What the Homeless Taught Me About Caring 10 Ways to Pay It Forward

When I was a little girl growing up in New York City, it was pretty common to see people living on the streets. In the 1970s, many were heroin addicts, or at least that’s what my mom told me. But in the 1980s, the number skyrocketed, due in large part to the closing of mental hospitals, lack of affordable housing and the recession. We walked over people everywhere, many of whom were permanently camped out in the Port Authority and Grand Central Station.

Noticing people lying on the street stressed me out because I didn’t know what to do.

I watched as my mom, dressed in her suit, trench coat and heels systematically ignored everyone from panhandlers to women hallucinating in the public bathrooms. My father acted the same. So, thinking that’s what I was supposed to do, I followed their lead and pretended that I didn’t see people suffering everywhere. The only problem was, I did.

A few years later, I was walking down the street with my stepbrother, who at the time, was in his early 20s. We were on 9th Avenue near Midtown when a man who appeared to be homeless approached us. His clothing was disheveled and his beard scraggly. My stepbrother, instead of ignoring him, struck up a conversation and ended up giving the guy a couple cigarettes. I stood there stunned. Here was a different way to act. I wasn’t sure I could be as nonchalant and chill as my stepbrother, but I was determined to do something even though I felt shy and awkward.

It took me awhile to find my way.

Life sent me across the world and back where I saw a new kind of poverty in developing countries. But it wasn’t until the late 1990s, living in Los Angeles, when I finally got clarity. I went to hear a woman, I’ll call her Ma, speak one night and she said, “There are no throw away people.” Those words suddenly helped me understand what I’d felt all those years ago.

How can we ignore suffering?

How can we turn a blind eye and pretend we don’t see it? Maybe some people can, but I couldn’t. I was so relieved to hear her emphatically state that there were no disposable people; that every life mattered.

I’m not advocating we all become social workers or rush out and get jobs at not-for-profit organizations. But I will suggest, especially during this time of giving, that we be mindful of those who are less fortunate. How can we help another person in need?

Here are a Few Quick and Easy Ideas:

1.     Give the person cleaning the street or mall some cash - $5, $20- whatever works for your budget

2.     Smile at a stranger

3.     Hand a homeless person a sandwich

4.     Call your friend – you know she’s having a hard time – and be there for her

5.     Donate a toy

6.     Leave your waiter an extra large tip

7.     Clean out your closet and give the clothing to a local shelter or Goodwill

8.     Pay for the person behind you- at the tollbooth, subway, Starbucks or local veggie stand

9.     Volunteer – at a local food pantry, shelter or park

10. Send a prayer

Try one or ten from the above list and see how it feels. Once I realized that we are all the same, part of one human family, it changed both how I see people and how I interact with them. And instead of feeling scared and awkward, I feel loving and happy. Let me know how it goes!

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