“You’re very humble. People don’t usually speak to the homeless,” the woman said to Yvonne on a recent bus ride. Yvonne recognized the woman from the soup kitchen where she volunteers. “I don’t know if it’s about being humble,” Yvonne said to me. “It’s courtesy, we know each other. I don’t stop knowing her when we’re outside of the soup kitchen and she’s really pleasant to talk to, obviously educated. Who knows what happened to her?”
Once, our mother told us a story about then called, ‘winos’ who hung out in her Brooklyn neighborhood. She said she always greeted them. One evening, walking home, a man approached her. She said she didn’t know where they came from but in no time they were surrounding this guy who took off into the night. Yvonne and I never forgot this story. It informed us on how we treat people no matter what their challenges are. “Those men never disrespected me and I’m glad I acknowledged them. They appreciated it and came to my rescue when I needed them,” our mother explained.
We are not urging you to run up to a homeless person and engage them in conversation and shove a dollar bill into their face. If one says hello to you, say hello back, wish them a good day. Never hand out money in lieu of a greeting. If you want to give them something, do it if they ask otherwise it’s obnoxious. They have their pride too, respect it and don’t patronize them.
If a person gets on a bus or train or is already seated and it’s clear they haven’t bathed for days, no need to make a face, shake your head furiously and suck your teeth in disgust. Just get up and move to another section.
While we may not have a lot in common with many homeless people, we are all human. And during these tough times, some of us are closer than we think to them.
I think the practice of interacting with the homeless needs much more discretion than simple decorum. I've learned my lesson the hard way. One street beggar was so aggressive with her request, I finally shook my head no as I walked by. Her spew of shouted vulgarities was not only uncomfortable, it was also threatening. Another instance on a crowded train: a homeless man asked me to pass, and I made room while continuing a conversation with a friend. The homeless man then stopped, and using choice racial epithets, coarsely and loudly lectured me on my historical oppression of his person. We had to leave the train. In another instance, I observed a young woman who'd given money to a man on the train, which he apparently took as permission to make more prurient requests. She left the train at the next stop. My point: Some homeless are in horrible distress. Others are mentally incapacitated. Others under the influence. I've had my share of situations, and I choose to remain silent. (Of course, the author's experience of a prior relationship would be an exception.)
I agree with both of you. I've had both experiences.
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