You may not know this—you may not even know me.
But the truth is, every time I pass by you on the sidewalk, I worry about you. I worry if you’re safe. And I worry if I’ll ever see you again.
I can spot you from a distance—from miles and miles away. I can sense your agony before I even start walking past you. And as soon I come closer to you, I instantly feel the tired, hopeless, and helpless gaze in your eyes, looking into mine.
Sometimes, I even hear you screaming, rambling incomprehensible words. And I tense up. I’m not sure if I should feel wary of or sorry for you. Is it possible to feel both with the same intensity?
So sometimes, I quicken my pace. But on most days, I intentionally slow down.
I can’t just ignore you, like everyone else does. I mean, you’re another human being, just like me, living on the streets. You have no access to a clean bathroom or a place to bathe, eat, or rest. Do you even have other humans who genuinely care about you?
I may never know how it feels like to live in your shoes. But I might know a thing or two about rootlessness, loneliness, and unbelonging. I know the agony of permanent homelessness, at least on a soul level, and I wonder if you feel the same way.
Sometimes, if I feel safe around you, I will nod, smile, or say, “Hello, how are you today?” And you will always meet me with the same tired eyes. Sometimes, you will force a smile back; sometimes, you will tell me, “What the hell are you smiling for?” Sometimes, you will ask me for some spare change.
But on most days, really, you just need someone to acknowledge you. You need someone to see you like the “normal” human being whom you are, without pitying or patronizing you or labeling you in some sort of box in our human mind. At least, that’s what I think.
If I am being honest, on most days, just like you, I feel helpless around you. I’m not sure what to do. People tell me you have developed a state of learned helplessness that keeps you stuck in your own loop of victimhood. And maybe that’s partially true—I don’t really know. I also think that we, collectively, have failed you. For whatever reason you ended up on the streets; we failed to acknowledge your pain, help you have access to the right resources—mental health, community, and a temporary, clean place to stay, without making you feel like you owe us anything for needing help.
But most importantly, our capitalistic system that measures human value on how much profit they generate has failed to give you a reason to keep your hope. It has failed to understand that the sick, the poor, and the mentally and physically challenged cannot cope with the constant demands of this system at its insane rate. We could barely keep up with those changes, too.
So, one day, you decided to just give up.
Sometimes, I watch people who ignore you, pretending you aren’t part of their city or wishing that you would just disappear. And I wonder, is it you who failed in this life, or is it the rest of us who are sleepwalking with our eyes glued to our screens and our hearts clenched like a fist?
But every time a person stops to acknowledge you with a kind smile, a nod, or a short conversation or even recognizes your name, I secretly smile in my heart.
The other day, you asked me for some spare change, and I told you I didn’t have any. I wasn’t lying. I’m one of those people who never carries cash with me. So you asked me if I could get you some stuff you needed from the convenience store. And I was happy you asked.
You ended up getting a lighter, some cookies, a blueberry muffin, and then, as I was about to pay, with a cheeky glister in your eyes that only a five-year-old could pull off, you asked me if you could add an orange juice. Of course, I said “yes.”
I cherished our little encounter. I even asked for your name to officially recognize the human I saw in front of me. Instead of just being another homeless person on the streets, I wanted to know who you were. But instead, I settled for your name. “Michelle.”
I was happy to see you happy, even if for a brief moment. But the truth is, I wasn’t.
It didn’t give me a sense of instant gratification or false chivalry or make me feel like a good human being. As soon as I left you, it dawned upon me that while I was heading home to my warm, soft bed to enjoy the meal I had just bought moments before we met, you’ll still have no place to stay. And it made me feel sad, hopeless, wounded, and angry.
I was angry at myself because I couldn’t do more, and at the injustice of our selfish, hyper-individualistic system.
I am sorry I couldn’t offer you more.
The other day, while I was returning from my run on a hot, sunny, mid-week afternoon, my eyes locked into yours. I asked you how you were. Without hesitating, you told me with sheer honesty, “Tired.” And I knew I had to stop.
I asked if I could offer you a decent meal. But instead, you asked me to walk with you to the liquor store to buy you a beer, which is cheaper than a decent meal.
I am sorry I had to say, “No.” I am sorry, but I don’t believe in perpetuating self-harm. I knew you were just trying to numb the pain you were internally feeling—to dissociate from the weight of this cold world. But I didn’t want to encourage your addiction just because I had deep empathy for you.
You see, sometimes empathy means keeping people away from harm instead of complying with what they want us to do just to clear our own internal guilt, shame, and feeling of helplessness.
Please know, I wasn’t trying to judge or patronize you—your life or your choices. If I were in your shoes, wouldn’t I have done the same thing? Maybe, I don’t know. Probably…
I just know that underneath all that pain I see in you, there’s a magnificent human being, with an incredible soul, capable of healing. I know you don’t believe me, and maybe you never will. It’s okay; most people don’t believe they’re capable of much either.
I’m not sure what it is. Do we intentionally ignore you because we hate what we see in you? Or because you remind us of the potential of what each of us could be if we choose to stop playing by the rules? That we might end up where you are if, one day, we cannot or choose not to function based on society’s ideals?
Or maybe, you remind us of the pain we constantly strive to push aside—the grief, the abandonment, the suffering, the shadow, and all the rejected parts of our soul that we conceal.
People tell me that eventually, I’ll learn to ignore you, in the same way I ignore the buildings, the cafes, the street signs, and the lampposts I see on my way. That eventually, you’ll dissolve amidst the chaos of the city—the sounds, the smells, the bikers, and the people with their incessant chatter.
But I’d like to remember you, even if we never speak a word. Even if we never exchange glances. Even if we remain strangers.
I’d like to remember the resilience I see beneath your misery and that untouched, untamed, child-like place that dwells within each wounded soul.
And maybe, one day—someday, you’ll be able to see that place, too.