Last week I stopped at a convenience store just north of where I work on the streets. Though this convenience store is located less than a half-mile from where I work, it is a different world, a bustling, artsy area of Dallas known as Deep Ellum.
What's not so different is that people who are homeless also roam these streets. It is the nearest place to pick up spare change or sell something to make a few bucks.
It's also a place where businesses are trying to attract a certain clientele. These business owners not only want their clientele to feel safe but also to have a positive experience so that they return.
As I walked from my car towards this convenience store, I saw him out of the corner of my eye. I knew he was watching me, waiting for the right opportunity to approach me.
With a slight lisp, he told me he had recently been kicked out of his home where he lived with his mother. She passed away, and he had deep mental instability when she died, including multiple suicide attempts. He was put on 60-day leave from his job.
He had no place to go, and has no income for 60 days. So he is on the streets. He said, "I'm not just asking for help. I'm desperate for help."
So I waved him on, "Let's go into this store together and you can get what you need."
"They're not going to let me in," he replied. "They will call the cops."
"You're with me," I said. "We're buying something. Let's try."
I held the door open for him, but he insisted on opening it for me. As soon as the cashier saw him, he said, "He cannot come in here."
"He's with me," I retorted. "We're getting food."
"He can't come in here. I will call the cops."
So, seeing as I had been warned, we stepped outside — together.
Instantaneously, I said, "I'm not shopping there. Let's go across the street to Subway to get what you need."
And so we did.
You know the type: this convenience store is a hang-out for vagabonds, panhandlers, and the homeless. At times I know customers feel badgered or threatened by someone asking for help.
It seems we have found only two solutions for this badgering — not just in Deep Ellum or Dallas — but in communities all across the United States.
Either we respond by getting the police involved and barring anyone who is homeless from certain locations, or we experience the discomfort of dealing with being hit up for change or something to eat.
Neither seem like good solutions. Neither seem to really address the problem.
So what would?
I would suggest that the best way we could ever handle panhandlers and the homeless is in a people-centric, direct manner. We are never going to be able to "just get rid of them," as though they are a problem and not actually people.
The only truly good solution I see is a personal, direct one, one in which you or I interact face-to-face with the person asking us for something.
Either we directly say, "No I can't help you," or we give them some of our time and attention and hear them out. If we hear them out, then there can be no cookie-cutter solution. Every time someone approaches me I react differently.
Sometimes I keep moving and say "Sorry I can't help." Sometimes I stop and listen and right away can tell I am being swindled. Those conversations are short and I move on. Sometimes I stop and listen and, like last week, the story sounds good but I don't know for sure how much truth I am getting. But it really doesn't matter. My heart is being tugged and I am compelled to help.
We are not human lie detectors. We are just humans. So are the homeless — they are just humans. We may be getting the run-around when we stop to treat them as such, but to blanket them and ignore them and call the cops is to miss out on the most fundamental thing about them, and about us — our humanity.
What if Dallas — or whatever city you live in — started to treat the homeless as people? Isn't what we're all deep-down searching for not really just some spare change but a little love? Someone to listen. Someone to care. Someone to look us in the eye.
Love is what changes a person. Showing a little love by treating someone who is homeless like a person will change them — and I would put money down that it'll change you even more.