I can’t help every homeless person!

Maria Shriver recently wrote of a personal dilemma many of us have faced. Many of us know her for her leadership in the Special Olympics Movement and the HBO Alzheimers Project. Recently she was walking back to her car. She turned the corner and encountered a homeless man lying face-up on the sidewalk. She describes the scene…

He was motionless. Quiet. Had little sign of life. I wasn’t sure what to do or how to help him. So instead, I just kept walking with my head down. A moment later, a thought flashed through my mind. “Did I really just walk past a man lying on the ground and keep going?”
I got into my car and felt a deep sense of shame. As I sat in my car reflecting on what I had seen, that voice in my head kicked in again.
“It’s okay you walked by,” it said. “You can’t help every single homeless person. There are simply too many. What difference would it have made if you stopped?”

I wonder who of us has not wrestled with this question at some point in our lives.

Wrestling with the Dilemma

She remembered a conversation with a wealthy friend who has done more than his share to address the root causes of homelessness. He had raised more than $260 million to educate, house, employ and support individuals living in poverty around San Francisco. As she sat there thinking about that recent conversation about the scope of the problem, she realized something else.

I thought about the problem I was ignoring in my own backyard. All of a sudden, I felt motivated to get out of my car and walk back over to the man who I avoided just minutes before. His eyes turned to mine as I approached. That’s when I noticed a sign that said: “Can you give me money for coffee?” I asked the man if he was okay. He nodded yes and thanked me for stopping. I then handed him $20 and meekly said, “I hope this helps you get a few hot cups of coffee.” Right after that, another homeless man came up behind me and also asked for help. I reached back in my bag and handed him $10.

I don’t tell my story from this week to shame you or anyone. I tell it because I think we’ve all had these conflicted feelings. We’ve all felt overwhelmed by a problem of this magnitude and asked ourselves, “Is there really anything I can do to help?”

What can I do?

I was really struck by the both/and approach as she continued her reflection. It is a thoroughly Vincentian approach.

One thing I believe we can all do is talk about our values as a nation. As we head into another political year, this is a time when we must ask ourselves what matters to us most. From time to time, I want to write about the issues that require political will because deciding where we stand on them is about defining the heart and soul of our nation. What kind of country do we want to be?

As I went to bed the other night and thought about how many of our brothers, sisters children, parents and elderly are living without permanent shelter right now, I just felt so ashamed at us as a nation.

She then added…

I know this is a giant problem with no easy solution, but treating all individuals with respect is one place we can start to create ripples of change.

“Just don’t be afraid!” my friend Daniel said. “Sometimes a ‘hello’ or ‘how are you doing?’ can make someone’s day.”

That advice holds true for any of us. It’s true for any human being who wants to be seen, heard and valued. So the next time you see a homeless person on the street, maybe vow to stop for a moment. Smile, say “how are you?” and even ask their name, if you feel comfortable. Perhaps the best way we can make an impact on someone else’s heart is simply by recognizing our shared humanity.

I encourage you to read her very personal statement.

Where Do I Stand?

  • What is my response to this tension? Do I run away to one side or the other? Do I honor the truth of both poles of the tension?
  • Where can I find guidance and strength to hang on to both sides … and the people that live on one side or the other?

 


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