Encountering the Homeless

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By Torch (previously homeless friend of Christ in the City)

Everyone is a unique individual. Of course it is better to be careful about labeling people and making generalizations based on those labels. Each homeless person has his or her own specific circumstance, but all homeless people do have something very significant in common that defines them as a group: homelessness.

It may be difficult for someone who has always enjoyed access to a warm bed and who has never had to wonder where their next meal was coming from to relate to the problems of the penniless, marginalized members of our society.

However, noble intentions sometimes lead the self-sufficient into contact with the more materially impoverished members of their community. These volunteers providing services for the destitute may at times want to go beyond merely handing poor people blankets or serving them food and engage with them on a more personal level, such as in casual conversation.

But such a volunteer may also feel somewhat self-conscious about attempting to bridge the gap that so clearly separates the haves from the have-nots.

Is this you? Do you worry about getting personal because it might get awkward?

What if the conversation turns toward social justice issues and class resentment that remains unspoken is nonetheless clearly implied? Or what if the person you’re helping needs help mainly because of their chronic alcohol abuse which drives them to behave obnoxiously and ramble incoherently? Do you really want to get drawn into that? Or what if the person you decide to chat with has such terrible and tragic problems that virtually anything you might say about them will come off as sounding trite and patronizing?

I can certainly understand why, should these worries cross your mind, you might then be tempted to merely donate some canned corn to your local food bank and leave it at that. Well, the truth of the matter is that you share more common ground with people struggling than you might realize.

If you resolve to relate to homeless people not primarily in their capacity as homeless but rather in their capacity as people, you’ll come to see that most of them are just folks with the same common interests and attitudes as anyone else. Of course there are people on the street who are jerks and flakes and who will be rude to you, but there are people in comfortable suburban homes that you could say the same of.

At the risk of overgeneralizing, if you can speak intelligently about the Broncos, you have an ice-breaker with just about any homeless person in Denver. If you discover that a particular homeless person happens to be from out of town, just fall back to plan B: the weather. The conversation will go pretty much exactly as you’d expect based on your life experiences of making similar chit-chat with your neighbors and peers.

I once complained to a friend about the banality of small talk. He just shrugged and offered me these words of wisdom: “You gotta start somewhere.”

Indeed it is much better to start with “How ’bout that Osweiler?” than “I have a roof over my head and you don’t…thoughts?” because even though someone may be homeless, that condition doesn’t define them as a person and may not even dominate their thinking.

If, as part of answering your call to service, you decide to work with the poor, you will be able to accomplish much greater things by declining to view the homeless people you encounter as your charity cases and instead resolve to see them first and foremost as your friends.

Torch is a freelance philosopher originally from South-Central Pennsylvania, not far from where Hershey’s Kisses are made. He is a two time college dropout but earned a Ph.D. in “So That’s How It Is” from the prestigious but unaccredited School of Hard Knocks. Torch has been haunting the Denver area for over six years now, much of that time on the street. He lives alone and is trying to quit smoking.