There’s a saying that there are no guarantees in life. While that may be true, there probably should be warranties because some lives will break down over time, usually due to situational changes or stress. Most of these lives could be refurbished and returned to a new or like new condition. All too often, we look at these lives as throwaways and that’s exactly what we do with them — we throw them away.
Every day, we encounter people who we, either intentionally or unintentionally, don’t really acknowledge exist. I live in an upscale neighborhood and, over the years, I have noticed more and more homeless people asking for handouts. I don’t usually give anything to anyone asking for money because most of the people asking are young and healthy enough to work at some sort of job. But occasionally, I come across somebody who doesn’t ask for help but could.
I first met Mel after he had appropriated what would become a semi-permanent sidewalk seat about twenty feet away from the front door of my local pharmacy. He appeared to be in his mid to late fifties. His clothes were old and tattered, and his hair and beard were much longer than would be considered comfortable on a day that had become stuck past the century mark since shortly after sunrise. The skin on his face and hands had become tanned and toughened by an unforgiving sun, but the harshness of his body was tempered by the calmness in his eyes.
Still, I might have moved right past him had it not been for a couple of qualities that made him stand out. For one, he was soft spoken. But it was the other quality that set him apart from the crowd. You see, he never asked for anything. I never saw him rant or rave or ask for money. He was always respectful to those who walked past him. Occasionally, he would offer to watch the cars of people who were heading into the store. The cars didn’t need watching, but it was his way of providing a service and feeling useful to a society that had little use for him. More often than not, those same people would exit the store with a cool drink or a packaged snack. He would refuse and then, after some gentle prodding, accept. He was always grateful. It was the repetitive dance of someone in need, but someone who didn’t want to appear needy.
It was on one of those hot and less than humid days that I decided to do more than just hand him a bottled water and a package of cookies followed by “Have a nice day” as I moved on. On this particular day, I decided to get to know a little something more about Mel. I introduced myself and, in the course of our brief conversation, mentioned that I was a writer. It turned out that he loved to read. His favorite reading material was anything by Mark Twain and the Bible. I must confess that he could quote both in more detail than I was able to, and those calm eyes came alive as he did.
After that day, I never saw Mel again. I think about him every time I enter the store. I imagine that he had hopes and dreams, family and friends, and a roof over his head before something changed and he ended up on the sidewalk in front of a drugstore. I do know that there are many more Mels out there. They are intelligent, productive people who are a pink slip or a tragedy away from seeing their entire lives turned completely upside down.
We can berate, complain about, or completely ignore the homeless. Most people do exactly that. But it won’t make the problem go away. The problem will only go away when homelessness goes away. We need to allocate more state and federal funds to sheltering, training, and mental health treatment in order to help turn these “street people” into productive people. There are some who will refuse this course of action, but most will welcome the help. If we don’t start addressing the homeless situation in this country, it will only get worse because there are no guarantees in life. You’re not just a human being; you are a representative of the human species.