Growing up in the D.C. area in the 80’s, there was a man who was on the news a lot, Mitch Snyder. He went on hunger strikes to help the homeless population in the city. He was a determined man who did lots of crazy things to get attention for his cause. I remember his longest hunger strike, being on the news every night, trying to get more homeless shelters opened so fewer people would die in the elements.
I wish I could say this had a huge impact on the way I chose to live my life, and that I dedicated myself to helping others. It didn’t, and I didn’t. I was pretty young when all this was going down, and I didn’t really understand it. People were sleeping on exhaust ducts from the subway to stay warm. I could not wrap my young mind around all that—how can you not just sleep in your bed at home? Didn’t everyone have one like I did? I do remember it still though, and maybe that speaks to something. Despite my not going on to follow in these footsteps, I did absorb it in some way. I remember the images of the homeless in the city, and being really freaked out. They all looked so messed up and hopeless.
Of course, as I grew up and lived in other cities on my own, I had more interaction with homeless people, and came to understand that sometimes they ended up that way through circumstance, not disease or choice. I used to walk to work in Boston in the wee hours of the morning, through the bitter cold, and chat with some of the guys who lived on the corner. They used to tease me, and wish me well, and I’d do the same. They were nice enough guys, although being a little girl in the pre dawn hours, I never stopped for too long, just in case. They were nice to me, but would they go out of their way to help me if something happened? Probably not, and I think we all knew that. To them I was a nice kid who was leading a privileged life and had no idea what their hardship was. To me, they were a decent enough bunch of guys who would gladly take any money I had to give, if I’d had any, which meant there was never a full trust on my part.
All of these things have influenced/educated me in a few ways:
• It made me beyond terrified of ending up homeless–it’s a harsh and bitter life of scraping by and dying younger then you should, and I would do anything not to have that life. I’m good with my money, and I have worked hard and sacrificed to make sure my accounts always have a certain amount in them.
• It told me that sometimes really incomprehensibly bad things happen to decent people, and they get stuck in a cycle. If someone I know and care for needs help, and I can provide it, I would do so willingly. I also try to step up and help the general populace when I can by giving to charities.
• It taught me that even a smile and a “good day” to someone that normally gets walked past and ignored can be a great help to their self esteem—they are still humans after all. Giving spare change is great, but sometimes just admitting you see them and wishing them better is enough.
• It made me realize that the homeless/poverty striken population in the U.S. is a problem, but one that will never be completely solved. There are too many components and reasons for why people end up that way. Our main goal is to work on it, make it better, and remind people that it’s there, no matter what direction you look when you pass someone by. Maybe the lack of a 100% solution is good in a way. Maybe it helps to keep pushing people to help others, and without it we might lose sight of that.