I call them drive-by people because that’s what I do. I drive by them, unsure of how to help or even if I should at the individual level.
They stand at all the freeway off-ramps in my neighborhood with cardboard signs. They haven’t always been there, but they are now. Evidence, I assume, of the growing humanitarian crisis in Seattle and King County: the Homelessness Epidemic.
One man sits all day at the exit from the Starbucks parking lot. He has a large backpack and a few plastic bags; I don’t know where he goes at night. I’ve seen him decanting cans of Coors Light into a Nalgene bottle. I’ve seen him asleep in the planter bed next to the sidewalk. Yes, I admit, I am made nervous by his presence. If that was me in the situation he’s in, I would want people to see me as more than homeless, I would want them to treat me with humanity and not to be nervous. But they would be nervous, despite themselves, just as I am. The visible fraying of social fabric puts a person on guard.
At the grocery store, yesterday, as I was waiting for the light to turn green so I could leave the parking lot, I watched an old man in a dirty winter coat standing at the curb with a cardboard sign declaring that he was a homeless veteran and anything would help. Behind him another man wearing several sweatshirts, two stocking caps and sitting in a wheelchair berated him. I don’t know why. Had I stumbled on a turf war of some kind?
In Woodinville, the upscale, Washington-wine-country, shopping village not far from my home, there is one man I have seen many times. He paces back and forth along a 20-yard stretch of sidewalk at the stoplight next to the Jack-in-the-Box restaurant across from the athletic fields. One day when I was at the fields to watch my 8-year-old son play a Little League baseball game, I watched the man from across the street. He walked as though his legs were broken, knees knocking together, ankles collapsed–to call it walking is to overstate it, it was more of a scuffing back and forth over that stretch of sidewalk next to the cars stopping at the light on their way to Top Foods, Panera, Ross Dress for Less, PetsMart, the movie theater, the wineries. Like all the drive-by people, he held a cardboard sign detailing his plight and his need for assistance.
No one gave him anything. He was pathetic. I don’t mean that as a put down or a rejection. I mean what the dictionary tells us pathetic means: “Adj.– Arousing pity, especially through vulnerability or sadness.” I was moved to pity (strangely, I am hesitant to admit to you that I acted because of pity–we live in an age that, I fear, has politicized pity so that when it comes from the “wrong” groups or individuals it is seen not as an act of selfless compassion, but, too often, as an act of judgment, as an act of patriarchal imperialism…or maybe I’m making that up…but I don’t think so). So, anyway, I pitied the guy and I wanted to do something for him and I was standing there with my older son while the younger one played baseball and I knew my older son was watching the guy too and he could see that no one was helping and I wanted him to learn that, when you can help a person in need, you should. So I told him to come with me and headed across the street and approached the guy as he scuffed back toward the crosswalk.
His face had been ravaged by some skin disorder, a good portion of his nose was gone. He had a scraggly red beard. Under the beard his skin was red, flaking, looked infected. Honestly I thought the guy looked like he was probably going to keel over dead sometime in the next 30 minutes or so.
I do not know how to help homeless people, I’ll admit it. I want to help, but there are too many voices in my head debating what is the right and wrong thing to do — one group of voices says don’t question, just give. Whenever you can, wherever you can, these are the socialists in my head; another group of voices says don’t give money directly to the person on the street, they’ll use if for drugs or booze…they’re not really in need anyway, they’re faking to take advantage of your compassion or affluent guilt, these are the country-club Republicans in my head, I try to shut them up because they discourage compassion and I can feel they are one breath away from asking are there no poor houses, are there no prisons to handle the surplus population or from declaring Let them eat cake.
In this instance, I listened to the moderate in my head and I split the difference. I decided not to give the guy money, but I asked him if I could buy him some food from the Jack In the Box next to his sidewalk. He paused and thought about it for a few seconds and then said, “Maybe an egg and sausage breakfast croissant?”
I was surprised by that. So very specific. I wondered if maybe I wasn’t the first person to offer to buy him food at the Jack In the Box. My son and I went in. I bought him the croissant. We took it out and handed it to him. He said thank you and pushed it into the deep pocket of his oversized coat. He said thank you, but he didn’t act like I had done him much of a favor. I have to be careful that the pursuit of appreciation is not my reason for helping when I do.
“I don’t know if that was the right thing to do,” I said to my son as we walked back across the street. “But doing nothing didn’t feel right either.”
That was last spring. I’ve seen that same guy on the same street corner in Woodinville almost every week since. Others have come and gone, but he’s always there. I’ve wondered if there is a homeless camp somewhere in the trees at the edge of the Sammamish Bike Trail. I’ve wondered how even an affluent town like Woodinville can now have a problem with homelessness. Then last week I rode the bus into downtown Seattle–a 20 mile trip one way. I went to a business meeting and then I rode back. In the front seat of the bus heading out of downtown and winding its way 20 miles to the moneyed suburbs sat the man from the Jack In the Box corner. He wore the same oversized coat, his beard was scraggly still, his skin flaking and red. He held on his lap a plastic milk crate and on top of that his cardboard sign detailing his plight and his need for assistance. Does he commute? Maybe his strategy for survival is to go where the money is. My question is how do we get money–enough money–to go where he and others like him are? Clearly that’s not happening yet.
Homelessness is not something I’ve seen a lot of in my life. I’m naïve and sheltered. It’s always been at the periphery of my experience. If I went into the city, I encountered it, but I could always drive away from it, back to the suburbs and there I could stop thinking about it. And I did. But the suffering went on. Homelessness is spiking in this region and now the problem has grown to the point that the suffering is visible in neighborhoods where we used to think of it as someone else’s problem. I don’t yet know how best to help.
But doing nothing doesn’t feel right.