Dignity on the streets


A homeless man in New York City once told me that he'd rather sleep on the trash-littered cement sidewalks than in a homeless shelter where he would be forced to sleep in a folding chair all night.

From that moment on, I've never regarded homelessness in the same light.

Clearly, this man wasn't receiving the basic respect he deserved. He explained that if he moved from the folding chair, he would be asked to leave the shelter so someone else could take his spot. I understand that there are crowding issues in shelters, but what gives someone the right to treat less fortunate humans like they are worthless?

I met this man, along with many other homeless people, when I was on an alternative spring break trip with the Newman Center. We gave out sandwiches, coffee and clothing in front of a homeless shelter in the middle of the night while many of the dispossessed searched for a place to get some rest.

Our campus ministers helped us realize something that should've been obvious – although these people are homeless, they have no less dignity than well-to-do businesspeople carrying their briefcases around the city.

It's not their fault, as difficult financial times and personal crises can befall anyone. Homelessness is not always caused by laziness or unwillingness to find a job.

The proof is in the statistics: here in Western New York, 18.3 percent of the homeless population indicated that family problems were the cause for their homelessness, with an additional 7.4 percent citing domestic violence as the primary reason. Eviction was the main factor for 9.8 percent and an additional 7.2 percent spoke of losing their jobs, according to the Homeless Alliance of Western New York.

I apologize for the depressing thought, but I wonder how many current UB students will fall into these statistics in a few years. We're all getting an education and presumably care about our careers, but who knows what struggles the future may hold for us?

The same man who I spoke to that night used to be a hairstylist for celebrities like Raven Simone, of That's So Raven. Personal difficulties got in his way and now he's forced to roam the streets of Manhattan with nowhere to call home. Despite his circumstances, he remains determined, positive and faith-filled.

My attitude toward the homeless wasn't always this understanding. Growing up in Brooklyn, I encountered people in ragged clothes begging on street corners daily. I'm ashamed to say that I often turned away in disgust, refusing to give them a second glance, much less money.

My world was my world and their world was their world. I considered myself fortunate and distant from the poverty-stricken lifestyle. Little did I know how selfish I was.

Now I know that, maybe even more than food and clothing, the homeless want someone to talk to. Sometimes they just want to tell their life story to someone who will look them in the eyes and genuinely care about what they have to say.

They are often generous and compassionate, putting their friends first. I witnessed one man help another search through our boxes to pick out a hat that would keep him warm. I smiled as another asked me if he could take a few extra pairs of underwear for his friend who doesn't have enough.

When I interned at the NYC Administration for Children's Services two years ago, we took a day trip to a homeless family intake center. As a single mother and her children passed through the hallway, I clearly remember a young boy asking, "Are we taking a trip, mommy?" The mother gently replied, "Yes, we are."

I was amazed that she didn't let her concerns show and comforted her child even though no one was around to comfort her.

I no longer see the homeless as lower than me; rather, I see them as role models of selflessness and humility. Their lives aren't that far removed from mine either – they simply have faced more challenges. I can't predict whether I'll deal with the same crises one day.

Here in Buffalo and back home in Brooklyn, I'll no longer avoid the "beggars" on the street. Instead, I'll take the time to stop and learn their stories. They clearly have a voice that the public has muffled with their misconceptions and ignorance.

E-mail: amanda.woods@ubspectrum.com