Monday, May 18, 2009

Round 2 With The Homeless Population

So it happened again, and I’m trying not to be annoyed.

First it was the homeless woman blocking me in the soda aisle at Ralphs. This time it was the homeless guy at the Arco gas station.

You can tell if you’ve lived in Los Angeles too long if you just smirked at that sentence. Because the Arco gas stations here attract more than their fair share of homeless people. I try to fill up at hours when I think they won’t be there and certainly, at 2pm on a Wednesday, you’d think I’d be safe as opposed to say, 8pm any night of the week, when they’re out in full force with the spray bottles and windshield wipers and no chance of escape.

I saw this guy before he saw me. I was inside the convenience store section trying to explain to the attendant that he had to reset my gas pump because it said it was in use when it clearly wasn’t. I glanced out the window and saw a politely dressed guy talking to a minivan owner in a way that made it clear that they weren’t together. Uh-oh.

My car’s in front of the minivan. I know I’m next. I’m doomed. Just doomed.

I maintain that it’s much easier to be a Christian anywhere in the film industry than it is to be a Christian and blow off a homeless person asking for a handout. It’s easier to defend my faith to my co-workers than to tell the person in front of the Rite Aid, the guy holding a Vietnam vet sign at the corner of San Vincente and La Cienega, the woman at the Laurel Canyon off ramp of the 101, the couple hanging around outside the Subway at Sunset and Crescent Heights that, “Sorry, I don’t have anything.”

But it’s a slippery slope. You give to one, you feel bad if you don’t give to them all. And you CAN’T give to them all, there’s too many of them. They should mobilize themselves into a ragtag army and take over the Cheesecake Factory at the Grove or something.

And yet Jesus said to Peter, “Feed my sheep.” Did he mean, “No, that guy with the Vietnam vet sign is a big liar, so no, you don’t have to give him anything. The other guy is probably gonna buy booze, that woman is just lazy, if they really wanted to improve their situation they’d ask for a ride to a social services place, blah blah blah.”

There are ways around it. You can make yourself feel better by volunteering at different places. I’ve sorted food donations at the L.A. Food Bank, I’ve served pizza to homeless people on Skid Row, I’ve counted the homeless population as a part of a PATH project, I’ve helped out with footwashing, I organize Red Cross Blood Drives, I plan to be a part of my church’s Project Hollywood day in June.

But none of it stops the guilt with every homeless person I walk by and not help. Which is frustrating, and I kick myself all the time. Why DON’T I empty my wallet, why DON’T I take this smelly person for a sit down meal and hear their whole story, why DON’T I take a personal interest in every single f’ing homeless person I see and FIX THEM ALL! ISN’T THAT WHAT WE’RE SUPPOSED TO DO AS CHRISTIANS!? FIX HOMELESS PEOPLE?!


Back to the gas station, I get the pump working and sure enough, here comes Mr. Nicely Dressed But Still Homeless Guy. He’s got a simple button down shirt and clean jeans. He’s in his early 20s. He says that he’s trying to get to San Diego. He’s got family there, he was staying with some cousins up here, but his living situation fell through, so now he’s trying to get home. He wants to tell me his poem that he’s composed, and then I can pay him whatever I feel his poem is worth. I ask him how much he has, he says $40. I ask him how much he needs, he says $70.

“You’re very beautiful,” he says, “You’re not wearing any makeup, you don’t need it.” I wanna tell him stop it with the cheap salesman pitch. He was doing okay with the specifics of his request, and the uniqueness of the delivery method.

(Incidentally, the only people that ever tell me I’m beautiful are homeless people, married guys, guys with girlfriends, and straight women. Like I can do anything with any of that.)

He introduces the poem by saying it’s long, and it’s meaningful, “it’s about the world.” I don’t remember any of it, it’s so long.

The words are leaving this guy’s mouth and vanishing into the air between us, never landing in my memory, but I WANT them to be memorable, I WANT this to be a good experience, something that turns my cynical nature around.

But they don’t. The poem’s something about general positivism in the universe, our experiences form us into stronger people, shooting stars, dreams in your hand, we’re all connected by energy, that kind of thing.

It’s the type of poem you hear in a Lifetime movie, where the spunky teacher turns around the inner city English class, and this is the former thug who’s just learned to read and now he’s delivering the commencement speech at his graduation. It’s generic. I want to believe it’s more, I want to believe in him, because HE believes it’s more, but at the end of the day, it’s generic.

He winds down to a close and smiles big at me. He means well, I can believe in that much. I honestly do believe he’s trying to make it back to San Diego. If that makes me a sucker, than I’m a sucker.

I give him $5, he thanks me profusely as I get into my car, “God bless you!” I think he says as I shut the door.

You give money to homeless people, why, because Jesus told us to feed his sheep? You can’t get them all. To assuage guilt? It never really goes away. To convince yourself you’re a worthy person, you’re an okay person, you deserve God’s love? You can’t earn God’s love, it’s already there. To demonstrate how much you love God? Possibly, though I think He would prefer something without the irritation or cynicism that came with the demonstration.

I dunno. I really don’t.

1 comment:

Patty Jean Robinson said...

I'm often confused and guilt-ridden too. I never know what to do. I'm filled with cynicism, because aside from the people who really look like they need help, there are those who look like they're scamming people.

There was a time when I had a little extra cash floating around, that I would buy boxes of SmartWater from Trader Joe's. And when I was approached by a Homeless, I'd just give a bottle of water. That was helping, right?

But how else can we help, if they're not helping themselves? They've chosen to keep living that much off the grid, right? Why is their choice my guilt? I know shit happens and you lose your home. I find myself facing that a lot. But when do you choose to give up? How did you lose that fight?

I have a friend that will give food to a homeless person if she can.

I'm so cynical right now. Yet I'm still guilt ridden. I tell myself that I need every cent. Right now, I really do. Yet, .... oh frickin' guilt. And it has never helped me feel better if I give anything, because I feel like I've been swindled.

I don't think there's an answer. I wish I didn't feel guilty. Good luck to us....