Last Friday, I decided to ride my bike downtown to the public library. It was a beautiful day and I marvel at what I notice on the bike as opposed to when riding in the car. I had been feeling sort of down and locked up in the house for a while, when one of my dear friends and mentors encouraged me to get out and breathe the air. “It’ll make you feel better,” she said.
As I strapped on my backpack and headed East for a nice ride, I began to notice the growing number of tents with homeless residents lining main and side streets. Even though the outdoor air felt good, the thought of so many more people making public sidewalks their homes, made me question why a country with so much wealth can’t alleviate poverty. Living in Los Angeles, with the glitz and glamour, we also have the only notable skid row, where other states have bussed their homeless out here to remove the problem from their front steps.
Last year, there was an exposé about local hospitals dumping patients on skid row. One gentleman with dementia, who was not homeless, was dropped there after hospitalization, leaving it up to his family to find him. Fortunately, they did.
So often, I have heard people say people are homeless by choice. I am sure there are some who do not want the responsibility of taxes, rent and the trials of stressful work environments. But this does not apply to everyone. The cost of housing has moved some to their cars, bus benches. We may be working alongside colleagues with this problem. I’ve heard people tell me how they have lived in their cars, used their gym memberships to clean up, get dressed and go to work.
Then, there are some with mental challenges. With limited resources for mental illness and the stigmas that impact many communities, we don’t always seek help for our loved ones. They end up on the street or locked up, resulting in more overcrowded prisons (that’s another blog, another time). There have been ongoing conversations about what led to this growing number of homelessness and how much the deinstitutionalization process has been a factor.
See this article from last year: https://ww2.kqed.org/news/2016/12/08/did-the-emptying-of-mental-hospitals-contribute-to-homelessness-here/
I support causes that address homelessness and I take time to speak with people to understand their plight. I know that doesn’t alleviate the problem, but it’s my small part. Yet, I think the biggest challenge is that we are in a society where we don’t consider others’ struggles enough. We get so caught up in our own “stuff,” that we turn our heads away from what is right in front of us.
Another eye-opening experience occurred this day. As I was returning from the library, I decided to ride a little, then take the Metro, our subway system. With all of the construction, the turnstile for bicycles, wheelchairs, etc. was locked and I couldn’t get through. So, I decided to lift my bike over my head to get through and fell in the process. It took me more than 30 minutes to regain my footing and realize that I had bent a caliper on my rear tire, preventing it from rolling. In my frustration, I sat on the ground, trying to determine the best way to get the bike home and have it repaired.
As I sat there, I thought about how a little help from any passerby might have prevented this fall. But no one stopped. I then began to count the number of people who stepped around and over me without asking if I needed help or even looking my way. I counted 32 people!
By the time I got to my stop, I decided to chain my bike, take the bus home and get my car to strap on the bike. While waiting, I met a homeless man named Dave. He shared his story about injuries and how he was unable to work. He told me he would be getting assistance soon, but wanted change for coffee and a blanket. I told him I would be back in 15 minutes. If he could wait, I’d help him.
When I returned, I found Dave sitting by my bike. As I unchained it, he carried it for me, put it on the bike rack and asked if I needed more help. I thanked him, gave him a few bucks and a blanket and offered well wishes, hoping that all would work out for him.
This took me back to my theory about those who turn a blind eye to the homeless and hungry. If I, who just needed a little help lifting my bike, not appearing to be mentally challenged, homeless nor hungry, could not get assistance, I understand why so many of our brothers and sisters struggle. Society’s response to this problem begins with us. How we choose to lend a helping hand impacts the possibility of a solution.
Little did I know that compassion would come from a homeless man, while I was overlooked by others in better states. He seemed more aware and perhaps his desire for help made him more conscientious of another.
The homeless and hungry problem did not occur overnight and it will take a while to whittle away. However, with a little compassion, we can affect change. The next time someone is in need, perhaps we can take a moment to get out of our heads and lend a helping hand.
One by one, we can make a difference.