I drive past a homeless man on my way home from work. He has set up a significant camp under the 101 freeway; a tent, camping chair, bicycle, and piles of random items. Last week he was holding a sign that read, “anything helps, even a cig.”
The number of homeless people in L.A. is staggering. Before I moved here I watched a Netflix documentary about the infamous Skid Row. But until I arrived here, I had no idea how widespread the homeless population is, and that I would see countless folks living on the street on a daily basis, miles away from Skid Row and downtown L.A.
I have mixed emotions about the homeless population. Mostly, it breaks my heart and I am overwhelmed with sadness when I see people asleep on the sidewalk or asking for money. And when they are accompanied by children or dogs it breaks my heart even more.
It also confuses me. A couple years ago I bought cookies for a woman begging for cookies outside Ralph’s grocery. When I handed her the cookies she told me they were the wrong kind. Hence my apprehension to give the guy a cig. I only smoke Camels*, and maybe he’s a Marlboro guy.
But then I read something like this, and I’m not sure what to think.
“Poverty and staying broke are diseases that we cause with our mindsets, which is why when we make the conscious choice to focus on what’s true for us and what feels good, instead of why we can’t and mustn’t get rich, we can cure ourselves.” -from “You are a Badass at Making Money” by Jen Sincero
From this perspective, we are ultimately responsible for our life. It’s up to us to overcome whatever cards we’re dealt and use our struggles as stepping stones. This mindset is the opposite of a victim mindset; believing we are victims of our circumstances is not empowering. Believing we are the co-creators of our life is.
So when I feel pity for homeless people, I am judging their situation from a victim-based mindset. And does that serve them? Am I making them small? Do they just doubt their greatness?
I’m really struggling inside with this. In many cases, mental illness is an obvious factor, and becoming more conscious is an impossibility. They need help far beyond the self-help variety. They need medical intervention.
The bottom line is that something went wrong along the way.
In order for me to serve the cigarette man best (“ANYTHING helps”), I need to know what he’s wanting help with. Because for me to assume he wants help getting out of his homeless situation is exactly that, an assumption. But let’s say he does.
I’ve never been homeless, but I’ve pulled myself out of pretty gnarly situations. If he wants to change his life, the only way I know how to help him is the way that I’ve helped myself. So I suppose I could give him a copy of “The Purpose Driven Life” or invite him to church.
But maybe all he really wants is a cig.
I don’t know how to help him, so I haven’t.
I just don’t know.
*I don't actually smoke