I’ve lived in Phoenix for 8 1/2 years. I’ve seen a lot of homeless people. In fact, as terrible as it may sound, they’re part of the landscape. They’re there every time we go out. They’re there under the bridge. They’re there at the end of the frontage road. They’re there on the median at the exit ramp. They’re there at the entrance to the Walmart parking lot. Particularly lately, it’s difficult to venture out into the city at all and not encounter at least one homeless person.
I’ve given water to a homeless person before. Or money. For a time, we kept kits in our car filled with things like non-perishable foods, water, warm socks, and toothbrushes that we could give out when we passed someone in need.
And in all those years, and all those days, and all those stops… I don’t think I ever saw, really and truly looked into his eyes and SAW, a homeless person until very recently.
I was coming home from a yoga class, waiting at a red light about to get on the highway. The first man I passed was shuffling up and down the median, his head down, and his hands holding his sign. There was another, sleeping or passed out under the bridge, a rolling cart of his possessions on the ground next to him. And then I saw the boy.
I say “boy” because he just looked so very, very young. He looked like a teenager, but he could have been in his 20′s. All I know is that I could have been his mother, and he could have been one of my own boys. He was carrying a sign that said that he’d lost his job and his housing, and was homeless and hungry. He looked right at me as he passed my car, looked me right in the eyes, and sort of waved. I smiled at him, all the while panicking that it was the wrong kind of smile. Did I look pitying? Condescending? Kind? Sympathetic?
He smiled back …a sweet, tired smile … and I’m not kidding when I say I felt my heart rip right open there in the middle of the street. In those few seconds that passed before the light changed, I felt…. heartbreak and desperation. There are no other words to describe it. I looked around my car to see if I had something, anything, to help him, but I didn’t. I had no cash (I almost never carry it), no water nearby to hand to him, nothing to eat. I honestly think if I’d been wearing my watch I would have taken it from my wrist to give him something to sell.
But the light changed, and the seconds passed, and there was nothing to do but follow the line of cars getting on the highway. To him, I was undoubtedly just another car that passed by and didn’t help. But to me, he was the human face of something I’d witnessed but never truly seen until that day.
I won’t ever forget his face. I really won’t. He had big soulful brown eyes that had undoubtedly seen too much. Crazy, wavy dark hair that stuck out at all angles. Freckled skin that had spent a lot of unprotected hours under the scorching Phoenix sun. Innocent. Young. So very young.
I found myself fighting tears the whole way home. Not just because I’d done nothing to help him, but even more because I suddenly felt like a giant, inadequate, ungrateful ass. Driving in my big SUV, after a nice yoga class, in my over-priced Lulu clothes, going home to my safe, middle-middle-class neighborhood, where I’d enjoy a nice home-cooked meal and a couple of glasses of wine, before I retired to watch some meaningless drivel on one of our house’s five TV’s.
While that boy would still be standing on the street corner.
I tried to relate my experience when I got home, but it just didn’t translate into words. I found myself completely unable to explain why such a brief moment, containing just a look and a smile, could have such a profound effect on me. I was still shaking when I walked into the house, but no one really understood.
Well, I saw this homeless kid
We see lots of homeless people.
I know, but I really SAW him. We made eye contact. He smiled at me. And I didn’t help him.
You can’t help everyone you pass.
And around and around it went. Intellectually I know that yes, I can’t physically help every single person out there. My husband, who is used to and patient with the occasionally spewing from my poor bleeding heart (but who is absolutely not driven by his emotions the way that I am) said something to the effect of, “What are you going to do, give away all your money?” There’s a balance, and I understand that. I also understand that no good can come from feeling bad, or guilty, because we have things that other people don’t. I never want my kids to feel that way, so it’s not something I”m going to model for them.
I can’t help everybody. But Good God. I see that kid’s face, and I want to.
Where is the balance? Where is that “sweet spot” in between driving past a homeless kid and giving away all of your possessions to help? IS there a sweet spot? Or is there always more to be done? Always another way to help? Are we supposed to give away all our possessions in order to aid others?
Those aren’t real questions, at least not questions that I expect anyone to answer. Just a cosmic wondering, going out in the great deep void. I need to do more, and I don’t know what that means yet. Today, when I finish this post in fact, I’m going to go get the package of bottled waters in the trunk of my car and put it in the front seat. It’s getting hot in Phoenix, and if I put them in the front, I can quickly and easily grab one to give away the next time I’m stopped at a light. It’s a small thing, but it’s something I can do.
And the first time (and every time) I’m able to hand somebody a bottle of water, I’m going to look them in the eyes. I’m going to look them in the eyes and think of that boy, that face… and do it for him.