I live in New York City, and “the homeless problem” is a phrase I’ve heard a lot in my life. When I was growing up, you could pass the homeless practically anywhere throughout your day. As the city experienced a kind of renaissance, it seemed they almost disappeared. Now it’s a problem again. When you think about “the homeless problem,” what comes to mind?
A short experiment
Here’s a thought exercise to make it a bit more real. Imagine you’re walking in a beautiful park in your neighborhood early one morning. The sun is out. The grass is bright green and freshly cut. There are neatly landscaped areas full of flowers. You’re happy just to be walking in such a nice place.
Then you notice someone sleeping on the lawn. You’ve seen that person before, in the same brown sweatshirt and pants. You notice another person you’ve seen before too, laying their head on overstuffed bags. You realize they’re homeless, and they’ve slept overnight in the park.
What are you feeling? What are your next thoughts?
My walk in the park
This is more than a mental exercise for me. It’s something I do almost every morning as I take a walk around Battery Park City.
My own, almost instinctive reaction is irritation, as if their presence and unfortunate circumstances are ruining my view. (“They shouldn’t be here. They should be in a shelter or something.”) Though the park is public, these particular people are somehow infringing on my space.
Other feelings include disgust (“She wears those same clothes every day!") and powerlessness (“I wish there was a better system.”) and even shame (“I’ve never done anything to help.”)
Every day that I walk by the park and feel those feelings, I am disappointed in myself.
When the homeless problem comes up in conversation with friends, the most common reaction is to blame our mayor. Certainly, we see more homeless people on the streets than we did under the previous mayor. One of us may say something about how “the shelters should be better.” But the truth is I have no idea about the state of the shelters. Nor do I know about this mayor’s policies or how they might affect those who are homeless.
In fact, it usually doesn’t feel like we’re talking about people at all. It’s more like the sanitation department’s budget has been cut and we’re upset the streets aren’t as clean as they used to be. We’re looking for someone to blame.
A starting point
Recently, I read something that might help me change my habits and give me a way out of my daily discomfort and disappointment.
In Taking the Leap, Pema Chödrön writes about how our desire to avoid certain feelings can lead us to shut down, and how in shielding ourselves we lose the chance to be open to new possibilities, to grow. One of the examples she used was particularly familiar.
“There are panhandlers that we rush by because their predicament makes us uncomfortable…
Our usual process is…an internal conversation about how another person is the source of our discomfort…all because we don’t want to go near the unpleasantness of what we’re feeling. This is a very ancient habit. It’s allows our natural warmth to be so obscured that people like you and me who have the capacity for empathy and understanding that we can harm each other. When we hate those who activate our fears or insecurities, those who bring up unwanted feelings, and see them as the sole cause of our discomfort, then we dehumanize them, belittle them, and abuse them.”
That’s how a person I’m walking by isn’t a person, but a problem.
In Comfortable with Uncertainty, she writes that a place to start is to practice developing compassion. Not to feel sorry for someone, but simply at first to pause. To recognize their suffering. To let yourself feel what you're feeling and be open to what they might be feeling. To acknowledge just how easily your positions might have been reversed. Compassion is “a relationship between equals...Compassion becomes real when we recognize our shared humanity."
You start by being mindful of your almost instinctive urge to shut down.
“Right at this point we can recognize that we are closing, allow a gap, and leave room for change to happen…It can become daily practice to humanize the people that we pass on the street.”
I don’t know what I can do to solve “the problem” or to make a difference. But I know I can change my thinking, that I can relate to these people as people. Maybe that’s what makes the next step possible. Maybe that changes everything.