Amid the torrent of emotions and mental imagery that are evoked with the phrase “homeless people,” the latter half of the label is often lost in translation. Many of us can’t identify with or relate to these individuals in any meaningful way, so we keep ourselves at arm’s length. Thus, we end up with benign neglect and objectification of an entire population within our society. Homeless people deserve to be treated the same as we all deserve to be treated: with respect and dignity. Yet, the humanity of these individuals gets mingled with thoughts of drug abuse, disease, disgust and distrust. My current job as a Loss Prevention Manager in the Seattle area has afforded me the opportunity of gaining perspective on lifestyles that I hadn’t seen before, especially considering my somewhat cloistered middle-class upbringing.
While it’s not uncommon for us to hear negative sweeping generalizations in reference to our homeless population, the slander and stereotype-rich prejudice was more blatant among my Loss Prevention peers in North Seattle. One of my most poignant experiences of this bias arose two years ago. My supervisor at the time was John. His position on homeless people differed from my own and we argued extensively on the issue.
The springboard that often triggered our conflict was a local transient whom I'd dubbed ‘Catatonic Man.’ I so named him due to his stilted gait, speechlessness and vacant, chiseled expression. He was tall and slim, and wore a dark, bushy beard highlighted in gray. His reminded me of a sequoia tree. His attire never changed from one day to the next: dusty blue denim jeans, oversized black parka and some old, punctured shoes. John was not shy about his extreme dislike for Catatonic Man. In fact, he would speak with conviction about how society would be more utopian if Catatonic Man, as well as all homeless people, were dead or somehow removed and isolated from the rest of society. John’s hostility and venomous remarks towards homeless people were unlike anything I had heard before.
I can’t exactly pinpoint when Catatonic Man stopped coming to our parking lot to ‘stare for money.’ I suppose that’s how it goes: sometimes folks just vanish without a trace. I wondered where he went and had happened to him. I wondered if he was someplace safe. He might have been hospitalized or maybe scored an open bunk at a shelter. Most disquieting was the knowledge of my worst fears being John’s greatest wishes: that Catatonic Man had passed away, cold and alone.
About a year later, I found myself in an unforgettable situation. Again I was working in North Seattle when, late in the afternoon, I received a call from a store associate. The voice on the other end rattled nervously in the earpiece: “Um, um…. a customer just reported a dead body in the parking lot.” I ran to the store, wondering how I was going to handle this situation and realizing that none of my training had covered ‘what to do when you find a dead homeless person in the parking lot.’ The grave nature of the situation had generated a small crowd.
“Why?” I wondered. “If there really was a dead person in the parking lot, why didn’t anyone call the police?”
A customer pointed me in the direction of the body and along with a few spectators, I trudged out to find it. The woman sat slumped and propped up against the tire of a car tucked in the far corner of the parking lot. Indeed, I didn’t see any movement whatsoever. No indication of life. My stomach twisted, I began to sweat.
Selfishly I thought, “Is she really dead? Why did this customer have to come inside and tell ME?”
I crept closer to the woman's body. My voice quivered. “Ma’am?” Her chest did not move. Louder, I repeated, “Ma’am, are you ok?” I looked back at my little crowd for reassurance but saw only crinkled foreheads mirroring my own worries. I imagined poking her with a stick, like one might do with roadkill.
Once more I stepped closer and yelled, “MA’AM, CAN YOU HEAR ME? ARE YOU OK?”
At this, she got startled and came to life. She jolted straight up, gasping, her eyes bulging and blinking wildly as if trying to see in the dark. She looked as though she had just been doused with a bucket of ice cold water. She slurred and gurgled for a minute, muttering random nonsense and trying to organize words with her brain and mouth. Our disposition was conflicted between reluctant opposition and helpless hesitance. We waited there, suspended in our confusion.
Finally, her garbled words formed a sentence: “Can…. can someone help me up?”
No one acted. No one wanted to touch her. She sat there vulnerable and staring up at five strangers who only stared back at her as she pleaded for help. It seemed as if we hovered in that moment for an eternity. Finally, I twitched into action. I stepped behind her, placed my arms under hers, and helped her to her feet. She remained disjointed and incoherent for the remainder of our interaction. I gave her a bottle of water and asked if she wanted me to call an ambulance. She didn’t appear to recognize the peril of her situation and only mumbled in response. I stood and watched as she staggered away. I wondered why the crowd had dispersed in ridicule and laughter. Guilt seeped into me. It occurred to me that we had treated her as an expendable burden, as someone who “brought it on themselves.” We had not treated her like another human in distress. I was disheartened in the aftermath, yet conceded to the hope that our parking lot madam mustered the means to live another day.
Since then, I’ve transferred to a store in Mill Creek where I find that homelessness is not exclusive to Seattle.
Every morning at around 7am, he comes in with his pack and bedroll strapped to his back. I approximate his age to be around 48 with slender 150 pounds packed into a modest frame of 5'8". He is unkempt and disheveled, yet still with an earnest sincerity gleaming through his twinkling blue eyes. First, he visits the public restroom where he practices the standard hygienic rituals that most of us perform in our own bathrooms. Next, he helps himself to a complimentary cup of coffee which is typically reserved for the paying customers. Sometimes the sales associates turn the coffee machine off when they see him coming. He resides in the suburban wilderness nearby, and I’ve seen him sunning his wet clothes in the parking lot after a refreshing summer rain. Sometimes he works day labor doing odd jobs for contractors. If not, then he holds up a cardboard sign in a busy Mill Creek intersection: “Please. No food or place to live. God Bless.” I see him there, day after day. Passers-by verbally accost him. Law enforcement hustle and harass him for his existence. One day a pedestrian spat on the ground near his feet. Another day someone doused him with a soft drink. If not arrant belligerence, then shunning is the next response of the general public. I fumble with my cell phone and pretend to talk as I cast my gaze away from him. I ponder these actions from others, from us, without a single provocation from him except for maybe the “nerve” to ask for some charity. I daydream about where he grew up, his favorite toy as a child, who his parents are, and does he have any siblings? I contemplate how he came to be here, at this intersection of life, before me. I wonder why we feel justified in treating him far worse than we treat our pets seated at our feet, begging for table scraps.
The common bond these people share is their social standing within our society as well as having been stereotyped and mistreated based on their lifestyle. I reflect on the lives of these individuals, none of whose names I know (much to my chagrin). I think about their families, goals and passions. I think about their isolation, despair and rejection. I think about all the ways that they are like me, and we are like them. I think about all the things that make us human, together. It isn’t necessary for us to share a genetic base in order to feel connected to and responsible for our extended family of humanity. The paths they walk could just as easily be our own. Homeless members of our society deserve to be treated the same as we all deserve to be treated: with dignity and respect.