Thursday, January 07, 2010

The Shoeless Man

Yesterday as I drove through Walmart's parking lot late in the evening, I saw a man tiptoeing (literally) across the pavement. He looked a little rough - probably one of Oceanside's homeless - and he had on no shoes. It's pretty warm here in Southern California (as I keep reminding all my northeastern friends who are buried in snow drifts), but at night it can easily reach 40° F and that is no time to be barefoot. I actually circled the block and drove back through the parking lot to see if I could find him. I wanted to ask him if I could buy him a pair of shoes and socks. He had already slipped into the shadows tho, so my efforts were for naught.

A friend who shall remain nameless to protect the guilty thinks I'm nuts for handing five dollar bills to homeless people as often as I do, but my way of seeing it is if five dollars makes THAT much difference in my life at that moment, then I need to get my butt in gear and fix that problem. I may be unemployed these past several months, but I am not destitute, nor do I plan to be. If I can still afford to drink Starbucks and I have a place to sleep that night, I can afford to give someone with nothing a bit of my change so they don't go hungry - or perhaps shoeless. I have had times when $5 was a lot of money to me, and they sucked. I am grateful that is no longer the case, and I believe what you want more of, you give away. So $5? Is not a lot to spare to make someone's day.

Tonight I stopped at the grocery store to pick up a few items. This store was in the same shopping center I was at yesterday. My peripheral vision took in someone sitting off to the left of the door, but it was only after I was inside that my brain processed the image of shoeless feet. It had to be the same guy. When I came out of the store I looked for him, but once again he was gone. I felt like I had failed a test.

I had to go to Walmart for lightbulbs so across the parking lot I went. As I was walking in, out came the shoeless man. His manner of movement actually reminded me of an illustration in a Shel Silverstein book I once had.

No, he was not naked, nor was his beard that long. It was the hurried-ness (and shoeless state) of both man and cartoon that matched.

The Shoeless Man held out a steaming bag in front of him like a serving tray as he scurried by. "Good," I thought to myself. It must be food; at least he's eating. Since he was so intent on finding a place to sit and consume his prize, I didn't approach him. I went into the store and bought what I needed, feeling a little guilty for having yet another opportunity to speak to him and avoiding it consciously this time. I considered just buying the shoes and socks while I was in there and offering them on my way out, but how was I to know what size he was? Did it matter? Would he even accept my gift? It's one thing to help someone out that needs it, it's another to throw money away carelessly, especially when your income is limited.

Somewhere in the past I heard someone speaking about homeless people (or perhaps I read it, always hard to remember), and they pointed out that for many, homelessness is only temporary, but it is a very stressful lifestyle that holds no joy. When these people ask for a handout, they're not just looking for money but for some glimmer of acknowledgment of their existence. They long for something as simple as a kind word or a smile, or just to be treated humanely. They may be down on their luck, but they are still one of us and we could easily be in their position tomorrow. Most of us just rush by without even seeing them and if we do stop to hand them a coin or bill, our eyes pass over them with little or no emotion. Imagine how you would feel being so ousted from community. I think of this every time I see a homeless person, and those that I don't hand a five to, I at least offer a smile. The trouble is not all of them are honest, but that's another story.

As I exited the store, I saw my barefoot guy down the side of the building, still eating. He was picking apart a roasted chicken like he hadn't had food in a week, which could've easily been true. His animal-like mannerisms made me nervous, but I forced myself to walk up to him.

"Aren't your feet cold?" I asked, trying to sound friendly and open a conversation. "No." He mumbled, not even stopping the shoveling of food into his mouth. He glanced around but looked past me, not at me. His eyes were a bit crazy, but then I guess severe hunger will probably do that to you. His toes were crooked and rough, and his feet had a blue tinge, but it could've been the lights. Everything about him said he'd been on the streets for a long time though. Much longer than I thought. This was not someone who was just temporarily homeless.

I wanted to continue with my original mission of providing footwear, but I walked away without another word. I was scared and I didn't even know of what. Once I got in the car I thought to myself, "Well you didn't handle that very well, did you?" My ego tried to justify my flight, pointing out that he was clearly not all there and to continue a conversation with him may have even been dangerous, but something else in me said I didn't try hard enough. Sane or not, how was he supposed to infer from my singular, vague question that I wanted to help him out by putting shoes on his feet?

As I mentioned in a prior post, I've been reading Malcolm Gladwell's book, What The Dog Saw. This book is a compilation of favorite columns published in The New Yorker magazine over the past several years. One of the chapters is titled Million-Dollar Murray. Click here to read the original article on Gladwell's web site in its entirety. It's worth your time. (Read all of it - section two appears to be a different subject because it describes problems with the LAPD, however, it all ties together in the end.) The subject of the article is: Why problems like homelessness may be easier to solve than to manage.

