How often have you walked past a homeless person, or a beggar on the street, nose turned up trying to avoid even looking at them? I’ve done it many times, far more often than I’ve stopped to give a coin, a smile, or say “not today.” I don’t know about you but I’ve heard all the stories about how ‘those people’ are addicted to drugs or alcohol and will use the money to buy more. And that may be true for some but is probably not true for all. It’s like saying all Jamaicans are lazy or murderers. I’m a Jamaican and I am neither nor do I think it’s the norm for Jamaicans. The thing is it’s easier for us to generalize and ignore the person asking us for help.
All this has been percolating for a few weeks now because while we were in downtown Ottawa recently Paul and I went into an office building where a man was playing the piano. On the main floor of the building was a gallery featuring musical instruments, costumes, and photos of musicians. The only playable instrument was the piano and anyone who wanted could play. I strode past the man playing heading to the washroom but when I came out Paul, being a musician himself, had stopped to watch and listen. The player I saw looked like a man in his mid-thirties, somewhat disheveled, his music sounding about the same. He clearly knew what he was doing but it sounded like he had not played in a while. It turned out that he was homeless.
I did not engage with this man at all. I know, though I hate to admit it, that it was, at least in part, my lack of empathy. I suspect that fear played a big part too. It’s a scary thing to me to be homeless. I can’t honestly imagine a scenario where I would be in that situation. I bet that man felt the same before it happened to him. But how would I know? I didn't even talk to him. Didn’t compliment him on his playing. Nothing. How hard would that have been to do? Maybe he had a really great story. Maybe there was some way I could have helped him. Maybe he would not have engaged with me beyond ‘hello’ but I missed the opportunity to find out. All because of fear.
But here’s the real kicker. Homelessness, and the poverty that accompanies it, affects all of us. The federal government in Canada transferred almost $4 billion to low-income families in 2011. Living in poverty means less access to healthcare and people “living in poverty can double or triple the chances of developing diabetes and complications such as blindness and cardiovascular disease.” The list goes on. The point I really want to make is that we may choose to ignore the man/woman/child in the street but we will pay either through taxes, higher crime rates, or some other devastating issue within our society.
Homelessness and poverty is just one problem. It can be overwhelming to think of the number of causes that need help in the world today – environmental issues, caring for the elderly, hungry families, toxic pesticides in farming, poor water quality just to name a few. Each and every one of them can affect us all but as individuals we don’t have the resources to help them all. However, we do have the capacity to assist in at least one area and people are doing what they can, with what they have, where they are.
Have you seen the video clip of Fraser? He’s a 20-year old medical student who takes elderly residents for a ride as part of the Cycling Without Age program – a program that has been so successful there are chapters around the world.
What about the plan to clear the oceans of plastic – The Ocean Cleanup – out of Denmark? It’s one of many, many projects to help our environment so that maybe we can enjoy cleaner air, better water, and leave the planet in a better state for your children.
I’ve seen stories about people who raise funds and help homeless men build their own tiny house, or help them in the job hunt, or help to feed them so they won’t starve another day. Really, there are endless ways to help others.
The question is, and one I’ve been asking myself lately, what cause or issue annoys/distresses/inspires you the most, enough to get you off your butt, helping to make a difference in your community and the world at large?