When you were young and the sentiment was not yet tired to your ears, you would feel bad for the homeless people on the streets. On winter days they would lumber into the warmth of the library with several plastic bags filled with their belongings, and you would feel simply awful. If in your search for a good book you started heading in their direction, you would be able to smell them before you could see them. That unwashed smell, sometimes with a sharp hint of something that you would later recognize as alcohol. This youthful sentiment would settle into the bottom of your chest cavity like a dead weight. You could practically feel the blood pumping harder and faster through your heart and if you thought about it long enough, about sleeping on the streets and not having a place to live, you would cry. That’s why you would drop what few coins you carried into the bright red Salvation Army kettles manned by Santa outside the grocery store.
Once, I gave Santa more than my usual smattering of nickels and pennies. I stuffed an entire twenty-dollar bill into his kettle and I gave myself a pat on the back. When I returned to the car with my mom, she asked me how much I had given and I told her. Santa had thanked me for my generosity, but my mom yelled at me. I don’t remember exactly what she said, but I think she may have called it a waste of perfectly good money that could have been put to better use.
“Instead,” she said, “you give the money to Santa Claus!”
Her anger weighed me down with shame.
Though I still felt bad for the homeless and still wanted to help them, I followed my mother’s lead when I went with her to the grocery store, not making eye contact with Santa at all when I walked past him. In time, I began to follow her lead even when she wasn’t there.
My mom once told me about her friend’s trip to Pakistan to visit family. While out shopping, she left her son to wait in the rickshaw for a few minutes. When she returned, he was handing out money to a huge crowd of people telling him their troubles and woes: “I don’t have enough money for rent! I can’t afford to feed my children! I’ve been crippled and on the streets since I was eight!” He had already given away several hundred rupees by the time his mom came rushing through the crowd with her arms waving like a madwoman.
“Those people are not really poor,” she said to him. “They have homes and cars and flat screen televisions, and they make a living off of gullible tourists like you.”
My mom wasn’t the only one spewing this line of thought, and I considered that perhaps she had a point after all. Then again, this suspicion could have been something particular to the South Asian culture. Maybe Americans had a different mindset on the matter, maybe they were more compassionate towards the homeless. The first week at college stopped that hope dead when I was subjected to a presentation about safety on campus.
“Don’t give the homeless people any money,” the campus police said. “By giving to them, you encourage them to keep begging. Besides, they’re not really homeless.”
I remember sitting still in Cahn auditorium, hoping that I had misheard but knowing I hadn’t. The words echoed in my mind like a gong. I struggled to leave room for doubt in my mind, but everyone around me was telling me the same thing: The homeless are not to be trusted. Later when I walked to CVS, I saw a man begging outside the entrance. He looked poor, smelled poor, and called me the most beautiful woman in the world, but I looked at him with new suspicion in my eyes. Are you really not homeless? Are you really not poor?
Last summer, I worked with Connections for the Homeless, a nonprofit organization in Evanston devoted to ending homelessness. I wanted to learn the truth about the issue. In my position, I had minimal contact with the homeless clients Connections worked with, but the few interactions I did have are imprinted in my mind. Some clients have mental disabilities and some are veterans, some are battling debilitating addictions. Many are more intelligent than they are given credit for.
One client I met was a middle-aged man who had graduated from college, done all the right things and made all the right choices, but when he couldn’t find a job he became homeless. On my shoulder bag, the organization’s forest green button declares “Jobs Abolish Poverty.” I finally understood the truth behind those three words.
Another client was a younger woman who looked to be older than her years. She was hungry for conversation and gave me her entire life story in a matter of minutes. She had been kicked out of her family home when she was young -– just sixteen –- because she had fallen in love with a black man. She has been homeless since.
These clients at Connections didn’t seem at all like the ugly portraits others had painted of them. They were real and they were in need. A case manager at Hilda’s Place, Connections’ transitional center, painted a more accurate picture with a song he wrote. The people he describes are displaced, misplaced and in search of a home.
“They say there’s no place like home,” he sings. “Then where is mine? Maybe if I click my heels, it’ll come to me.”