No Sympathy for the Poor

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By Hyunny Kwon 

Trust me, I would love to stand on the street and beg for money, but I can’t, can I?

But you have to think, like what they did to get themselves in that situation. Like you think you could trust these people?

Sometimes, judgment is good. For their own good.

These are words spoken in regards to homeless people.  These are words spoken by hard-working, well-meaning Millennials, just like myself.  I am a full-time, debt-ridden college student, and part-time barista in the Bay Area.  This week, the hilariously hyped, hip coffee shop I work at kindly refused service to a regular customer who most people believe to be homeless.  His name is Chris.  I’m not the sweet, chatty, get-to-know-you type of barista so I don’t know for certain that he is homeless.  But he looks and smells like he is, so some of our wonderful regulars complained about his presence, his existence in the store.

Chris was a regular paying customer who was always nice to me.  He always smiled and acknowledged his barista, which many other regulars fail to do.  He was kind.  I’m referring to Chris in past tense now, because he no longer exists in my world.  He no longer exists in the worlds of our wonderful regulars, the well-meaning, coffee-drinking hipsters, techies, and millionaires of Palo Alto.

Last night, I helped with laundry at a homeless shelter just across the highway from the coffee shop I work at.  Charlie, an older Tongan gentleman, who’d been living at this shelter for five months supervised and helped me with the laundry.  I didn’t ask many questions (I’m not really the chatty, get-to-know-you type of volunteer either), but he talked a lot and I listened.  He said something that surprised me, “You know, Hyunny, you might think—this might sound stupid, but after I divorced my wife and found myself on the streets, I felt,” he paused and checked if a load was dry, “I felt free,” he sighed. “I felt like a kid. I went to sleep and thought, if I don’t wake up tomorrow, it’s okay.”

I volunteered to do laundry.  I brought my book to read because I wasn’t really expecting to talk to anyone.  And here I was, stunned by this man’s—something, what was it?  Humanity?  Honesty?  After he said that, even though I couldn’t fathom that sentiment while sleeping on a sidewalk, I opened up a bit.  He asked me about school and what my passions are.  I told him I have no idea. Remember, I’m just a well-meaning, quarter-life crisis-having Millennial. I told him I like reading.  He asked if I was a good writer.  I told him I have no idea.  He laughed and said that I better do something.

You never know if you don’t try.

It’s funny, the effect of this cliché coming from the mouth of a wise, old, homeless dude is quite different from reading it on an “Inspirational Quotes” board on Pinterest. I learned that Charlie had seven children, none of whom were aware of his situation.  He said that he didn’t want to tell them, but he said that it wasn’t about pride.  I wasn’t so sure.  Charlie then told me that his daughter was a great writer.

Me and my daughter, we were at the church. I’m a Catholic. And the kids had a assignment. They wanted the children to write about us, about the parents. They asked the girls, ‘Write down, 1: what do you know about your fathers’ that’s me, ‘2: write down what do you think of them’, and I read after what my daughter wrote, and she was good, very good.

“How old was she?” I asked. He thought about it, and said “Something like nine years old.” He saw my look of surprise, “Oh, yeah, that’s why you have to try.  She was very young. Very good, good voice. Her words flow nice.”

I thought about what I’d write down if I had to respond to that prompt.

1: what do you know about your fathers? Not much, honestly.

2: write down what do you think of them. I don’t really.

There you go Charlie, I tried.

I learned that Charlie, at some point, lived near where I live now, Hayward, about a thirty-minute drive from the shelter. “I used to sleep near West A St., you know where that is? I would walk around there, I bet I passed you,” he smiled a toothless smile.

I do know West A St.  It very much exists in my world, that street.  Charlie didn’t exist in my world, though.  He was just another homeless guy.  I looked around the shelter, and saw people walking around, doing chores, watching TV, zoning out.  I wondered how many of these people were coming “home” from a day of being asked, by the world, not to exist. That is in the form of people refusing to serve them, refusing to give them money, refusing to look at them.  And when we don’t refuse them, we help them on our conditions.

I’ll help them, but I’ll give them something they actually need. I’ll buy them food.

They’ll just spend it on drugs.

Why don’t they get a job?

If you give them money, you enable them.

More words from well-meaning Millennials.

Enable them…

Charlie told me that money is “one hot commodity” because people don’t want to give money.  They’ll spend the money, but they won’t give it away.  They always want to give food.  He said, “Yeah food is great, but money— one time a girl gave me five dollars so I went and got myself a toothbrush and a little toothpaste. Think about it.”

It’s odd, when a person on the street refuses food and asks for money, we are skeptical.  It’s like we don’t believe them when they tell us they’re poor, when they are begging.  Or we decide that they better be hungry enough to accept any food, they better be that poor.  Why do we need beggars to prove to us that they’re poor, that they’re so poor that they are starving?  As if they don’t deserve our money unless they are on the brink of starvation.  I find it strange because it’s my generation that is begging the government for reform.  We’re the ones screaming that we’re starving, that we’re drowning in debt.  But when it’s someone on the street begging for help, we judge, we ask why, we turn away.  We separate ourselves from the people who are just as much victims of the system we hate, as we are.

The system we hate.  We the Millennials sure hate “the man”.  We hate the establishment. We hate the 1 percent.  We question Hillary, and we despise Trump.  Don’t get me wrong, the anger and disgust we have for the system is entirely warranted, and I feel it in my blood.  But we’ve done a really good job of convincing ourselves that, because we like an “OCCUPY DEMOCRATS” article on Facebook, or because we repost a “FEEL THE BERN” video, that we are fixing things.  We like, like, like, share, share, share some profound viral video about an abnormally generous homeless man and tell ourselves that we are contributing to the solution.  I think we might be kidding ourselves.

Remember that viral video?  The one where a saint-like homeless man accepted $100 just to go to a store and buy stuff for other homeless people.  Remember shedding a tear, feeling, in your soul, the restoration of faith in humanity, and then clicking “share with friends”?  Don’t get me wrong, that man is good and I’m thankful that people like him exist.  But what a video like that does is perpetuate a sick standard and idea that homeless people need to be extraordinarily good in order to be granted our sympathy.  If a homeless person is anything but good and grateful, we assume they deserve to be living under the circumstances that they are.  I think we might be kidding ourselves.

Millennials, I am speaking to you because I know we are well-meaning, hard-working people. I am speaking to you because I know we collectively crave change.  Because we are a generation living under circumstances we didn’t choose.  But because we aren’t just good and grateful to be living in this grand country, we are called spoiled, lazy, naïve, privileged.  Because we aren’t just good and grateful, we are deemed fools.

I am speaking to you to remind you that the beggars you refuse to look at or trust with a dollar, are also people living under circumstances they didn’t choose.  And when we deny them help, acknowledgment, or sympathy, we are denying their existence.  And when we use the money we have to exert our power over them and claim to know their needs better than they do, we are making hypocrites of ourselves.  When we demean and judge them we are cold and brutal.  And when we expect them to be nothing but good and grateful, we are not just kidding ourselves, we are resigning ourselves to ignorance and hypocrisy.

Charlie must have seen something in my expression as I watched the people in the shelter, existing purely in this shelter.  I felt bad for these people.  I didn’t realize my face was contorted in pity. He said,  “You know, we’re okay.  It’s not so bad. But sometimes you just need something, someone to—“Then with his hand, he grasped air near the floor and with his whole body, pulled an imaginary someone up off the ground.  And smiled a toothless smile.


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