I started my pretty average morning by driving to Starbucks with my pup in my lap and coffee on my mind. On my way back, however, I noticed a man on the side of the street - a homeless man (let's call him Henry; he looked like a Henry.) . He was staring at an ad for a recycling company that read "Your family will thank you" and featured a very obviously fake family, surrounding what I assume was their recycling bill and smiling.
I didn't really pay attention at first. I saw him there. I looked away. As I was sitting at a light, I looked back over to see the same man standing in the same place staring at the same sign. He began to shake his head in what looked like sadness. In that moment, I realized what I was looking at. Here's this homeless man, Henry, shaking his head at a picture-perfect family. I wondered what he was thinking. He was completely oblivious to my stares and thoughts. Was he shaking his head at this unrealistic idea being portrayed by this family? Was he thinking about his own family? OR does he just think recycling is stupid and I'm completely over-thinking this moment (per usual)? I sat there in my car with my coffee in one hand, phone in the other, and my pup in my lap. I felt guilty. I felt sad for Henry, regardless of what was actually going through his mind. I wanted to tell him that there's hope. But, of course, as the light turned green, as it always does, I pressed the gas and continued on my way.
I wish I had stopped. I wish I had reached out. I couldn't stop thinking about Henry and people like him. We pass them by. We ignore them. We pretend they are invisible. But, in that moment, I couldn't ignore Henry. In that moment, I saw his humanity. Henry is human. And has always been, but we decide to forget to notice and acknowledge it. I think I couldn't stop staring at Henry because I realized I am no different. I realized that I could be him or he could be me. We are just products of different circumstances, different decisions, or some combination of the two, but we are both humans. He is still flesh and blood, thoughts, feelings, and emotions. He gets lonely. He gets tired. He misses people. He loves people. He gets hurt. He has dreams and desires. He has or had a family somewhere. He has a story.
Maybe homelessness isn't the problem, maybe we are the problem. Maybe the way we treat the homeless is the problem. Or the way we don't. We forget to acknowledge the humanity of people like Henry. It's easy to pass by in silence or mumble that you don't have any spare change. It easy to look down at your phone when you see someone holding up a sign that says "I'm just hungry." And, it's easy to drive by a man like Henry. It's easy to ignore because we don't want to deal with the fact that it's real and that people need our help. We think we can't help everyone so why help this one person.
But we can. We have to. Because they have names. They aren't ghosts. They deserve to be acknowledged and recognized for who they are, human beings.
We may not always have money to give or the time to stop, but we are always in control of how we treat people. We are all looking for something, someone, or somewhere. Maybe the things we are searching for are found on our journey of helping others. Maybe our utmost desires are discovered in our attempts to better the world. We need to start by acknowledging our humanity - our existence. Even just a simple smile to a fellow human who’s a bit down on their luck is a step in the right direction.
I wish I had stopped. And next time I will.