I went to Chicago this weekend. It was a transforming visit. The primary purpose of the trip was to attend the Chicago Gospel Music Festival (which was awesome!). However, it was also to get away and have some time to think.
As soon as I arrived downtown, I was struck (as always) by the homeless men and women begging in the street corners. One woman especially made an impression on me. She had a sign that indicated that she was homeless and please help her and her son. She sat with her head in her hands. I’m not sure if she was just tired or didn’t want to show her homeless face to the world.
The thing is, we need to see the faces of the homeless. “We” being middle to upper class citizens who can go weeks or months without stepping foot in an area that has any resemblance of poverty (aside from poverty of the soul). It’s so easy to forget when you’re in your cozy suburb miles away from the closet housing project or city center.
I love the InvisiblePeople blog because they’re trying to do just that. Trying to put names and faces to the generic term “homeless.” Trying to show that they’re humans like you and me with feelings and hopes and dreams.
I wanted to do something for that woman. Perhaps buy a Noodles & Company gift card and put it in her cup. But I didn’t do it. I’m not sure why. Probably fear. Fear of the unknown. I haven’t spent a whole lot of time with homeless people. I mostly ignore them and move on. With a little twinge of guilt and sadness.
On my last afternoon in Chicago, I decided to go sit by the Buckingham Fountain and read my book (How to Change the World) for a while . Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a man moving from group to group selling something. I secretly hoped that he wouldn’t come over to me, but he did. The conversation went something like this:
“Now, I’m a good guy. Don’t start cussing me out or anything. I’m homeless and selling magazines to raise money. They’re shutting down the shelters around here. Are you from Chicago?”
“No, I’m from the Milwaukee area.”
“So what do your homeless do?”
“I don’t know,” was the honest but painfully embarrassing response.
“Well, we have these two papers,” he said, holding up the Onion and some other paper.
“Which one would you recommend?”
“Definitely this one,” he said, pointing to the Onion. “It lists what’s going on in town and stuff.”
“OK. How much?” (I start digging through my wallet.)
“Oh, five dollars.” (I have a ten and a twenty.)
“Or how about a ten. Could you give a ten?” (I hand him the ten.)
“God bless you. Would you like me to take your picture or anything?”
“No that’s OK.” He gives me a hug and moves on to the couple on the next bench.
From this encounter, all I could think about was “what do your homeless do?” and “I don’t know.”
I don’t know. I should, but I don’t. It made me realize that I’ve been a little off track the past couple of months. What was I thinking with this golf thing? That I would take the time to learn a game when I don’t even know what our homeless do? Spend hundreds of dollars on lessons and gear for what? So I can move in the right circles? I’m thinking the circles I need to move in are downtown.
It was a rude awakening, but a good one. The book I’m reading helped as well. It describes the work of dozens of “social entrepreneurs” who dedicate their lives to changing the world in a positive way. From bringing electricity to rural Brazil, to fighting AIDS in South Africa, to helping disabled people live normal lives in Eastern Europe.
Change is good. Change is needed.
“Be the change that you want to see in the world.” ~Mahatma Gandhi