Friday, March 19, 2010

Compassion. Or "What You Wanna Give Me?"


Every single day, I am asked for money.  The reasonings, the excuses, the methods of asking all vary widely, but a day never goes by without this happening.  I live in the middle of a large city that struggles mightily with homelessness, although, the cynic in me knows there are numerous shelters and outreach programs available here.  There is free food all over this city, and the reason I go to the particular farmers market that I do is because at the end, they load up everything that's left and take it to homeless shelters. 

Sometimes I think that it is so much easier to feel more compassion when you are young.   I remember once, when I was here before, I saw an old homeless woman on the metro that looked so much like my grandmother that it took my breath away.  She was sleeping, and on the way out, I tucked a $20 in her coat pocket.  I used to hurt so badly to see them hurt.

I still cry when I see those damn animal shelter commercials on TV--you know the ones?  Set to sad Sarah McLaughlin songs?  I cry when I think about starving children that I somehow can't save yet.  I can't watch movies where people are hit because I wince in pain myself. 

My best friend noticed this about me sometime last year when something really violent was on TV in the background.  No one was really watching it, the kids were all in there but it was not something they were even noticing. But I was getting so agitated that I kept turning the TV down (it was a scene of domestic violence) and I was starting to freak out.  I told her I can't watch things like this because I feel it too deeply.  It's not fiction to me-it brings back awful memories and it's also one of my worst qualities--I take on other people's pains. Even if they're not real.

I say all this as background as to why it concerns me a little bit that I can walk by homeless people every day and not feel a single bit of sadness. 

I think it's because I'm just jaded.  Living in DC, and working by the Capitol, I am constantly being hit up for something.  Protestors set up shop right by where I work, and every single group that is for or against anything on earth, eventually comes to DC bearing pamphlets. 

I have fliers shoved in my hands, posters waved in my face, screams echo (literally) as I get on and off the metro.  Whether its pro-life or pro-choice or pro-war or pro-animals or pro-grass growing, I hear ALL about it. 

Homeless people line the sidewalks as I walk, and I am asked for a dollar, five dollars, spare change, anything at all miss, can you spare some quarters for my breakfast? 

Meanwhile, I'm having problems making my own ends meet.  My co-workers tried to tell me that a bar cover the other day was just $15.  I told them that I feel like I pay $15 around here just to walk down the fucking street.  To buy a $8 turkey sandwich.  To go home to pay thousands each month to live, eat and have heat. 

I know I am lucky that I can afford this.  But, am I obligated to keep giving and giving to those who are not?  Is it even about luck? 

I'm in such a pattern now that I recognize the same people every morning.  There are the ones who are actively trying to get money by hustling; the ones who prop up signs and go to sleep.  The ones who just lay there and don't even try.

The ones who pace and start screaming obsenities at the capitol building every now and then.  Then again, that's most people in this town.  I think I heard my boss doing the same thing from the conference room this morning.

My personal favorite the other day was this cocky young guy sitting on a corner with a cup (perfectly capable of doing anything he felt like doing), and he just said "What you wanna give me?" 

Well holy shit.  I almost turned and told him that I wanted to give him a punch in the face. But things like that? Never end well for young women.  

But its things like this that make me jaded. An old man sits with his stuff outside in the same place every day.  The other day, he was literally laying on the ground with his face in the gravel.  We all kept walking.  It was like no one saw him.  When did I GET this way?  When did people in such need become part of my daily scenery?  It's like sometimes I look up and realize hey!  There's the White House! 

I don't know.  It's such a fine line between who's hurting, who's hustling and who's just trying to make it to the next day.  I feel like half the time, I fall into all three of these categories myself.  I walk wearily beside them, hoping that they don't take my silence or blank looks as hate or contempt.  It's just me, looking out for me.  

It's a big scary world out there sometimes.


TheAbsolutPINK said...

i can't imagine dealing with this everyday. we have some homeless people in charlotte obviously - but they are not everywhere i am at all the time like it is for you in DC. I understand and i think i would probably in the same place. It's sucky - but what are u supposed to be doing? You can't give all your money away everyday. And it's hard to know each of these people on the streets situation - who's lying, who's really struggling? blah.

Bethany said...

Wow, this was beautifully written and thought out. The way you are feeling makes perfect sense. You wouldn't be able to function if you felt the way the Sarah M animal shelter (I Know!) commercials made you feel when you see all these people. You HAVE to take care of you first. You do not need to sort out who needs what. That is not your job. You're doing your job. Go easy on yourself. You're in a tough spot. Lots of us don't have to see any of that, EVER. You are wonderful SJ, with a huge and tender heart. You are not jaded at all. You are just smart.

Allegra Smith said...

In my book it is called survival. I am very much like you, a reason I stopped watching tv over twenty five years ago. We don't even have one in our home. Correction: there is one somewhere in the storage space we bought to watch some movies and hated so off it went.

It is true that the country is going through a dark period of depression in more ways than the economic one. But there are also many able people who are suffering from entitlement disease. "What do you wanna give me?" Excuse me? Did I understand he said that to you?
That is a prime example of what I am trying to tell you.

Do not give money to people out of hand. When someone asks you for money just say "I already gave money to the shelter." and keep on walking. Or say nothing. Remember the old Chinese proverb: to give a man a fish is to keep him from hunger for a meal. To teach him how to fish is to keep him from hunger forever.

And above all do not feel bad about protecting yourself. You are not callous or indifferent. Somehow your Intuition is telling you that you shouldn't and your head should stay out of the equation. Your heart is in the right place, the street people harassing you, aren't. Hugs from here.

Ms. Moon said...

Once, after getting off a late shift of waitressing I was walking down the street (and this was long ago) and a guy tried to spare change me. He was young and fit and I was in a pissy mood and I refused to give him any. I had two pocketsfull of bills and change, every bit of it hard-earned. He said, "Thanks a lot, Jackie Kennedy." I will never forget that.
On the other hand, just two days ago a man came up to me and Lily in the parking lot of a shopping center and asked where the nearest homeless shelter was and then asked if we knew of any churches that gave away food. We told him where the homeless shelter was but that it didn't open until five and he said he was so hungry. And you know, I gave him seven bucks. And I don't care if he took it and bought three beers. I do not care.
BUT- this is Tallahassee and we don't have the same problem (although there are many homeless) that you in the big cities have. You are, as Allegra said, merely protecting yourself by walking past the homeless.
Some times you may feel directed to give a dollar to someone. And you will. But the problem is overwhelming and it is not yours to solve.
You take care of yourself. That is a statement of fact as well as an order. Okay?
And quit feeling guilty.

Maggie May said...

that would break me up too. we have a ton of illegal immigrants here in my town and i give them food and money as much as possible, but it's not as pervasive as what you experience.

SJ said...

Dre --I know. It's really hard to know sometimes.

Bethany--I knew you would know what I was talking about with the sad Sarah M commercials!! God -aren't they awful??

Allegra--that is always my engage in conversation to look ahead and look away? I feel so cruel, so heartless. But I can't even imagine how it would be if I took the time to engage with every single person who attempts to stop me throughout my day. Just today I was taking a walk, and I got practically run over by healthcare protestors. It never ends.

Ms Moon--I will follow orders :)

Maggie M--you have such a big heart. I suspected this all along :)

Angie Muresan said...

I only give to elderly and children. I've become a bit hardened, but I reason that there are shelters and churches.
Don't give yourself a hard time over this. You have a beautiful soul and this reaction doesn't change that.

mrs. miss alaineus said...

i wandered over from ms. moon's place. i say give 'em bad advice, which is always free.

enjoy the cherry blossoms.

xxmrs. miss alaineusxx