Last week, while shopping for groceries at the Food Emporium
on 14th St. in NYC
, I witnessed a situation that most people would find uncomfortable and forgettable. A homeless
man, who managed to scrape together some money, came in to buy some food to sustain life. At the checkout
, he and the cashier
exchanged some nasty words. He refused to leave without an apology
, and came back after walking away to argue more with the supermarket's management
. This moment, for me personally, was a moment of clarity
Why didn't he just leave? Why didn't he just buy his beans and beer and go back out into the street? Why did he have to start up such a scene and begin yelling at so many people? The reason, quite simply, is that for those few minutes he was arguing with people, he existed as a human being.
For most of us who are city dwellers, homeless people are a very common sight. There would be something wrong with the city scene if all the poor pavement dwellers disappeared. The walk down 14th street would not seem normal if you don't pass the homeless teens or old men between 3rd and 4th avenue. For most of us, we have made it a point to pretend that these people don't exist. We simply make it a habit to ignore them. Most people don't even bother to say 'nope, sorry' and continue walking when the homeless ask for change, the whole time, deliberately not making eye contact. In our minds, we shut them out, we make them nonexistent.
So on line at the supermarket, this particular man from the homeless masses existed. He had some money and was ready, willing, and able to purchase some merchandise from the store. He was a customer. He had rights. Despite how disheveled he looked, he was entitled, just like the rest of us money spending folk, to customer satisfaction and service with a smile. The chances of him actually getting that were slim.
So when he was treated like scum in his time of existence, naturally he was annoyed. His argument with the cashier, in which I only picked up the phrase, "shame on you" repeatedly, was well justified. This time was probably the first time in weeks he was interacting with people on a personal level and not asking them for change. So naturally, despite being involved in an argument, he wanted to continue this interaction and exchange of words as long as possible. At any moment after, as soon as he leaves out the door, he no longer is a human being.
The dehumanization of the homeless is something that perpetuates the cycle of poverty. To not even acknowledge them on a personal level discourages them even more from working to improve their condition. The least we could do when we pass them on the street next time is to say, "no, sorry" when they ask you for change. Although it doesn't seem like it, it means more than simply ignoring them.