Every day I start out my morning commute through Philadelphia by boarding the “El” train in West Philly at the beginning of the line. As I make my way up the steps to the terminal there’s a woman who always sits on the left side. She resembles your stereotypical “bag lady” and every morning she politely asks, “Can you spare any change, ma’am?” Most days I’ll make my way up the steps quickly, avoiding eye contact and cutting her off with a quick, “I don’t have it. Sorry.” And that’s when I’m feeling polite. If I’m having a particularly sucky morning where I’m running late, it’s raining and I’m on zombie mode because I need some coffee in my system, I’ll just completely ignore her.
By the time I make it to work I will have been begged for money at least five times. This is counting the men who work in shifts canvassing the train cars, some holding a sign and standing in the middle of the car until they realize everyone’s way too busy pinning to their Pinterest boards to care. Or the scruffy white guys who look like they could’ve been artsy, digital media majors in another life who reassure you they’re just honest folks who lost their jobs recently and need help so of course they’re not like other homeless people who have made a career out of panhandling. There are others with adorable homeless dogs who sit outside the banks and recently closed frozen yogurt shops of Center City and some with newer sneakers than mine that make it so by the time I clock in, I’m more annoyed than sympathetic. And sometimes I feel like that makes me an awful person.
You may have caught the recent social experiment gone viral about the city residents who didn’t recognize their family members posed as homeless members on the streets of NYC. New York City Rescue Mission’s “Have the Homeless Become Invisible?” campaign takes an honest look at how desensitized the public has become to the homeless to the point where passing them is almost like passing a bus stop or a park bench. What I think upset me the most is that I knew that I could’ve easily been Veronyka, Evan or Shaunya passing my uncle, cousin or best friend without a second thought.
But am I selfish as much as I am desensitized? Whenever I encounter a shaky cup full of change I’m actually reminded that I just borrowed from my savings to cover my car insurance or if I lost my job tomorrow, it wouldn’t be long until I had to begin doing some creative math in an effort to keep the creditors away. At the same time I realize how fortunate I am, when I think of the worst circumstances the truth is I’d have to go through at least 10 family members or friends before I ended up on a mattress under the expressway and more than likely I’ll never be hungry to the point where I’m forced to depend on a stranger’s good day for a hot meal.
I’m not annoyed because I think my spare change will go to someone’s meth habit before it goes to some coffee. But because the truth is for most us poverty isn’t as far away as we’d like to think. My peers are college-educated professionals who are fairly responsible with money and I would guess none of us have the 3-6 months of pay saved away that the money experts on MSN recommend. One layoff or unfortunate accident with a family member and your whole financial future cold instantly turn very frightening. And I think that’s what the homeless remind us of: That in our unstable economy, poverty is not as unrelatable as we’d like to think. So we avoid looking at the faces of poverty because we realize they don’t look all that different from our own.
I‘ve lived in Philadelphia all my life and thankfully while growing up my exposure to crime and violence was quite limited. In the “City of Neighborhoods” it’s easy to luck up and land on a block that’s crime-free even though you could live less than a mile from a neighbor who’s trafficking heroin. But as I’ve gotten older and traveled through different parts of the city, it’s easy to see how many of our residents don’t want to get involved with anything that seems the slightest bit shady. We think everything is a set up that will land us on the 6 o’ clock news. That adorable, old veteran who claims he just wants to buy a hot lunch, could have his homie waiting around the corner to rob you as soon as you reach for your wallet. That little boy who’s claiming to be lost and needs your help? He really just wants to lure you to his psychopath cousin who is in a car waiting to abduct you. With so many opportunists it seems are waiting to prey on your kindness and inexperience, it almost makes sense that most of us avoid eye contact, and sit in the back of the train hoping that we make it to our destination without being a victim of violent crime. That fear isolates us from one another, we preserve our safety but cut off opportunities for empathy one Facebook distraction at a time.
I won’t speak for the American public, but am I desensitized? Yes. Am I insensitive? No. It’s just easy to forget we’re all in this together when it seems as if so many things in our culture emphasize a survival mentality of “every man for himself.” I won’t be dedicating a part of my paycheck to that lady I pass everyday on the El steps, but I do think it’s important to acknowledge her. The homeless aren’t abandoned McDonalds bags or payphones with no purpose, they are people with families and stories that deserve respect. It doesn’t matter if that story starts with drug addiction or being laid off. What matters is that like the rest of us they’re just out here trying to make it. So even if you have to politely decline, it’s better than completely ignoring them. Because even if’s not your father or nephew you are passing on the street, they are someone’s loved one and that should mean something to all of us.
Toya Sharee is a community health educator and parenting education coordinator who has a passion for helping young women build their self-esteem and make well-informed choices about their sexual health. She also advocates for women’s reproductive rights and blogs about everything from beauty to love and relationships. Follow her on Twitter @TheTrueTSharee or visit her blog, Bullets and Blessings.