The article starts by describing one particular homeless man named Murray. He was a stereotypical town drunk, and the cops arrested him regularly, but people loved him because he was a happy drunk and usually had a positive outlook despite his condition. In 2003, the police department decided to do something about the most chronic panhandlers in the area, and when they did the research adding up the cost of jail time and police reports, hospital stays and such, Murray was at the top of their expense list. As Gladwell's article states, it would cost Reno taxpayers a million dollars if they did not do something about Murray. And that's just ONE guy.

Gladwell goes on to describe statistics about the homeless issue across America, citing Bell Curve vs. power-law distribution principles, and explaining how homelessness does not follow a normal distribution as most people think. In Philadelphia, a majority of transient people are only homeless one or two days. The number of acute offenders is much smaller; Gladwell says specifically in NYC in the early 90s, only 2500 people were considered chronically homeless, but those are the ones with mental problems or physical disabilities, or like Murray, the incurable drunks.

He goes on to describe how some cities have found it more economical to actually SOLVE the problem of homelessness by giving the worst delinquents their own apartments for free - it doesn't seem fair, but in the long run it is actually saving the taxpayers money. But that's beside my point.

Standing outside of Walmart with other people looking on, trying to make a connection with a ravenous, seemingly slightly-insane person, I guess my fight or flight mechanism just said no, this is out of your league. This is one of the chronic and is best left to authorities to figure out what to do with him. I'm a sucker for a rescue case, but I also know what's over my head.

In contrast, a couple weeks ago another guy came up to me in a parking lot asking if I could spare some change. He had on shorts, but was wearing a decent coat and hat, and carried a backpack. Normally these are the types that could be professional panhandlers that don't really need your money, but something made me stop and give him a five. As I was digging in my purse thinking how stupid I was because it was already dark and altho there were plenty of cars around, there weren't many people, and isn't this just exactly how you hear of rape/murder cases starting out? he mentioned that he was unemployed. I said, "Ha, so am I!" He laughed and asked me what I used to do. I gave him my former titles, and he told me whatever it was he used to do, and that he was having a hard time finding another job. I agreed that the market is tough, but told him to hang in there. He seemed like a really nice guy. Simple in the head maybe, but happy and just trying to get back to whatever his situation was before. (The only reason I believe he really was homeless is because as soon as I went to my car, he walked into the pizza place and bought food with the money I gave him.) If I had walked up to THAT guy and asked if his feet were cold, chances are I would've ended up buying him shoes and we may have even had a decent, if remedial, conversation.

Is it wrong that I had such an easy time helping out one guy and not the other? Well, things are only wrong that we make them so, but you know what I mean. The guy that obviously could've really used my help I backed down on. Should I feel bad for that or just scrape my bleeding heart off my sleeve and put it away already? Hmm. I dunno.

Both of these encounters inspired an idea for a web site to help out the millions that are NOT habitually homeless though. How would a homeless person access the web? Libraries across the nation have free computers that can get on the web and even without cars, these people seem to get around ok on mass transit. I also anticipate people that work at the shelters would be able to use this service.

There's a web site called Couch Surfing that has had some success (1.6 million members representing 232 countries around the globe). The idea of the site is to connect people with a spare bedroom or open couch with people that need a free place to sleep for a night or two while they travel, instead of spending money on a hotel room. After you sign up, the site owners verify your identity to provide a measure of security. Hosts leave a rating and description of what you were like on the site after you leave so other people know what to expect. Obviously when you're new to it, it takes finding people that will take a chance on you, but once you're established in the community it would seem as long as you're a good guest, you're welcome just about anywhere. Lots of people have made friends around the world this way as well.

Considering how crowded shelters get, especially in the winter, and knowing Gladwell's researched statistics on most people being homeless only a short time, why couldn't we use the same concept to connect those that can provide with those that need a roof over their head the most? People may already even be using Couch Surfing to do this very thing, but I think a site specifically for shelters to access would help. The people that work at the shelters can often see who are the chronic offenders and who is just down on their luck, and could possibly make decent judgment calls on who would be a good candidate to send to someone's home as opposed to staying in a shelter for a couple weeks. Well, it's an idea anyway. I've been doing so much thinking about the homeless situation lately I may even act on it. I have NO CLUE where to start of course, but I think it's something worth pursuing. I just hope I don't ever have to use my own idea due to not finding a job fast enough!