Two of the top 25 cities in the world are right in our backyard. In a list of the world’s most homeless cities, Washington, D.C. is ranked 17 and Baltimore, MD sits at No. 20. With over 100 million homeless people in the world, and more than 600,000 in the United States, it’s about time we learned how to do more than either avoid a homeless person’s pleading gaze or begrudgingly drop some pocket change in a plastic cup. Instead, let’s find a way to make a difference.
This past month, I attended a program at the University of Maryland that brought two members of the National Coalition for the Homeless to speak about their experience. Both speakers could not have been more outwardly different. One was male and one female, one was black and one white, one was clean-cut and professionally dressed and the other disheveled with dirty boots and a large, patched coat. Despite their clearly different exteriors, they shared a similar trait. They had both been homeless and had experienced some of the worst DC has to offer, and were two living examples of the wide variety of people homelessness touches. They each shared their gut-wrenching stories of how they became lost in our streets, ignored by passersby or else looked down upon with disgust.
They also both had several positive recollections of their homelessness, marked by other’s selfless actions. Joe, one of the speakers, told a story about a man who engaged him in conversation on the street several times and once paid him to help move some boxes. Joe was so moved by this man’s actions, and the small gesture of treating a homeless man as a human being was enough to touch Joe.
When we walk past homeless people on the street and avoid looking at them for fear that we are now required to empty our wallets, think again. Consider the way we communicate as you would with a co-worker or a friend. Avoiding their gaze only confirms a societal misconception that homeless people are decrepit, devious drug addicts and are sub-human. If you are uncomfortable giving money, some people buy sandwiches or other food. An act of simply asking how you can help goes a long way.
The holidays are a time for being thankful for what we have and giving back to those who have less, and participating in an event like the sock drive can be the perfect outlet. This weekend, the same group that brought the National Coalition of the Homeless to Maryland’s campus hosted a sock drive. For this particular sock drive, our group went into D.C. and donated socks to homeless families and engaged them in conversation. We found that, crazy enough, treating someone like they matter can really make a difference, and will really touch their lives.