by Graehme C. Ramey
A young couple walked down a quiet street, lost in conversation. Their dog pulled them along as he looked eagerly for dropped morsels of food.
As they reached a staircase that led up to the bustling Main Street of Greenville, the dog quickly scaled the concrete construct, forcing the couple to break into a half-jog to keep up. At the top, the well-lit sidewalk was suddenly filled with the audible roar of voices from the crowd of diners, drinkers and date-goers. The couple turned the corner and headed up the street and into the natural flow of the surrounding flock.
As they did so, there was a faint voice from behind them. It was so muffled and well hidden beneath the noise of the busy street that they almost didn’t notice it.
Looking back, they saw a frail and weathered-looking man leaning against the bridge railing over the Reedy River. He looked much older than them, and he had certainly seen better days. His snowy white hair was messy and unkempt, and from the way he compulsively pulled up on the hood of his sweatshirt, it seemed as if he held a certain level of shame about his appearance. His hands, which were as wrinkled as a well-worn map, held tightly to a small plastic bowl that rattled with abandoned pocket change.
When he noticed that they saw him, he spoke up and said, “Can anyone help a hungry old man?”
The young couple heard him. The young man knew it, his wife knew it and the crowd of people around them knew it, but for whatever reason, no one responded. The couple, still following their dog’s persistent pulling, turned their backs and moved away from the man at a steady pace.
After a few moments of uneasy silence, the young woman stopped their forward progress.
“Was he talking to us?” she asked, already knowing the answer. The man felt a sudden weight of guilt pressing into him and responded with a lie:
“I don’t think so; and anyways, I’m sure someone stopped to help.”
In reality, this is the reaction that most people have when they encounter someone who lives on the street. It’s much easier to avoid eye contact, to ignore the situation and to move forward in willful ignorance than to take a few moments to offer help.
During an interview with various members of the homeless community in Greenville, one man claimed that the worst part of being homeless was the day-to-day rejection by those passing by.
“It makes you feel as if you are no longer human. People avoid eye contact and walk out of the way to avoid you.”
Digging a little deeper revealed that this avoidance does not just happen when a person is asking for money. The man sees this daily, but understands how awkward it might be to pass a homeless person, especially for someone who does not have the means to help. Apparently, though, that’s not the only reason that people avoid eye contact.
Often, as the man explained, “People pretend you’re not even there. It’s easier for them to view us as something different. Maybe it makes them feel better if they just don’t think about the way we live.”
Perhaps there’s truth to this. Despite how it makes us feel, those men and women who live on the streets of Greenville — or any other city — are as human as we are. The reality of what they face is not all that different from the troubles that many of us struggle with. In fact, most of us have probably been one bad decision away from being in a similar position.
Until we stop seeing them as being so different from us, not only will they keep suffering in their need, but we will keep suffering in our ignorance.
In reality, all anyone on this planet — regardless of race, gender, sexual preference, religious affiliation or economic level — wants to do is survive. We are all the same. Every one of us. So why not survive together?