Sub-city: all around us

January 17, 2011

For years I passed them, on my way to work or to the mall. I sat at traffic lights reading their signs quickly, then averted my eyes to avoid contact.

Old, young.

With kids, with dogs.

Neat and clean.

Dirty and bedraggled.

Disabled, able-bodied.

All races, shapes, sizes.

Even people like you and me.

A few years ago I read a newspaper article exposing some of the regulars I’d see on my route. They were professional panhandlers who made upwards of $40,000 a year on the street, as much or more than many people in my west-central Florida city made at their jobs.

It put me off on helping.

In the process of moving a few months ago, I’d encounter the same two people with signs at strip centers in my new neighborhood. One was an unkempt, older man for whom I’d bought food, who clearly has a serious mental illness. The other was a woman who stood at a parking lot entrance.

I put together two packages of clothes, scarves, free food coupons and non-perishable food and went looking for them, around the time our long cold snap began. Although I’d seen them daily for months before the holidays, they were nowhere to be found during and after.

The stuff sat in the back seat of my car for weeks. “Maybe they’ve found someplace warm to stay,” M. said.

Then, last week, a man I hadn’t seen before turned up in the woman’s spot. I decided to stop to talk. He told me he’d been laid off from his job as a forklift operator almost two years ago and hadn’t been able to find work since. His daughter scoured the internet daily for work for him with little success. He’d lost his home and possessions.

He said he’d found work as a Christmas bellringer and was allowed to sleep at the Salvation Army center while he held the job. But after Christmas, beds were allocated by lottery so he didn’t always have a place to sleep. He was articulate and nice. He seemed kind-hearted and someone who tried hard.

“I try to keep myself neat and clean,” he said, “and I’ve gotten some work from standing out here, too. A few days here and there. You know, I never thought this would happen to me.”

I asked about the woman who used to stand out there.

“The tall blonde one?” he asked. “She’s not homeless–she has a place to live and a van. You know, we all try to help each other out here, but she’s just out for herself. She’s not a very nice person. But the smaller woman that’s here sometimes really needs the help.”

You can’t always tell who really needs the help, I thought as I went back to my car to get a package. Some people who are unemployed and homeless try harder than others. Some have safety nets. Just like in my own life, some people are nicer than others.

In the end, I decided that it was more important to reach out and help than it was to try to assess which homeless panhandler had a scam going.

I see that man every couple of days. I try to always have something for him. A warm scarf. A free coffee coupon. While we were talking the other morning, a young woman walked up and handed him a $10 bill. She didn’t look like she had much, herself.

We’re here to help our fellow man, that much I know, in whatever way we can. People who help are all around us if we just look. My friend who fosters infants in bad situations. Another who’s taken in a teenager who otherwise would’ve fallen through the cracks. They inspire me every day.

Who inspires you? And what are you doing to help?

In this economic climate, my heart goes out to the homeless. I’m reminded of one of Tracy Chapman’s most powerful songs, Sub-City.

Video below.

One comment on “Sub-city: all around us
  1. Ruth D~ says:

    Beautiful, thoughtful post. Make me think. I’d written something similar on my blog a while ago…

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