One of the most difficult things about coming to Toronto has been witnessing the prevalence of homelessness on my daily commute. I’m aware that sounds ridiculous. Clearly the challenge is experiencing homelessness, not seeing it. But every time I walk by someone asking for money on the street, it’s like a tiny punch to the gut, a reminder of the shortcomings of our society and our vulnerability as people.
In Waterloo, it was a much rarer occurrence to see a homeless person. Travel down King St. to downtown Kitchener and the story is completely different. I volunteered for a brief span as part of a class at a community kitchen there, and it was visibly apparent how many vulnerable people were living in our region, even if you could feign ignorance living in Waterloo’s university and heavily suburban areas.
I usually pass by two or three homeless people on my way to and from work now. One at each subway station and one outside of the nearby Tim Horton’s. Often it’s the same people, sometimes not. But every day I see people walk by without so much as a glance. I’d be lying if I said that was never me, but I try to make sure it’s not. Many people would say that that kind of desensitization is both normal and necessary. You can’t do anything do stop the problem, so why burden yourself by feeling something about it, by engaging?
Part of the answer for me lies in the signs you often see people holding while begging for change. Things like, “I’m a good person” or a modified construction sign made to read “Danger due to hunger.” It’s so sad to me that someone in that position has to convince people that they’re “good” to warrant asking them for help. Without knowing anything about their personal history, how can you condemn someone for what you presume to be bad life choices? And yet, so many people do.
There are many reasons why people choose not to give money to homeless people. Sometimes it is as simple as an air of moral superiority. Other times it’s a genuine fear of unpredictability, in essence a stigmatization – or perhaps misunderstanding – of mental illness. Maybe you choose to give in other ways that attack the roots of the problem or more widely address the symptoms. Perhaps you just don’t carry change. There are many valid reasons to make that choice.
But it’s not all about the money. I see no validity in intentionally dismissing another person’s connection to you as a human being. When we desensitize to a problem, we normalize it and give ourselves permission not to think about it. We also miss opportunities for potentially meaningful human connection. I’ve never been homeless, but I don’t think I’m wrong in imagining that some people living right in our midst and simultaneously on the fringes of society might appreciate a little more human connection.
Make eye contact. Say hello. Remind yourself and others that we are all people, regardless of circumstance. You might not have any change, but you can smile at someone for free.