Homeless, not heartless

Try to imagine what it would be like to be homeless. You might muse about the cold, the hunger, the thirst, the loneliness, the danger or any number of related fears. Would you picture yourself giving up? André Colter certainly didn’t. He is a full-time student, was recently accepted into a Masters program and has aspirations to open his own restaurant. Steve Thomas also didn’t. He began his own non-profit organization geared to provide affordable housing and entry-level jobs to homeless individuals. Amazingly, Colter and Thomas still live on the streets of Washington, D.C. They aren’t alone; they represent only a fraction of the drive you can find within the homeless community.

At the end of January, we spent 48 hours living on the streets of Washington, D.C., where we met these individuals. We did this Homeless Challenge through the National Coalition of the Homeless, an organization aimed at protecting the rights of the homeless and at raising awareness about the reality of the streets. We were not allowed to bring anything with us: no money, no food, nothing except for some tattered clothing and blankets. We had to construct a fake story explaining how we became homeless and were instructed not to break that cover except in extreme circumstances. We understand that while it’s a start, this is nothing close to true homelessness; we knew there was an end in sight, and we knew we had support if we needed it.

Initially, we were unsure of how to carry ourselves and how to act without giving ourselves away. This fear was dispelled the moment we met Bear, a homeless man who sat beside us in a soup kitchen. Having slept on the concrete in snowy, 20-degree weather the previous night, we were cold, tired and sore. Bear noticed this, and even though he had nothing himself, gave Blair Robison ’13 his extra pair of gloves to warm her up. It was then that we realized how strong the homeless community could be. It is a supportive community built upon their joint suffering. The homeless understand that becoming homeless isn’t something you choose; it’s a reality that hits you one day when you realize that you have nowhere else to turn.

The homeless community is strong because it has to be. They are each other’s only source of human interaction. When we panhandled in the streets, people were so averse to interacting with us that they would take detours to avoid us, even if the only thing we wanted to know was the time. Of the hundreds of people that walked by us, 95 percent wouldn’t even acknowledge our existence. Through panhandling, we only made $4 and a banana. The hardest thing about homelessness is the fact that your humanity gets stripped away. When people go to great lengths to avoid you or pretend you don’t exist, it wears down on your psyche. There is a reason that mental illness and drug addiction are so prevalent on the streets. Colter told us of several friends that declared that they would kill themselves if they didn’t receive a smile from a single person that day.

Nobody smiled.

Only rarely are you treated as a human, and it is in those moments that your hope is restored. One woman, Bernice, a junior at Salisbury University, stopped us as we walked through the streets and asked to buy us lunch. She bought us sandwiches, gave us all the money she had and wrote down her number in case we ever needed anything else. She even looked for us in the parks the next morning so that she could check up on us. Another man, Im, bought us coffee and offered to give us temporary work in a restaurant. Even though we had only been homeless for less than a day at that point, we were moved beyond words. Had we been truly homeless, simple actions like these would have given us a new lease on life.

How should you interact with homeless people? If you are able to, acting like Bernice and Im goes a long way. However, chances are that you can’t afford to spend the time and money to help every homeless person that you meet. But something that you can always afford to do is say hello, to treat your fellow homeless man as you would treat any other man, even if the other man doesn’t return the kindness (homeless people have grumpy days, too). Children do this naturally, but as we age, we forget this under the weight of our misconceptions. We must remember that homeless people truly are just like everybody else. They debate about world politics and Bible verses with profound clarity. They get some buddies together to rent a grill and watch the big game. They edit their resumes and apply for jobs. They laugh. They cry. They love. They go on dates. They have families. They dream. The only thing that they don’t have is a roof over their heads. They only begin to give up on these things when the rest of the world decides to give up on them. So the next time you meet a homeless person, give them a smile. It might just save a life.

Charlie Sellars ’13 is a physics major from Mequon, Wis. He lives in Milham. Blair Robinson ’13 is a chemistry major from Belmont, Mass. She lives in Hubbell.

  • As someone who works with folks living outside, thank you for this. Though I know the reality of what puts people on the street is complex, I also know that being a human being to each other needs to be a part of everything. Not all of us can, or will, give money to folks, but all of us are human, and the least we can do is act like it to other people. The word “invisible” comes up often when I talk to my friends who live outside, and that is how many of them feel, so anything that we can do to break down some of those walls that make them invisible is needed. As you are doing here.

    Thank you for taking the time to learn more and for sharing your story.

  • JB

    I think this is a great article, but I’d like to point out the other side. I often give food and money to the many homeless people in my city and neighborhood. I make eye contact and apologize if I don’t have the cash or means to fulfill someone’s request for help that day. I treat every person as the human being they are, but I do not smile at men who are strangers. Back when I would return greetings with a smile, I would find myself harassed and followed on my walk home by mentally unbalanced men, who happened to be homeless. This happened several times, and now I fear “leading people on” as I’ve had screamed at me. I don’t smile at homeless men out of concern for my safety, not because I think any less of homeless people.