Eating with the Homeless

04/04/2011

As you might imagine, one of the realities of living downtown is frequent interaction with the homeless population. It’s not an every day thing, and I run into them less often than I expected to, but it’s very common. Most people just try to ignore them; avoid eye contact, don’t respond, keep walking. It’s important to me that I treat them with respect and dignity though, so I never ignore them. In fact, I make an effort to respond.

I have two policies when it comes to homeless interaction. First, I don’t give anyone cash. The unfortunate reality is that many are homeless because they’re addicts of one kind or another, and I can’t in good conscience enable addiction. But if they ask, I don’t ignore them, I simply tell them I can’t help them, wish them well, and they usually move on. The second policy is that if they ask for food (not money for food), I will offer to buy them a meal. It doesn’t happen very often, maybe 5% of the time, but as a result of this policy I’ve taken several homeless people to dinner.

If you want a humbling experience, take a homeless person to a restaurant.

For a few of these guys, I’ve simply gone into the closest fast food place to buy them a meal, as I had already eaten. Reactions from the staff give me a small glimpse of what these people endure every day. I usually see an attitude of contempt and disgust from whoever is behind the counter, as if I’m feeding some kind of rat. And that’s just for helping, not being the ‘rat’.

It never fails that these encounters prove interesting or entertaining. I had a hard time not laughing when one guy was ordering at Subway, and wanted some of everything in the sandwich bar. He really wanted to get his money’s worth on the pickles. “Can I get some more pickles? Can I get a bit more? A few more please…” Apparently there’s not a pickle limit policy at Subway.

Another man who seemed to be in pretty poor shape mentally and physically, was visibly uncomfortable being inside a small taco joint. He told me, “I’ve never been in a place like this before, I’m not sure what to do.”

One man stands out in particular though, AB (a nickname based on a much longer name). A few months ago AB caught me as I was heading to the local sports bar for dinner, and asked if I could help him get some food. I asked him what he’d like to have. “Oh, I was going to go down there to the McDonalds or something.”

“I can’t let you eat that,” I told him. “Come with me.”

I could tell immediately that AB wasn’t the typical homeless man. He wasn’t looking for money, was embarassed to ask for help, and relatively well kempt. As we walked to the restaurant he told me that he had just been released from jail for some relatively minor thing. I wasn’t sure what the right response was to that, but I congratulated him.

We got a table at the restaurant, and ordered burgers and beers. We talked for over an hour about politics, religion, Dallas history, love & divorce, and of course the judicial system. It was obvious that he had a good head on his shoulders, and was a smart man. He had done some dumb things in life though, like shoplifting, that got him arrested, and began a downward spiral. He was an aircraft mechanic by trade, but with a criminal record was unable to get work at an airport. Desperation led to desperate acts, and he subsequently had more run ins with the law. It struck me that he was a prime example of the lower class being stressed to the breaking point, and once broken, being broken forever. Our system doesn’t really have a good way of helping people like AB redeem themselves and get back on their feet as productive members of society. Once outcast, always outcast.

The place where we ate was across the street from a large skyscraper, the top floor of which is a business club I’m a member of and frequently visit. I was struck by the contrast that night between those who think nothing of $12 cocktails in the tower above, and those begging for scraps on the street below. It seems a perfect metaphor for the widening gap between the haves and the have-nots.

I don’t usually advertise my homeless policies, but those I’ve told about my experiences have had pretty varied reactions. Most seem horrified by the idea, though they try to mask it. They tell me that it’s dangerous, or that they need to get a job, or that it’s their fault for breaking the law, or doing drugs, or whatever. There are many excuses for turning your back.

I have found it to be very rewarding though. There’s no better way to keep yourself grounded, to keep everything in perspective, and maintain a healthy appreciation for the life you have; and there’s nothing like making someone’s day, or in the case of AB, probably his year.

For a mere $20, AB had the best meal he’d had in a long time, and for an hour or so he wasn’t a homeless man, but someone of value. He had some dignity, and giving people a little dignity is probably the best help you can give them.