This morning I was walking to work, and as I was passing a small courtyard on West Street (you know, the one across from the movie theater) I spied one of our "resident" vagrants. He was sitting on the two-foot high brick wall that surrounds the courtyard, slumped over and supporting himself on both sides by bracing his arms against the wall he was sitting on. He looked like he might have been deep in though, or perhaps just nauseous. As I passed by, I considered asking him if he needed help, but I refrained. I recognized him as someone who has asked me for money in the past, and our brief conversations have made it obvious that he is mildly mentally disturbed.
As I passed him I heard him jump to his feet and snatch up something, perhaps a backpack, that had been sitting on the wall behind him. I thought for a moment he was going to ask me something, but in fact he addressed himself to the only other person on the street, a well-dressed white-haired man walking about twenty paces behind me.
"Do you have fifty cents I can borrow?" He asked the man.
"I don't give anybody anything" the white-haired man spit back, almost shouting, his voice filled with venom and contempt.
"Why not?" The homeless man asked, sounding genuinely curious.
"Because that's just the way it is." The white-haired man shot back. And that was the end of the conversation.
I get asked for money quite often when I'm walking in my neighborhood. Sometimes I'll give money over to the person asking, sometimes I will truthfully tell the person I have nothing on me to give them, and sometimes, I must admit, I will tell the person I don't have any money even if I do. So I'm in no position to claim any moral high ground. But something about the way that man spat out those words "I don't give anybody anything" really struck me. It was beyond indifference and beyond disgust; it was intense anger. But anger at what, I wonder? At the fact that a man so obviously possessing of little or no property and of limited capabilities had presented himself before this white-haired man and asked for something that was, after all, quite small? That didn't seem like a very good reason for such obvious hostility to me.
I suppose I could look at the situation in a different way. Maybe this man thinks to himself that giving the homeless man money will accomplish nothing, that he'll probably just spend it on booze or worse, and that anyway why should this be his problem? Maybe he is frustrated because he would genuinely like to help but feels that this homeless man isn't really interested in helping himself, and that frustration manifests itself in the display that I witnessed. But something tells me that isn't it.
I am often forced to wonder where compassion has gone, or if in fact it is a concept that has ever really been valued at all. I don't think people should have to like the fact that homeless people live in and around my neighborhood--heck, there's times when I don't like it, and I've caught myself thinking "why don't they just go somewhere else so at least I won't have to look at them" on more than one occasion. Obviously, I can't hold myself up as a paragon of virtue on this matter. But I am still forced to wonder, what is it about the presence of these people that makes the white-haired man and so many others uncomfortable or even hostile? For that matter, why is it that I don't like seeing them sometimes? I don't think the homeless man presented any reasonable physical threat. Even if the white-haired man felt that the homeless man's condition was somehow his own fault, or that at least it isn't up to him to do anything about it, why the anger? Does it make him feel more justified somehow in not handing over 50 cents? I don't really have an answer for this.