I am very fortunate to live in a nice neighborhood in a district with good schools, but the house I rent is probably in the bottom 10% of houses in this extremely affluent community. Maybe even bottom 1%. “The land of expensive cars” is what I like to call it, because it feels like every other car I see in our neighborhood is a BMW, Mercedes or Lexus, and it’s parked in the driveway of a multi-million dollar home. (I want to be clear that I am NOT complaining about my house! I am super grateful to be in our home, but I need to put this in perspective. Most of the other people in our neighborhood are very wealthy).
With all the wealth in our community, it was really surprising to me to see homeless people in our town. There is one in particular who roams the neighborhood near where I live. I first saw him about two months ago, at the end of the school year, when my daughter’s class had a picnic at a local park. “Look!” one of the children said, pointing toward the telltale barge of a shopping cart, overloaded with tied-up grocery bags and tarps. “It’s a hobo!” We couldn’t see a human being, just a pile of stuff on wheels. But I looked closely, and underneath the mound of plastic I saw two shoes on the ground, and in the shoes I saw ankles. The rest was covered up, perhaps as protection from the late morning June sun. I was embarrassed for the person (I had no idea if there was a man or woman under all those bags) and hustled the kids along, deciding that moment would not be appropriate to explain the difference between a hobo (which brings to mind images of scrappy, knapsacked men that stowaway in train cars and sing songs about the Big Rock Candy Mountain) and a homeless person.
The kids quickly moved on to their field games at the park, and we didn’t pay any more attention to the homeless person, until it was time to eat. The barge of bags was right next to the door of the tennis courts, and we needed the large trash can that was inside the court. One of the other moms grabbed the trash can, and when she returned, whispered to us, “I think there’s someone underneath all that stuff!”
The kids ate their lunches and took turns at the “dessert table,” piled high with lots of fruit, muffins and cookies. When it was time to leave, there was still quite a bit of food left, so I put a bunch of grapes, watermelon and cookies on a paper plate and walked over to the shopping cart. Upon closer inspection, there were probably fifty plastic shopping bags tied all over the cart. I couldn’t tell what was in the bags. I walked around to the other side and saw that the ankles led up to pant legs and there was a man, sitting on a plastic fold-up lawn chair. His face was covered by a homemade canopy, so I bent down and saw he was sitting with his eyes closed, hands on his lap, as if he were meditating. He had a long, white beard and long, matted hair, sort of like a grungy Santa Claus. I said, “Excuse me,” and he quietly opened his eyes and looked at me quite calmly. “Would you like some food?” He didn’t smile, but said, “Yes, thank you.” I handed him the plate and wished him a good day. He again thanked me.
I wish I had talked with him more. I am curious about how he got to this point in time and want to ask him why he is on the street. Is he someone who is homeless by choice or is that a myth we’ve perpetuated to make us feel better when we see someone like this man? Many people have complimented me on how brave I am to quit my job and yet I couldn’t stir up the courage to talk with him, perhaps because I was afraid of his answer. What if he’s not homeless by choice? Then what do I say or do? How could I help him? Could I approach this like the story of the woman throwing the starfish back into the ocean…that every little bit we can do to help someone in need makes a difference, no matter how small it seems? I hope I can find the courage to speak with him next time.