It's been a while since I've had the opportunity to buy anybody lunch but I've learned more about Seattle's homeless in the last few weeks than you would think possible.
I've gone out with the Union Gospel Mission's Morning Watch van once or twice a week for the past month and I've had a great time doing it. It's amazing the personalities that I meet out there on the streets and its surprising how many names and stories I'm remembering. I'm terrible at remembering names usually but the circumstances in which I've met these people have me thinking about them constantly for hours or days afterward so they stick in my mind like glue.
In my posts about Morning Watch I'll share some of their stories and some of my experiences but I'll keep their names out of it to preserve what little privacy their circumstances allow. Sometimes I'll run off on some personal opinions apparently...as this post seems to have turned into so I hope you enjoy! :)
"Homeless people" is about as bad a generalization as any other standard you can think of, based on race, other prosperity levels, gender, etc. There is too vast a range of personalities and backgrounds in that broad category and I believe that this generalization, as usual, helps the public (non-homeless people) to walk by their homeless neighbors time after time, day after day without seeing the depths of the plight these neighbors are in. This, however, is a rather blatant generalization itself...awfully hard to avoid that.
There are several gentlemen I've met on the streets so far that seem to be perfectly content right where they are. Certainly not a majority, but they are there. I don't know if they like the lifestyle, the sort of pseudo-freedom (from my perspective. From their perspective my freedoms could easily be seen as very demanding and restrictive: job, house payments, taking care of my house, etc.) or why they seem so comfortable but that may just be how it is for them personally.
From where I sit, I think that these folks are probably not quite all there mentally and could actually really benefit from some serious help but there enters a catch 22. I don't think most would accept the help if offered. They are happy to receive the coffee we bring them in the morning especially with the included relationships that we build up over time but if offered anything further they happily refuse, and to impose any sort of additional help that they didn't accept would effectively be removing that last vestige of perceived freedom that they currently experience. In the long run this may be a good thing for them and for society but I can't think of anyone I would trust to make that decision for the friends I've made in Seattle so far.
From the, still generalized, "contented" we can make a hop, skip and a jump over to the other side of the spectrum where we find a decidedly more populated group of homeless individuals that abhor their lives, how they live, what they do and everything else. More often than not, these people have been just as hospitable to me on the streets as the contented group and over a longer period of time (I'm still very new to this scene) maybe the people at both ends of the spectrum can bounce around significantly, switching sides for a month or a year before switching again. It wouldn't surprise me.
For both groups and the majority in between, I think it is our best choice, I may even consider it a duty, to simply make ourselves available to people who may need assistance. We need to do this humbly and patiently so that its obvious that we welcome opportunities to help. In this way when there is a need, someone will be there to fill it. This approach addresses problems directly, creates a trusted community and respects individual liberties...even those liberties that many may consider to be crazy like choosing to live in the streets - not that it is always a choice, only potentially - or the choice not to accept deeply needed help.
To wrap up my rambling - this post did not go quite where I expected - I would like to point out that, while it is a very kind act and should not be ceased, giving money to a homeless person one passes on the sidewalk does not satisfy the duty that I feel people should be called to regarding their homeless neighbors. At least not if that is all that is ever done. If you are honest with yourself when you pass someone starving on the street, whatever you are doing or going to do is very unlikely to be more important than a simple meal to that person who hasn't eaten all day. But the meal itself pales in comparison to what could be accomplished by making yourself available, by stopping and asking what that homeless person needs instead of just moving for the quick $5. Often it won't actually take all that much more of your time or money, while sometimes it will. Either way, more often than not it'll be more valuable for both parties if there is an actual connection made. Simple eye contact, an introduction?, hand shake?, communication: "can I buy you lunch?". These interactions satisfy a different, more important hunger than can't be matched by the fanciest restaurant in the world.