We are all just one step away from homelessness. In the literal sense, as we walk around downtown Chicago and pass by a person begging on the street. In the theoretical sense, we could suffer a job loss, an illness, a financial setback or a combination of the three. We could end up homeless.
I became interested in helping the homeless for a couple of reasons. First, I have always felt uncomfortable with people who live on the street. I have been conflicted as to how to treat them. I had bought into every stereotype about the homeless: they are drug addicts or alcoholics, they are crazy, and they don’t want to work. I have always walked past these people, not comfortable looking at them and not wanting to give to them. I believed that I would just be giving them money to support their drug or alcohol habit.
Two days a week I take the train downtown to school. I see more and more homeless people. They are sitting on the ground, shaking their cups, and looking filthy and dejected. Sometimes I give them money, other times I ignore them.
I’ve never felt good walking past these people, making them invisible, like they are not human beings with hopes, dreams, needs and feelings like myself. I talked to my husband about this. He suggested I give to the ones who look like they are truly in need, like the amputees. Surely an amputee is not going to scam me!
The next day I did come across a guy in a wheelchair missing a leg and I did give to him. But it still didn’t feel right. All of these people on the street are in need. No one in their right mind would choose to live like this and if they are not in their right mind, they need someone to look out for them.
The other reason hit a lot closer to home. Last summer I was visiting my hometown in New Jersey. One of my acquaintances had just sold her home and was living with relatives. Her husband’s business had been having difficulties and they had some investments that went south. That was over eight months ago. She, her husband and their three children are still living with relatives. If you no longer have a home and are living with relatives, that is homelessness. These people are referred to as the invisible homeless. But really, both kinds of homeless are invisible.
My own fear of becoming homeless has inspired me to become a volunteer helping the homeless. I guess it’s a “keep my enemy close” kind of thing. I recently completed training to be a volunteer with LATH (Lagrange Area Transitional Housing), a Pillars organization.
I also started giving money to homeless people. I don’t care what their motives are. Anyone who is on the street with a cup is certainly a lot worse off then me. I look them in the eye whether I give them money or not. I say hello. When I acknowledge them, they are no longer invisible. That brings me a step closer to homelessness. But in a good way.
Originally Published in The Doings Newspaper in Hinsdale, IL