I heard our local police chief refer to homeless people as an eyesore. An eyesore. Like a junkyard, like old wet carpet piled at the curb, like boarded up, burned out buildings on main street. Living breathing people seen as an eyesore.
He wasn’t speaking about his department’s official policy toward homelessness, as in, their mission was to reduce community eyesores. He was just talking off the cuff, albeit to an audience of a couple of hundred people, influential ones to boot. We all heard what he said. The word came out of his mouth like he’d used it at roll call the day before. There was no pause, no searching, no thinking Do I mean eyesore or do I mean tragedy?
I wanted to follow up with him but I didn’t. I wanted to think the chief didn’t really mean it. The police here are pretty decent with homeless folks. They don’t clear camps and roust people who aren’t bothering anyone although they have in the past. Two years ago a man who had lived on the banks of the river told me about having his tent and all his belongings trashed by the cops. I believed him but, you know, I didn’t subject what he said to me to a full investigation.
Yesterday, I pulled up to a stoplight where there was a woman holding a sign soliciting money. I don’t always give panhandlers money but I keep dollar bills in my console for that purpose. Someone holding a sign isn’t usually enough for me. I need to look in their eyes, make some connection because, otherwise, it’s such an exercise of noblesse oblige, tossing a dollar bill at someone. Handing them a dollar bill becomes more like a handshake if you are able to look someone in the eye.
I said, “How you doin’?” She took the dollar bill and folded it into her pocket. She was maybe fifty, hair dyed brown, gray roots, heavier, wearing baggy jeans and a hoodie even though the morning was already plenty warm. She most certainly lived in the big tent city that has emerged under the east-west freeway that splits our city in half.
“Are you doin’ okay?” I asked again, as if there was an answer. Yeah, I’m doin’ great out here with your dollar bill in my pocket. All good. Thanks for asking. She did a little shrug, a little shake of the head, and then the light changed. And, of course, I was glad to go. I scolded myself a little. What kind of dialogue did I think I deserved for a dollar? How much shuckin’ and jivin’ was the right amount? Why is it so irresistible to tie strings to a single dollar bill?
At McDonald’s I paid with a twenty so I’d get a lot of ones back and stock up the console. I didn’t want to always have to go in my wallet. That meant sorting through different bills to find a single. Once a homeless woman, impatient with my wallet searching, pointed to a twenty and said, “I’ll just take that.” I found a single and gave it to her but I appreciated her annoyance. It was like she was saying, Hey, I’m not some little kid here standing around waiting for money for a popsicle. I got serious needs.
The common theme to all of this is judging people. Me judging who are the worthy homeless by looking in their eyes and homeless people judging me for my generosity or lack of it. Non-homeless people fuss about whether to give money to homeless people and think they’re righteous the whole time — whether they give money or don’t or, if they’re like me, they establish some eye contact litmus test to giving.
But homeless people do their own judging. Being homeless doesn’t strip people of opinion. I felt the slight scorch of opinion from the woman at the stoplight. She wasn’t just an eyesore standing on the corner. She was a person who thought my patronizing question really didn’t deserve an answer. I loved her for that. It reminded me that we’re equal.