Coming to Street Sense, I tried to ready myself for the change, for the day-to-day dealings with homeless people in an urban environment. I squared my shoulders and said to myself, “They’re people, same as you.” But it wasn’t the homeless people I work with or see who shocked me most, it was the educated, the housed and the employed.
I heard stories about harassment. I took one phone call and was polite and sympathetic as a woman told me a vendor had verbally assaulted her. I was so sure this poor woman deserved my ear. And then the other vendors enlightened me when I told them about it: That vendor would never do such a thing. He’s quiet and polite.
Other stories rolled out about people who think Street Sense is a crock or vendors getting demeaned and denigrated. Our homeless writers frequently write about what it’s like to be ignored day after day, night after night, eyes just slipping past you like you’re nothing.
Walking home one night from a day of work at Street Sense back to my comfortable apartment, it hit me like a brick: That was me. I was the person uncomfortably avoiding the panhandlers at Union Station, crossing the street when I thought I saw someone sleeping under an overhang. Sure, I didn’t victimize them, but I sure didn’t humanize them either.
We call it “dehumanizing” when someone is tortured, imprisoned and degraded beyond anything we can imagine. What’s the opposite, then? How do you “humanize”?
From what I’ve learned here at Street Sense, it’s not about giving money or buying a paper. You don’t have to be ostentatiously generous to humanize someone. You can say “No” politely or “No, thank you” or just acknowledge someone’s existence by actually looking at them. Looking at people on a city street is a dangerously civil proposition, but a worthy one.
It’s not dehumanizing to be afraid or to take a cautious path, but it is to take a path that goes right by the homeless without even glancing at their faces.
Treat them like they’re human; recognize their presence and their situation. That’s the least we can do.