday, April 28, 2014

Ignoring the Homeless. What would you have done?

What would you have done?

(If you would prefer to listen to me reading this post, click the arrow below)

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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  1. This is an amazing random act of kindness. Would you do this????Perhaps this is what I should have done!

  2. What a story! I am glad Aron was there to ask. I can't imagine what I would have done..can you leave some warm things in that spot in case she returns?

    1. Aron gave me a perspective I hadn't considered. I was so busy thinking how I could help, I hadn't really absorbed that she didn't want help. I have thought a lot about leaving out clothes, but I think that can raise a whole load of new issues…The whole experience and the video have certainly made me rethink how I would interact with people who are homeless in future. The story in my comment above, did make me wonder if I should have taken off my sweater and given it to her on the spot! Many thanks for commenting. Gilly

  3. When my younger son, Jason,was a little boy in the Gan, and we would go downtown to the museums, he would stop every time we saw a person begging for change and look at us and say tzedaka. We would give a few coins to the first person and then tell Jason to stop telling us - that there were many people who needed our help, and we can't help everyone- But maybe if we encouraged his wishes, we could have helped more people and shared in the values he was learning at school.

    1. Melanie -our kids certainly see things very clearly and without the complications we envisage. You raise important points though about once you start giving, where do you stop? How do we teach our children to put the values they have learned and we want them to have, into action? Even deciding not to give is a teachable moment if it's possible to articulate it in a meaningful way to a 4-5 year old.
      More thoughts on that? Thank you very much for reading and leaving a comment.

    2. Gilly-
      Looking at your response makes me ask myself- when he was 4, I responded to his request with the acknowledgement that he had learned about tzedakah well and that we are proud of him for recognizing when someone is is need- Do I continue to recognize these acts even though they look different now- do I tell him that he still practices tzedaka even though it's not giving a homeless person a few coins?

    3. Melanie -I'm thinking that as our kids grow our responses change as they develop. When Jason was 4, your response was perfect,re enforcing that him wanting to give coins to people in need was indeed the same as tzedakah ( charity).

      I think that as they grow we teach our children that there is a breadth to giving tzedakah and it can be given in a variety of ways to different people, places and organizations. We demonstrate to our kids, by role modeling our own ways of giving in terms of time as well as money and re enforce their actions and effort to give some coins or time of their own.

      A discussion about how and who we and they choose to give tzedakah to, also becomes relevant as does planned giving versus responding to being asked. Does that answer your question? Gilly

  4. Speaking of treating people with dignity, Northwest Community Church on 16th St. in DC does a good job at that. I have been several times to their homeless ministry. The congregation members and people who do not have a home spend serious time being with each other and learning about each other's lives. They have a meal together and play games and ping pong and talk. I have enjoyed it every time I've gone. Here's the link:

    1. Thank you ver much for that information Beth. I'm so glad there is a community for them to feel a part of and somewhere they are recognized as individuals.I know where I live many of the shelters only open at night, so any one who is homeless is at the mercy of the weather during the day unless it drops below a certain temperature. Gilly

  5. Yes, what a story. A sad story about the lost ones of our culture. I live in the country, but see homeless people when I go to town. If I see someone in an area with shops, I buy whatever food they request. But usually they're panhandling on a busy street, so I give money. My response always feels inadequate. I'm grateful we have good resources for homeless in Ithaca, NY--food banks, hot meals, and places to sleep. Some of the young kids are skinny and deranged. Lots of methamphetamine addiction in this area. Lots of poverty everywhere.

  6. That's so nice that you ask them what they'd like to eat, if you can. It means you acknowledge as individuals they have preferences. I wonder how often they get to choose what they eat.
    This what a friend wrote in response to this post, on Facebook...

    "I once asked a homeless friend of mine what the hardest part of being homeless was. He told me that, when he first became homeless, nobody spoke to him, let alone said his name, for 2 months. One day he was reading a comic and laughed. He was so startled and as he looked around him to see what that unfamiliar noise was. It was his own laugh that he had forgotten. He had been ignored so long that he did not remember what his laugh or his voice sounded like. "

    Not only have the homeless become invisible to us, they've become invisible to themselves…..actions like yours may give them back a sense of self. Thanks for all your comments Elaine, both here and on Twitter. Gillyx

  7. Another good resource is the MoCo Crisis Center (240-777-4000). They work with a lot of homeless, and a lot of them have mental health issues as well as physical and social needs. So they may recognize the frail, needy person under the tarp and be a first place to get assistance. Or, at least, useful guidance.

    1. Many thanks for that information, Julian. I will keep the number handy in case she appears at the end of our garden again. Gilly