I almost said, “But you’re not homeless!” as I held unto the food with both hands staring with some consternation at the well dressed guy standing in front of me.
He earnestly said, “You’re giving out food right? Well I’m hungry, I haven’t eaten all day.” Immediately I handed over the meal and was instantly apologetic.
In my mind, the homeless and hungry had to be dirty, in torn clothing, most probably crazy. Not this clean man, in clean clothes and of apparently sound mind. You see, I was doing a personal thanksgiving for all the blessings I have been receiving by distributing 30 meals I prepared, to the homeless in the city where I worked.
While we were driving around Woodford Square, which is a park in the down town area, looking for parking, I said to my brother-in-law, I don’t think these people are homeless, we’ll have to look elsewhere. I spied one guy who fit my mental description of a homeless person and he was the one I was homing in on when I was swamped by MOST of the people sitting in the square.
It was then, looking with new eyes, I saw the bags of what appeared to be belongings on top of the various tables they were sitting at. I looked a little closer at the faces and they were gaunt, up close, their clothes though clean were not in the best condition. They were all grateful for the meal.
I, on the other hand felt two things.
I was happy that I was able to distribute all the meals and I was ashamed that I thought I knew what poverty/homelessness looked like. Yes, it might look dirty and unkempt, smelly and crazy. But it can also appear clean, well-dressed, well-mannered and educated. This thanksgiving has taught me so much about myself. I underestimated the amount of work involved because I was happy thinking about the result and I wanted to OWN the result all by myself, completely ignoring the process and the hard work it would take to get there. What was supposed to be a lunchtime meal, turned into dinner, since I was only able to distribute by 4:00 p.m. I suppose it was the perfect time and I shouldn’t worry too much it, but had I accepted the help offered in getting the meal together, I might have been able to stick to my goal of a lunchtime meal. There was a part of me that wanted all the credit for this. I can see that now.
I had this mental picture of what a homeless person should look like, and you should know as well, that even though I use the word homeless, in my mind that translates to poor person. I am guilty of stereotyping. Thing is, I only realized what my true thoughts were, in that moment when that guy walked up to me.
This got me thinking about what poverty truly looks like.
Yes, if you called to mind what you thought a poor person looks like right now, that would be correct in most cases. But poverty is also, the “well-dressed” person sitting in a square, with other well-dressed people, who all had nothing to eat for the day.
There is a thought that poverty is for the lazy. I know I had a vision of what a homeless person looks like. So it would be correct to think that there are people who also suppose, that people are poor because they want to be. Poverty is complicated. I am not disputing the fact that there are some truly lazy “hard-back” men and women who refuse to work and are willing to live off of the sweat of others. Yes there are those who beg, because they can. But not everybody is out to scam the system. There are people with full-time jobs who still cannot achieve the most basic standard of living. Imagine for those with part-time employment.
I see the desolation of it everyday, because the homeless/poor frequent the downtown area where I work. But what about the poor with homes? And that for me is the alarming part. This is poverty that is hidden. My life would have been very different if my mother didn’t rise above the many challenges she faced as a single parent. This is why I was shocked at myself for having stereotyped the homeless. I should have known better.
Can poverty, a problem as complex as it is, ever be solved? How can we help? Solutions are possible. But we must first have a government serious about reducing poverty and homelessness; throwing money at a problem is not always a cure, sometimes it’s just a band-aid. The rest of us must care enough to act together to achieve a better community.