I grew up in a fairly “small town,” so my first experience with the homeless didn’t happen until my family took me and my sister to NYC for her 16th birthday. Stepping off the elevator in Port Authority, I, a mere 11-year-old, stepped over a bum laying on the floor. I remember my sister later giving a homeless woman a dollar – my parents objected. Rightfully so – the homeless are “dangerous,” “on drugs,” etc. More often than not, that can be an accurate statement.
Now, at age 40, and having lived in many large cities, I’ve built up quite an immunity to seeing the less fortunate begging on the sides of highways and in the front of convenience stores. My template response always being a polite, but firm “No, I’m sorry.” And then I’m easily on my way without a second thought.
Then I noticed a trend quite a few years ago, a new “twist” the homeless would try to tug at people’s heart strings – having a pet with them. Man would I fall for it, almost every single time. So, once I managed to train myself to look away, tell myself lies in my head like, “they are faking, they actually live down the street,” I again built up that immunity.
Personally the last few days I’ve been fretting the delay of my student loan check, something I need desperately to pay rent, my car payment. But I don’t lack food, shelter or warmth – hell even my cats eat better than most homeless I am sure. I had to go out today though, because I needed some materials for a class starting next week.
On my way home, I saw a woman and a fairly healthy looking dog on the side of the road. “Homeless, my dog is hungry” was the sign. Whatever I thought, again my knee-jerk response. When the light changed and as I neared my rental house, I thought – the least I can do is take her some dog food. I asked my neighbor who has a few dogs if he had any handy (since my cat’s food would probably make the dog sick). He gave me half a bag, I filled up a 2-liter bottle with water, and threw some plastic bowls into a bag to take to her.
She was grateful, very pleasant, articulate. And older woman, but probably only in her 50’s – the fact that she’s obviously lived on the streets awhile took its toll on her face. Again we chatted for a few, I told her where the nearby churches were and suggested she try to find a place due to the impending snowstorm. She didn’t ask me for money, she didn’t ask me for anything. She thanked me, and I was on my way. Again, I wasn’t really impacted, I basically felt numb. Thinking now I can go home, and have a beer and feel good about myself.
When I drove away, I glanced back in my rearview mirror. I saw her bend down and scoop up some of the dog food into her mouth. She was trying to turn her back away from the traffic so no one would see her do it. It quite literally felt like I had just been shot in the heart. This wasn’t acceptable, I couldn’t let this woman eat dog food, I just couldn’t.
I turned into the nearby Dollar Store, and loaded up a bag with food I thought would sustain her since she’d have to carry it around. Nuts, some granola bars, raisins, bread, and some PowerAde (vitamins). I bought her a small fleece blanket. When I told the cashier what I was doing and what had happened, tears started to fall down both of our cheeks, we could barely speak.
I jumped back into my car and drove back to where they had just been – but she was gone. I imagine she couldn’t have gone far, but after turning down a few roads and not seeing her, I reluctantly headed back home.
The bag is in my car now – everything is non-perishable (for the most part), so I will be keeping it so if I see another person in need, I will be ready this time. I will now always have a bag like this in my car.
I don’t know why my Grinch heart finally grew two sizes, but it did. If there’s ever any way, no matter how small, that I can help – I will turn around.