Look closer for humanity in the homeless

The people we see on the streets don’t look like us or most people we know, but there is still a human side to them.

I met Bernard on a blustery November morning, and he wrote me a poem.

It’s about how love makes Christmas come true, and part of the five-line free verse reads, “Fools hate love and love war. But happy New Year. Babey (sic) and we all love you.”

He signed it, “Bernard L. Singleton. I have a name, O.K.”

“I have a name, O.K.,” I read after he scrawled it, in loopy penmanship, in black pen onto loose-leaf. I realized then it isn’t often that people Bernard asks to spare change even acknowledge him, let alone ask his name.

Roughly 4,000 people are homeless on any given day in Philadelphia, according to Project H.O.M.E.’s Web site. And, if you’re anyone who’s been anywhere in this city, unless you’re living in some sort of bubble, that number shouldn’t surprise you.

Walk anywhere in Philadelphia and you’re bound to be accosted for change.

I met Bernard near 15th and Spring streets in Center City, just north of Temple’s Center City campus. I bought him something to eat.

He set up his collection of worn quilts, three trash bags and a canvas bag of belongings on the grassy hill on the west side of 15th Street. As he ate a breakfast sandwich, he told me some of his story.
He said he was 40 years old and from North Philadelphia. He usually sleeps in a nearby shelter at night but spends nearly every day on that peaceful patch of grass.

“It’s relaxing, just sitting here, reading the Bible and all,” he said, and read me a Bible passage.

He said he’s looking forward to spending Christmas with his family. He hasn’t worked for two years but plans to go back to work soon.

Spending just 15 minutes with Bernard made me realize, more than I ever have before, that the homeless are human, too. It’s so easy here in Philadelphia where plight and violence are the norm, to pass someone on the street and refuse them money.

I know as college students, we aren’t the richest people around town. Often, we can’t even make ends meet.

The point is, no matter how stressful it is trying to figure out how to pay that next bill or afford tuition, we have it better than so many of our fellow Philadelphians. Imagine not having a warm apartment or dorm to go home to at night and not knowing whether you’ll be able to eat on a given day. It’s scary.

At the end of the day, a quarter or dollar really doesn’t make that much of a difference. The homeless don’t ask for much, and most of the time, any help means a lot to them. It shows someone out there cares, among the scores of people who don’t.

It’s tough, I know. The homeless are humans, yes, but we don’t look at them like we’d look at our siblings, friends, professors or significant others. I’m not denying there’s a huge gap there. What do you even say to someone who doesn’t have a home?

With Bernard, I wished I could talk longer, ask more questions, but I saw him losing focus. It takes chutzpah to approach someone like him and sit, enduring the looks from passers-by, but I didn’t care. I wanted to know his story. But, I could only pry so much before feeling like I was taking advantage, asking too much of someone who has so little.

I’m not saying go out and give everyone on the street five bucks. It doesn’t have to cost much. But just see the humanity there, and even if you can’t spare change, stop and make conversation, or just say hello. Small, simple acts of kindness speak volumes.

Bernard told me it isn’t very often people stop to talk to him, and as I left, he said, “God bless you.” He wouldn’t forget me and reminded me that he still has hope.

“Christmastime is special,” he said, “once you start hoping for a better New Year.”

Morgan Zalot can be reached at morgan.zalot@temple.edu.

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