On Christmas, I tripped over a homeless woman outside of Rockefeller Center. My boyfriend and I were on our way to Top of the Rock with a guest who was in town for the holiday, and I didn’t see her over the crowd of people stepping right over her, as if she were nothing put a piece of garbage stuck to the ground. It was freezing outside and she was shivering on a thin, grey blanket, a stark contrast to the crowd of middle-class tourists swarming around her.
I wanted to say something to her, to reach out, to ask her where she was sleeping tonight, or to do literally anything to help, but I settled for a brief, shy apology and allowed myself to be pulled away by the throng.
The vision of her haunted me, and my own feelings of fear and helplessness reminded me of another man I’d seen a few years earlier standing near Columbus Circle. I was hustling to Lincoln Plaza, running painfully late to the last showing of Paolo Sorrentino’s Fellini tribute, The Great Beauty, and a man on the sidewalk was asking for change. But more than that, he was begging for someone to look at him or recognize he exists. Giving up hope of getting any money out of a crowd of people who would rather ignore him, he started yelling, “I am a human being! I am a human being!”
I would like to say that I was different. I would like to say that I stopped and bought that gentleman a cup of coffee and asked about his day. I would like to say that we found common ground and we’re now great friends. But I’m not. In the moment, I decided that my movie was more important. I will forever be ashamed of that decision.
It’s easy to become numb to the poverty and devastation around you, by either blaming it on those most afflicted by structural inequality or pretending not to see them altogether. That’s the idea behind a viral video from Raise the Roof Canada, in which homeless people read mean tweets about themselves.
The idea is a takeoff of the famous Jimmy Kimmel segment in which the talk show host asks celebrities to confront their most vicious critics on Twitter by reading their comments out loud. When it’s Lena Dunham reading that her “boobs are dog noses” or Gwyneth Paltrow pretending to be upset that someone called her a “big bird looking b**ch,” it’s funny because it’s so absurd. The joke isn’t on Dunham or Paltrow, but the trolls behind such bizarre descriptors; we can be assured that, after the segment is over, Gwyneth Paltrow still has her giant pile of GOOP money to console her.
What makes Raise the Roof’s segment sting is the fact that many of the people reading these tweets aren’t afforded the same luxury, the equivalent of Sally Struthers traipsing around Africa with a camera to highlight extreme poverty and malnourishment while many of the children on camera continue to starve. Good intentions only take you so far.
Take Peter, for instance. According to Raise the Roof, he has been homeless for eight years. Peter is asked to read a tweet that asks, “I wonder if homeless people go to heaven?” Peter shakes his head in disbelief, as his surroundings highlight the conditions he’s living in every day. Paul, who has been marginally housed for 14 years, reads, “I see homeless people standing in the cold, shivering. I’ll be glad when the light turns green.” Paul then turns to the camera and responds, “Well, that will make it go away. Won’t it?”
On Christmas, I tripped over a homeless woman outside of Rockefeller Center.
The video is intended to do the same thing the man outside of Columbus Circle asked me to those years ago: stare into the face of homeless people and see the ways in which our own prejudices and casual cruelty affect them. While that’s an admirable goal, a minute of emotionally manipulative clickbait isn’t doing much to help Paul or Peter, who will be living on the street tonight no matter how bad Raise the Roof makes you feel about your Twitter habits.
Asking people to be mindful about how they interact with those less fortunate is important, and while I applaud the effort, I ask anyone who believes in the message of the video to do more than view the homeless from behind the safe distance of a computer screen. You’re not getting to know these people and their stories or pushed to have a more nuanced view of poverty. Instead of sharing a dumb clickbait video on your News Feed, here’s a thought: Try actually getting to know some of the Peters and Pauls of the world.
I served coffee in a soup kitchen for a year as part of a volunteer requirement for a religious co-op I lived in. It wasn’t a virtuous decision: It was close to my house and worked well with my schedule. As a city dweller, I had been taught to view homeless people as a kind of succubus, a dark specter to be avoided if they passed you by on the street or stepped onto your subway car. Although Christian doctrine might teach that there’s virtue in asking strangers for help, the social Darwinism that we internalize begs to differ. If you beg, if you stink, or if you live on the street, you’re beyond help. You’re not even human anymore.
If anything, working with homeless people showed me that they’re just like everyone else. One of our frequent guests was a banker who had recently lost his job in the economic downturn, and financial hardships forced him to cut costs any way he could. He would slink into the kitchen with his head down and nose in a newspaper, vaguely embarrassed.
He stood in line with construction workers who struggled to find work in the off-season, men who struggled with alcohol abuse and addiction, women escaping abusive relationships, and a guy who I called “Black Van Helsing,” because he wore a black trenchcoat, a fedora, and a giant cross every day. His air of mystery reminded me that everyone has a story, and they are more elusive and complex than a one-minute video can ever speak to.
Our patrons were alternatively friendly, boisterous, cranky, and rude, a multiplicity of attitudes that spoke to their diversity of experiences. Just like the customers at the Starbucks two blocks away, they would complain when you got their order wrong and send it back. One guest was famous for his signature drink “Coco Mocho, 3 on 3!” This meant that he liked three creams and three sugars in his drink, with a packet of hot chocolate added for extra sweetness.
Working with homeless people showed me that they’re just like everyone else.
It sounded like a cup of diabetes, but it was nothing compared to the guy who requested a hot sugar water every single day. He wouldn’t let me touch his lid, and some of my co-workers suggested it was due to germophobia, and a by-product of the severe mental illness complications with which he had been dealing. Chicago, the city where I had been volunteering, is notorious for slashing funding for mental health, forcing those who need care onto the streets, lacking few other safety nets.
As Think Progress’ Sy Mukherjee points out, the other option is prison. “[A] perfect storm of cuts to community mental health services, affordable housing projects, and state psychiatric institutions has ensured that the prison also serves as America’s largest mental health care provider.” Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart estimates that “30 or 35 percent of our jail population that has a mental illness.”
Similar cuts from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in 2014 federally defunded 12 of the city’s 15 shelters, and according to Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, “more than 3,400 vulnerable Chicagoans will lose access to life-saving support services.” While that figure might seem like just a number, it makes a huge difference in the lives of people who might have no other options. When I hadn’t seen a favorite customer in some time, there was always the hope they found a job or an apartment, but in the pit of my stomach, I knew the reason why.
Those people deserve more than our clicks but our justice—a government and a society that believes their lives matter. If I learned anything from my year standing alongside Chicago’s homeless, it’s that the lack of a roof over your head is only part of the problem. What gets to you isn’t just the cold but the solitude, and the men and women who came to our kitchen needed the company as much as they needed a warm meal. They needed a morning routine and friends to gather with, a community that would notice if they never came back.
When I’m walking in the Upper East Side, I still look for the guy who begged for his humanity. I want to apologize. I want to give him change and smile. But even more, I want to say, “Yes, you are.” Those three words might seem small, but when you get ignored 3,000 times a day, they might mean more than you think.
Photo via David Blackwell/Flickr (CC BY ND 2.0)