Understanding our Friends on the street
What do you feel when you see a homeless person?
Do you feel annoyed or do you feel empathy? Or both? It's a question I like to ask people and my students because it usually helps me determine one's worldview.
If you feel annoyed, you may say things like, "Just get a job" or "Work hard like everyone else." Maybe you just had a bad day and do not want to be "pestered" by someone on the street. You want to go about your day without someone asking you for money or food or handouts. Why should you give out your resources when you don't have much to give? Why should you pay taxes for people who don't work or who do drugs? These are typical feelings that people have on this side of the fence.
On the other hand, if you feel empathy, you may understand that life is challenging and that some people do not have safety nets or that certain people are dealt a crappier hand in life. You may sympathize or simply extend your understanding to those who are stuck in a bad place. Maybe you buy someone a sandwich or pass on a few dollars. You understand that no matter what this person did in the past, it's unfair to live on the street, especially in a cold place like Chicago.
You also may have a mix of these emotions. This is probably a more common stance. However you feel, it is likely a product of your upbringing, what you studied in college, your personality, and how you view the world.
Two weeks ago, I met Andrew in City Hall (he approved me taking his photo & posting). He started speaking with me while I waited for my clients to show up. Initially I felt annoyed (who was this person bothering me right now?), but quickly we fell into a conversation which led to my deep rush of empathy. Andrew slept on a train that prior night, avoiding the rats in the city streets. To myself I thought, "rats?" I didn't even think of that. I thought of the cold. How can so many people in America somehow bare the frigid winters, especially in the midwest, outside or wandering public transportation through the wee hours of the night? Crazy. I bought him breakfast, and did as much as I could in that moment, but I still felt guilty afterwards.
I, myself, am disgusted with our society. Having over 500,000 homeless people in the U.S. is a symptom of a very sick society, one that has deep rooted inequality going back centuries. I've visited Japan and The Netherlands, both countries with little to no homeless people. They have social security nets for people stuck in a bad place. It is simply unacceptable to be living on the streets and their culture models and supports egalitarian values. Those countries aren't perfect by any means, but when we have people living on the streets of America (so many of them marginalized like LBGTQ/black/women), in one of the richest countries in the world, it's a big shame on our system.
Those who empathize - blame the system. Those who become annoyed - blame the individuals. There is no clear answer, but when you have 500,000 people living on the streets, there is apparently something wrong on a larger systematic scale. Whether or not a person is individually helping themselves still doesn't change the fact that their life is worse off than yours. When we see homeless people we typically have to navigate the mix of emotions we feel, and wrestle with the cognitive dissonance in our minds, that our emotions don't always align with our actions.
At the end of the day, feeling empathy isn't going to change the world. But having discomfort with that empathy will start to get the ball rolling.
Even though the emotions aren't black and white, when it comes to caring about others less fortunate than you, you can either care, or you can look down upon others; which side of the fence will you be on?