Today I had lunch with someone who lives in the woods. Stop for a minute, think about what I just said. He lives in the woods… all of his possessions, everything he owns is either on him or stuffed next to a tree under a blue tarp. He isn’t camping. He isn’t there because he wants to be. Look around right now where you are… pull YOUR eyes off your phone or your computer screen now. I’ll wait. What did YOU see? If you are anything like the majority of people reading this, you probably saw your “stuff”. Stuff you take for granted, physical things that can be taken from you at a moment’s notice… things that simply do not matter but may make you feel good. He has none of that.
You may be thinking by now, “Who the heck has lunch with a stranger, much less one that stands at an intersection begging for money?” Well, the answer is no one on purpose. Certainly not me. While I try to be polite, I don’t even like to look at the homeless. Accidentally make eye contact and then I feel obligated to interact. Very carefully inch up past them at the intersection so they don’t stop by my car. Sure, sometimes I’ll say, “Hello” or “No, I don’t have any change”, even though I know damn well, I have a couple dollars I could share… if I HAD to. If I were to bet, many of you are just like me. You have probably seen the investigative reports about panhandlers who ask for money all day, then walk to their car only to drive home when the day is over. Maybe wondering what stupid thing they have done to end up on the street. Or maybe this thought has crossed your mind, “I’m not going to give them money because they will use it for drugs or drinking”. If you haven’t thought something like that, please stop now, get off your phone or your computer, and step down off your high horse, princess.
Enough of what I was thinking, let’s talk about Chris. Yep, he has a name… maybe you know a Chris? Stinks this “homeless person” has a name now, doesn’t it? Chris is 25 years old. He’s not a drug addict, not a criminal. He is someone who simply wants to work. WHAT? You mean he doesn’t like to stand all day long at an intersection and beg strangers to get enough money to eat? No… he wants to get back on his feet, get back into society, and out of the woods where last month a man froze to death next to him.
Chris has only been on the streets for 8 months. You should have seen his face when he was telling me his story, when he was proud, and when he didn’t have to beg simply to eat. Sitting across from me, at the Hunan House restaurant, was a gaunt but smiling young man with a thin reddish beard and unkempt mustache complete with straggly hair poking out from under his black stocking cap (a toque for my Canadian friends). Even though we were inside out of the cold, he kept his one and only winter coat on. It’s the kind of coat with a faux fur lined hood and big outside pockets. His coat certainly looked and smelled like it was the only thing protecting him from the elements. Chris had a job and got laid off. Previously, he worked at a mortgage company doing data entry. He was telling me, over his Kung Pao chicken, that he even had a nice car and some savings. Because of his savings, he didn’t want to apply for unemployment and by the time his savings ran out so did the deadline to get assistance.
Three months later, he was evicted and living in his dark red 2011 Ford Focus. As you can guess, when it came to paying for his car note or eating, he fell behind and eventually lost his car which had been his only home. The only family he has is in Florida where his mom and stepfather live. His stepfather told Chris that he has to “work it out on his own” and doesn’t allow his mother to speak to him even though she tries. His “family” is in sunny Florida and as I type this, it is 18 degrees and freezing rain outside Baltimore where Chris “lives” in the woods.
I assume most people, as well as myself, are under the impression that there were resources, assistance, and places for him to go. Well, it turns out it’s not all that easy. Sure, there are shelters but with a 6 to 12 month waiting list, he may not even make it through the winter to get a space on a cot. He could get some pasta or a little bigger meal but he would have to take light rail downtown and fight his way into a feeding line at the mission. Instead, he tries to conserve his money and energy, especially on those days when he only gets a couple dollars from passing strangers. He uses those dollars at the local McDonald’s where he can get a $1 cheeseburger and a booth to sit out of the cold until he gets run off.
I didn’t wake up today thinking I was going to meet someone so destitute that his big dream is to get $30 for a hotel room for a night at an establishment no one in their right mind would consider. I woke up in my own little safe bubble of a life with a roof over my head in my home, a beautiful family, and stuff. My lunch plan today was to drive to Giant, get a frozen meal, and maybe some kind of snack. But when I turned into the shopping center, I saw that guy standing in the intersection holding his sign I thought, “I’m going to see if this dude wants some Chinese”. I wasn’t on drugs but was simply moved for some random reason to do something so bizarre I still don’t understand it. I am so glad I did.
We spent the next hour and a half just hanging out, eating Chinese, and talking about the world. One thing, as we left, struck me like a ton of bricks. He was clearly happy that I paid for his meal and happy that he didn’t have to worry about where he was sleeping through the storm. But what he said once he finally made eye contact with me was, “Thank you for talking to me.” He has been reduced to someone perceived as a sore on society, a guy that doesn’t work, a possible drug addict, someone who only leaches off the kindness of others, and is so beaten down that he actually thanked me for talking to him. I was dumbfounded and my only response was to just shake his hand and say that he was welcome. He walked away with his carryout food; I returned to my car. I sat down and wondered what it must be like to live in the woods and only try to survive.
I don’t know what the answer is to this problem but I know what you can do right now… or maybe even tomorrow. I am fully aware of the enormous amount of terrible things that happen in this world and that his story is one of many. I’m not asking you to start picking up homeless people and forcing them to eat Chinese with you. But do this for me, next time you see a “Chris” on the street and want to avoid eye contact and question his or her motives, just don’t. Simply realize for a second, you are looking at another human being, no better and no worse, than you. Consider making eye contact, consider smiling, and maybe go crazy and give them that dollar you would spend on something stupid anyway. If that doesn’t make you feel a tiny bit better, then send me an email to let me know how much you gave and I will reimburse you.
Thank you for taking the time to read this. Thank you for being the kind of person who wants to make the world a better place. More than anything, do something.
– Mike Elliott is VP Interactive Communications at Innovairre, which supports more than 500 nonprofit organizations around the world. For more about Innovairre, contact us at Answers@Innovairre.com.