Homelessness: Up close and personal

November 7, 2013 | 11 a.m.

News | Jenny Hudalla for The Clarion

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Photo for The Clarion courtesy of Jenny Hudalla

The following is a blog post from Jenny Hudalla, a student currently studying abroad on Spain Term.

Homelessness isn’t something we like to talk about over lunch. Like many social issues, we tuck it away in the section of our minds labeled “not applicable.” Indeed, because the vast majority of us rarely come face-to-face with homelessness, we’re able to let one of the country’s most pressing social problems fly under the radar.

While our collective neglect of the topic is concerning, perhaps even more concerning is the way in which we interact with people on the streets. How do we react when we do come in contact with homelessness? If you’re anything like me, you’d probably rather not answer that question.

The cultivation of my attitude toward beggars began when I was very young, and the list of reasons that I shouldn’t give them money seemed endless.

“Don’t hand out cash! They’ll just use it for drugs.”

“What are you thinking, taking out your wallet? They’ll snatch it right out of your hand.”

“Don’t bother helping them; they’re not really homeless. They probably have an accomplice watching where you store your money, and they’ll pickpocket you later.”

Indeed, I was brought up to consider the homeless with a certain level of distrust, which wasn’t entirely unwarranted. The above mentioned scenarios have played out enough times for parents to justify warning their children about scams and petty thievery.

However, this distrust – combined with my lack of proximity to the issue – is the very thing that enables my shameful and conditioned reaction to homelessness. It goes like this: every time I encounter a beggar, I avert my eyes, give them a wide berth as I pass by, and do my best to put the experience out of my mind as soon as possible.

On a block full of designer shops with tuxedo-clad doormen, consumers spend tens of thousands of euros on accessories without giving this woman a passing glance.

So there you have it. It’s not a reaction I’m proud of, but it’s a reaction that society has taught me is normal and even acceptable. I don’t know if I ever would have addressed my intentional evasion of people on the streets if it weren’t for my trip to Rome, Italy, where the implications of my ignorance hit me so hard that my attitude turned a full 180.

To give you a bit of context, I had been traveling around Cinque Terre and Tuscany for nearly a week before arriving for a 4-day stay in Rome. Having spent hundreds of dollars on vacation lodging, pizza and gelato, I had a difficult time swallowing the destitution I found in Italy’s capital city.

Between the metro and my B&B – a route I walked every day – there were at least five people who appeared to be homeless or in a state of extreme poverty. Their faces are etched in my memory: the young man with the disfigured leg; the man wearing plaid and stroking his weathered dog; the woman covered in cloth, rocking back and forth with her face pressed to the ground; the man on his knees, hands clasped and openly pleading for help. And then the one that hit me the most: the little old woman who approached me outside of a sandwich shop. With one hand clutching her cane, she feebly motioned for the food I had just bought for a measly 3 euros.

Without thinking, without feeling, I gave a slight shake of my head and instinctively turned my back. I hardly made it ten steps before being hit with a hurricane of self-disgust. This woman hadn’t been asking for money, and she was too old to pose any kind of threat. All she had wanted was food, and there I had been, holding a giant sandwich.

Matthew 25:42 sprang into my head of its own accord. Jesus is talking about how the righteous and the wicked will be separated on Judgment Day, when he will turn away those who turned away from him during their earthly lives. He says, “Away with you . . . For I was hungry, and you didn’t feed me. I was thirsty, and you didn’t give me anything to drink.” He goes on to say that when we refuse to help those in need, we are refusing him.

It’s almost a week later, and I still can’t shake the feeling that I failed Jesus that day. I’ve been so mindlessly ignorant of homelessness that I have never truly considered the Christ-like response to such an issue. But how did I become so uncompassionate?

It all comes back to that seed of distrust. We have become so hardened to the world, so skeptical of the goodness of humanity, that we have brainwashed ourselves into believing that it’s okay for us to turn away from beggars. After all, their intentions could be malicious, right? We could be putting ourselves in danger, right?

Right. But let me ask you this: who are we to judge their intentions? Who are we to put our own well-being before the well-being of others? The Bible is clear. God is the judge, and we are to serve Him first, then others and then ourselves.

So what excuse do we have? It might not be practical or even possible to give money to every person we encounter on the streets, but could we spare some change every now and then? Probably. Could I have spared my sandwich that day? Absolutely. At the very least, we should start treating the homeless like people instead of an unpleasant stain on the wall that we’d rather not see.

I know this isn’t a comfortable topic. In fact, it’s quite uncomfortable to think about giving a few dollars or, in my case, a recently purchased sandwich to someone whose intentions could just as easily be malicious as they could be honest. But that day in Rome, it was infinitely more uncomfortable for me to look that old woman in the face and refuse her, knowing that I might have just refused Jesus as well.

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