Some time ago, as we entered the city on a drive back from the mountains, we stopped at an intersection waiting for a red light to turn green. On the cement divider between east and west traffic a young woman stood, hat in hand, looking for handouts. She smiled. She waved. She greeted people with shouts of, “Hey! It’s all for a good cause.” And, people complied. They rolled down their windows and tossed their coins into the bright orange cap she extended towards them. The light turned green and everyone continued on their way feeling good about themselves. They’d supported a good cause.
And they had. It was a worthy cause. Parked on the grassy corner of the intersection, the big blue and orange organization’s van was plastered with banners encouraging people to Give to the Cause. Volunteers leaped up and down, cheering, waving at the passing cars, encouraging those at red lights to open their wallets and support the panhandlers walking beside them. Drivers honked their horns. Waved. Called out cheers. It was a lively intersection filled with purpose — and a cause.
On another corner, a homeless man walked between the waiting cars at the red light, a handmade cardboard sign held up against his chest. “Please help. Homeless. Hungry. God Bless.” The drivers stared steadfastly forward, watching the light, wishing it would turn faster so that they could get away from this sign of decay in our society. No one rolled down their window. No one smiled at the scruffy-looking, dark haired, bearded man as he shuffled along the roadway, asking for help.
On one corner, a worthy cause. On the other? A hopeless case? Undeserving drug-addict breaking the law?
One deserves our support. What about the other?
Yes, the funds raised to support research into finding cures for horrible diseases are important. But what about their tactics? By mimicking the methods used by vulnerable individuals, are they not legitimizing the very tactic we deplore? The one police hand out tickets for to deter the unacceptable practice of panhandling?
Someone empties their car ashtray on the street and drives on, leaving behind their garbage. We don’t give a lot of thought to their passing by other than to possibly mutter under our breath, “some people’s children” — or words to that effect. We sweep away the garbage and continue on with our day.
A person experiencing homelessness leaves their garbage on the sidewalk and disappears from our sight. We gather up all signs of their passing by and sweep away their unsightly mess. We’ve got a lot to say about what they’ve done. A lot of names to call them. But hey! What can we do? They’re just the homeless, good-for-nothing, lazy drug addict. They’ve made choices. It’s all their fault. Why can’t they get a job or at least clean up their own garbage?
Watching two different scenarios on the street unfold I found evidence of the thin line that divides us. We’re all human beings. We’re all under stress. We’re all capable of magnificence. We’re all worthy of a chance to make a difference — and we are all guilty of labelling difference-making both positive and negative.
Sometimes, what we do is not that different. It’s just the label we attach to our efforts that legitimizes what side of the street we’re on. Good cause. Hopeless case. It’s all in our perceptions.