“Hi there, honey—can you spare a dollar?”

“I’m so sorry, sir—I don’t have anything!”

“That’s okay, honey—I love you. Maybe no one told you they love you this morning—but I love you, honey!”

I was physically rocked. He was right; no one had told me they loved me—for days, in fact. I was feeling a deep need for affirmation.

My car had been broken into a couple of days before: window smashed, computer stolen. A budding relationship had ended unexpectedly. Work was a struggle, and finances were tight (when are they not?). I felt deeply alone. I am not alone—I have wonderful friends and a loving family—but I felt alone and vulnerable and in need of being told that I was loved, that I was lovable. And that morning, I got it from this most unexpected source: the old, amiable homeless man on the corner who I passed so often.

You may be thinking: “He’s just a dirty old man! You’re making too much of this. He was just flirting with you!” But he wasn’t. That wasn’t it. He was simply, suddenly, and disinterestedly affirming my existence.

I doubt that he recognized me: the corner is on a major thoroughfare, and I’m only one face among the many who regularly turn away from him and his cheerful requests for aid. But that day, I turned towards him, and I was met with a statement of love that I deeply needed. I can only hope that the joy I felt at his response came through on my face, because I couldn’t do more than mumble “I love you too—thank you” before I shuffled across the street with the change of the signal.

I often turn away from these situations. I’m paralyzed by anxiety when presented with an opportunity to engage with someone experiencing homelessness. I become self-conscious, unsure of how to respond when I have nothing to give, how to give when I can, or how to occupy this strange space of “giver” without being condescending or insincere. And most often those fears lead to one action: turning away.

Shortly after the encounter I just described, the priest at my church gave a beautiful meditation on the power and intimacy of being called by your name. He reminded us that it’s possible for people experiencing homelessness to go months, even years, without being called by their names. How horrible—never to be called by name, never to be singled out as the particular human soul you are, never to be addressed as an individual worthy of love and attention. I thought of all the times I’ve done much worse: I’ve not just been silent—I’ve refused to look at the homeless, as well.

It’s strange that this is our social norm: to ignore the man outside your car window at the stoplight or the woman on the corner. If a friend or a stranger (the woman on the subway next to you, or the man across the coffee shop table) asked you a question, you’d respond, even if the answer was, “No, I’m sorry.” Yet, so often we simply ignore the homeless. Why? Because it’s more comfortable?

I think that we women particularly fear these kinds of encounters—even the encounter of a look. We’ve all been hit with unsavory and unsolicited comments, and we may think that feigning blindness is the best way to avoid this kind of encounter. I don’t mean at all to downplay the real dangers that exist in the world; I’m not advocating naively exposing yourself to potential attackers. It’s important to engage prudently in any situation. Walking late at night, for example, you likely won’t feel comfortable stopping to talk with someone on the street. But in my experience a simple glance and a smile don’t perpetuate harassment. I’ve had far more insulting things hollered at me from a passing car than I’ve ever received from a man with a sign on a street corner. In any situation where you feel unsafe, follow your gut. But the vast majority of the time, doesn’t it seem like the person addressing you deserves at least the acknowledgement of their humanity which a simple “no” provides?

Giving beyond material needs

As we go deeper into winter and the holiday season, we tend to be more aware of the homeless. Churches gather blankets, offices run food drives, local communities take up collections. All of these things are good! But I think it’s important to stay emotionally invested in this giving. It can be very easy to hide behind the structures of “charity” by simply giving money or items, to keep yourself distanced from the humans you’re trying to help. Money is the most comfortable thing to give, but money is not love; money is not an acknowledgement of someone else’s humanity; money is not an affirmation of another’s intrinsic dignity and worth.

Often, what those who are homeless most deeply want is your attention. I just watched the most interesting interaction which I think bears this out. There’s been a homeless man outside the window of the coffee shop where I’m writing. A patron just bought him a sandwich and brought him a glass of water. As they chatted for a minute, the patron took out his wallet and pulled out a couple of bills. The man took the bills, and then a moment later gave one back. After another moment of chat, the two parted.

I’ve seen this before: I once offered to buy a man a sandwich, and at first he accepted, with a very specific request: he knew what he liked, what he wanted. Moments later as I stood in line, he poked his head in and politely called, “You know what, miss, I don’t need it actually. Thank you.” I asked if there was something else he would prefer, but he said, “No, no, I’m good. Thanks!” And that was that.

When I think about these situations, I realize that I’ve projected a kind of greedy-need into the homeless: they want as much as they can get from me; they’ll take advantage of my generosity; they feel entitled to what I have. And while I’ve had encounters that substantiate these ideas, I’ve had just as many that challenge them. Someone who ostensibly has nothing sees a limit to their own needs that I don’t: they don’t need the sandwich; they return half of the money; they simply greet you instead of asking for anything from you. If they can engage with me on this level of equal, shared humanity, how can I not do the same?

A smile, a greeting, a brief chat—these signs of community are things we all crave. The strange thing called being human, which we all share, binds us deeply to one another, to friends and strangers. So give to the charity collection, volunteer at the soup kitchen, make sandwiches in the church basement—all these concrete goods are certainly needed, in the winter months more than ever! But don’t let them become a wall between yourself and the world. Don’t sink deeper into your own lonely selfhood. Respond, engage, and you may be met by an affirmation of your own humanity in the process: “That’s okay, honey—I love you.”

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