Smile Politely

Risking it

When a weary homeless man asked me for a cup of coffee in the Starbucks on Clark and Belmont in Chicago, I really didn’t know what to do. 15 minutes earlier, I had witnessed Marine One flying above the city (President Obama was keynoting the annual APA conference here in the city) and was still in a cozy, feel-good stupor — my hope had been revitalized!

There I was, sipping my Americano and reading the paper in front of a desperate man. I felt horrible. I was back in reality. When I told him I didn’t have any money (I really didn’t) he thanked me for my time and proceeded to ask about 10 other people in the rather bustling coffee house. After receiving 10 consecutive “no’s” — he left, sulking — probably wondering when he’ll eat his next meal.

Two weeks prior, as I was exiting a Walgreens after getting my film developed, a haggard man of about 50 approached me and asked for some spare change. At first he wanted 76 cents (don’t ask me why) but he quickly divulged that he needed about two dollars. I gave him a five and he thanked me profusely. He said something that has stuck with me ever since: “take risks, kid. Don’t hold back, and you’ll go far in life,” his wide eyes staring right through my sunglasses — through my soul. As he made his way towards the nearby County Market, I stood there in the parking lot for about five minutes — taking in what he just said. I thought about his life and what happened to him that brought him to the current state he was in. Why did he say that to me? At first, my middle-class dog-eat-dog world mentality kicked in: he probably said that to all young people who gave him money. Or was there another reason? Was he requesting, begging, those much younger than him to do all they can to not be in his situation. It was in that parking lot that I realized I had been severely shielded from the no-so-pleasant corners of society. Before then, I had surely seen homeless people on the streets, but had never felt an emotional connection the way I had experienced in the Walgreens parking lot on that early Saturday morning. I was the bewildered poster child of a middle class lifestyle.

The problem of homelessness in America is anything but benign — rather it’s malignant: when it affects one corner of society, it inadvertently spreads to all corners — to those who live the comfortable, even selfish, lifestyle many of us enjoy.

My two recent encounters shouldn’t have left me shocked, but it did. Indeed, many people are so oblivious to the problem, that when confronted with it, they simply do not know how to solve it, let alone handle it.

We would like to think that extreme poverty is a result of drug and alcohol abuse with a little bit of of a poor upbringing thrown in. And while that may be true in some cases, assuming just that is a disservice to the cause of eliminating homelessness.

At school, I notice pervasive socio-economic segregation. My school should be doing more to bring the classes together. Call me a communist, I would like to see all classes — especially at a young age, come together with the help of teachers, parents, and community workers — because once we all grasp the affects of homelessness, we will better understand how to tackle the problem.

Photos by Cody Bralts

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