So I was all ready to come home and gripe about his insolence, but I had to run some errands first downtown. I wasn't necessarily looking forward to being out in the weather. The snowstorm today has dropped several inches on Denver, making traffic difficult and visibility even more difficult. Cars everywhere spun in their tracks or refused to start in the 18-degree day. By the time I was walking down a snow-covered sidewalk at 6pm, it was 15 and blowing snow. A figure ahead of me on the sidewalk saw me, turned away, turned back to look at me, and stood to the side of the sidewalk. Well, not so much stood as hesitated.
As I passed him, he got my attention with a "I hate to bother you, madam." I realized he wasn't wearing a trench coat but a blanket wrapped around his coat, snowflakes collecting on his ratty stocking cap. "I'm trying to get a room at the Volunteers of America shelter tonight, and it costs $35, and I've got $26 from collecting all day, and anything you have would help. I'm not a druggie or a drunk, my word is my bond. I just need a little help and anything you could spare would be appreciated." The man was a bit unkempt but not dirty. His words were clear, unslurred, and his eyes focused well.
My thesis in grad school was to design a shelter and treatment center for the homeless mentally ill, and I learned a great deal there. From a fact sheet at the National Alliance to End Homelessness:
- Over the course of a year, 2.5 million - 3.5 million people will live either on the streets on in an emergency shelter.
- About 600,000 families and 1.35 million children experience homelessness in the US each year, and about 50% of the total homeless population is part of a family.
- It is estimated that 23%-40% of homeless adults are veterans.
- In rural areas, families, single mothers, and children make up the largest group of people who are homeless.
- At a given point in time, 45 percent of homeless report indicators of mental health problems during the past year, and 57 percent report having had a mental health problem during their lifetime. About 25 percent of the homelessness population has serious mental illness, including such diagnoses as chronic depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorders, and severe personality disorders.
- In a 1996 survey, 46 percent of the homeless respondents had an alcohol use problem during the past year, and 62 percent had an alcohol use problem at some point in their lifetime. Thirty-eight percent had a problem with drug use during the past year, and 58 percent had a drug use problem during their lifetime.
- Of all the homeless people at any given time, only about 5%-7% cannot or do not wish to be helped.
That last bullet point was from my thesis, written in Spring of 2000. I learned a lot doing that thesis, including that you're not supposed to give panhandlers money. You want them to go to a shelter and get in the system, get some legit help.
So there I am, looking a pretty decent-looking human being in the eye, knowing what my research told me and what, frankly, my heart is telling me. This man could be anyone I've ever met. And it's 15 degrees. And I'm about to go to Chipotle and get dinner for Guy and me and go home--home--to my warm, fancy-schmancy highrise condo to my husband and two cats who love me and make me feel welcome and loved and useful every day. And I don't have anything less than a five in my wallet. And then I think
No. Not on my watch. No one freezes outside alone on my watch.
The man spoke again as I pulled out my wallet and opened it. "I'm just nine dollars short, so anything you have--"
I handed him a ten.
Then man took it, started at it, and began to sob quietly.
My eyes teared up a little too, so I just hugged him. He hugged me back, and I patted the back of his head and whipsered, "Take care of yourself, take care of yourself. Go get warm."
He just kept saying softly, "Bless you, God thank you so much..." and walked off in the direction of the VA shelter.
I walked on to Chipotle, picked up dinner, and then headed back to the truck, Guy's Explorer Sport with 4WD, perfect for snow driving. As I found myself about half a block from the truck, I was walking behind a man in a large coat, walking along slowly and clutching his coat together in front of him. He stopped by a trash can, began to rummage around in it. Wonder if he's gonna find any aluminum cans today? I thought. The man's bare fingers found a McDonald's bag. He shook it open, grasping at the few cold french fries still left in it.
Not. On. My. Watch.
I pulled another six bucks out of my wallet and stopped beside the man. He turned to face me partway, trying not to let cold air into his old dirty coat. I smiled and handed him the six bucks. "Get something warm to eat," I said softly.
The old man nodded. "Thank you; I will," came his just-as-soft and grateful reply, and he shuffled off toward Chipotle.
It's entirely possible that I got taken for $16 this evening, but I haven't felt this good in a while. I finally felt the whole point of Christmas. It reminds me of the story about the old man walking down the beach covered in starfish washed up from a storm. He sees a little boy throwing starfish back into the ocean, and he says, "Son, there's thousands of starfish here; you're not gonna make much of a difference." The little boy throws a starfish into the ocean and gestures after it: "I made a difference to that one."