"The amount of hopes and dreams a person has should not predict the amount of smiles they receive." - Melissa McPheeters
I opted to be homeschooled for high school. For me, in the small desert town I grew up in, homeschooling meant that I would do my work self-paced and check in with a teacher once a month. I would go grocery shopping with my mom every week, enjoying that people suspected I should be in school at those hours.
There was a man who played guitar outside of WalMart. My mom would let me sit with him and chat while she got groceries. I learned that his daughter had bought him his cell phone (a flip phone back then) to be able to stay in touch. She worried about him. He was kind and would share stories about his life. He was human.
There was a man who would ask for a cigarette or spare change while my mom smoked outside of the next store (she shopped the sales and couponed like no one's business). She would always say "I just think that that could be your uncle or your brother, and I hope someone would be kind to them." He was human, too.
The people our society often keeps relegated to the fringes are no less human because of it, especially those experiencing homelessness, addiction, and mental illness. These three health challenges often intersect in significant ways. It can create discomfort it those of us who can't relate; we avert our gaze from making any kind of eye contact. We don't see them. They begin to feel invisible. They are human.
People often worry about extending a dollar or some change to a person experiencing homelessness, citing that the person will use it to buy drugs or alcohol. There are two problems with this assumption. One, that not all folks in this position are alcoholics or addicted to substances. Two, that buying drugs or alcohol is inherently a problem: dying from withdrawal is real (for a more detailed list of symptoms, click here). Often, seeking medical attention is not a viable pathway. People do not deserve to die as a result of our inability to collectively support them. In this context and others.
What else can you do, other than give money?
Carry individually packaged, non-perishable snacks like crackers, nuts, and cookies to offer. If someone turns you down (especially if they haven't asked for food specifically), don't take it personally. People have health conditions, food allergies, and other reasons that they may decline an offer of food. The same goes for a warm cup of coffee. Unfortunately, there are people in the world who have and will put laxatives and other things into food that they then give out under a guise of kindness. If someone is experiencing homelessness, becoming ill can be the difference between life and death.
Carry hand warmers and warm gloves in the winter time; bottled water, hand sanitizer, and now even masks and single-use gloves during the pandemic.
Make eye contact. Smile. Wave. It is free to do any or all of these things, and does not obligate you to doing anything further.
Averting your gaze, staunchly ignoring, grimacing or frowning...these things can make the recipient feel dehumanized. And it is dehumanizing them in your mind, too. Reinforcing the stereotypes and biases our brains have been socialized to concoct.
Extend kindness and compassion. They exist with inherent dignity and worth for no other reason than their humanness. They are human, too.