My small dog is a trained street pooper, relegated in her upbringing to the throughways in a western suburb, lest she soiled manicured, chemically dependent lawns, or impaired the growth of Edward Scissorhands sculpted bushes. With such perfected beauty in a neighborhood came isolation and insulation. One didn’t have to see the homeless or destitute with their hands out. They were out of sight and out of mind.
Living downtown, as I do now, is different. Each day I come face to face with those who don’t get newspapers on their front step, since they don’t have a front step. Downtown, we are thrown together, sharing the same space though we have starkly different accommodations. I’m comfortable in the presence of the homeless, but uncomfortable in not knowing how to help. And the season is turning cold once again.
At my coffee shop one brittle morning, I overheard cops sitting and talking about a man who froze to death under a nearby bridge. I worry about the woman with her hair in a bun who sits in Chute Park sorting her possessions into neat piles. We’ve nodded as I walk my dog, but mostly we pretend not to see each other.
I wonder about the older couple I bumped into one morning as they rose from their lodging behind the hedge. I’ve passed by them sitting on the benches, his head lower than hers, eyes cast down, waiting for another day to pass. With the park’s refurbishment and new lights, sleeping and privacy are more difficult. Night comes earlier and stays longer in these darkened northern months.
Having spent time in New York City, I’ve perfected the hand of rejection if I am approached. It’s easy to ignore some, like the panhandler on Hennepin in his soiled hospital smock, who said he needed cab fare to get to work since his car had broken down. He was intently spinning his spiel until I reminded him that he had approached me about a week before with the same story and in the same smock, though a bit cleaner then. The people standing on the exit or entry ramps with the cardboard signs are a little harder, as the stories all differ. The fatigues worn by the younger men look to be genuine military issue. But as I try to sort it all out, the light changes and I need to move on.
I debate about giving them money for hot coffee or groceries. Mostly, I just have an ongoing debate with myself. It’s easier to make a donation to 501c3s than to be face-to-face, working in some shelter. Besides, I can get my picture in a magazine holding a drink at some featured fundraiser if I contribute enough.
It’s overwhelming at times. Where does one start? Why this person instead of that person? Might my offer of help be seen as an insult? Perhaps I could carry boxes of granola bars or lunches and prowl streets to hand them out; at least the encounters would be brief and controllable.
I rationalize that I do make dinner for the homeless occasionally and am willing to share what I have through contributions, though made mostly online so I can get the points for travel as well. But something is still troubling. Am I so afraid of coming to know someone personally who doesn’t have a home? Would I feel compelled to offer them a place for the night in my spare room? Am I afraid of being so affected by seeing poverty up close that I would not be able to comfortably return home to my privileges of fire, dog and armchair? Is my concern for homelessness simply a way to manage some feeling of guilt about having what I have?
Perhaps if I think about it some more I will know how to handle future encounters. Hopefully I will be able to decide which one of the travelers I will be before my next trip to Jericho.
Steven M. Lukas lives in Minneapolis.