"So, what would you do if someone asked you for money for food?," my mom asked me four weeks ago as we sat under a thatched-roofed veranda at the beach in Ghana. We were talking about the role the church and followers of Christ should play in dealing with hunger and poverty in that West African country.
"Well, I hope, I would give them food if I had any. And if I didn't, I'd take them out to get some, and sit and talk with them," I responded.
My mom rolled her eyes at me knowingly, as if somehow she knew that two and a half weeks later I would walk past a homeless man at a Metro station in D.C. and do nothing more than shake my head no.
My attitude about homeless people needs to change. And to start off, I need to stop talking about homeless people like that. It's not that there's anything inherently wrong with the words "homeless people"; the problem is with the mentality that accompanies labeling a group of people. Homeless people are individuals with unique situations and independent stories. Referring to them simply as a group of people (i.e., “homeless people”) rather than as individual persons dehumanizes them and keeps them in a belittled place in society.How do I overcome speaking in such a way of my brothers and sisters in this city who happen to be without a home? Talk to them. When faces, names, and stories are associated with labels, those labels dissolve.
“Show the person they are valuable and valued. A conversation is a gift. Interactions filled with respect and dignity will always be appreciated. Helping someone explore options is trying to understand instead of being judgmental,” Richard Embden of thePeople for Fairness Coalition said in the January 8, 2010 edition of Street Sense, a newspaper written by and for the homeless community.
As I pass by, I haven’t talked to the people who live on the streets I walk on because I’ve been afraid (and quite possibly still am afraid) that I’ll say the wrong thing. I’ve been afraid that in starting a conversation I will sound patronizing. I’ve been afraid that I will make a fool out of myself and leave no positive impression of Christ.
And here in lies the problem – again – I’m thinking far too much about me.It’s time to let go, Miss Timid-Girl-Who-Has-Never-Had-a-Friend-Who-is-Without-a-Home. Don’t be so afraid of saying the wrong thing that you don’t say anything at all. Don’t be so concerned with what kind of impact you will make that you don’t make any at all. Get out there. Have a conversation with the next homeless person you meet, because labels aren't so much of a problem if you don't let them get in your way.