As I drove along Market Street I was surprised at how empty it was. The thousands of folks who hustle and bustle during the daytime were now largely gone. As I approached Chinatown however, there was one person whom very definitely had not left Market Street when the shops closed up. In fact, this person might have been more accurately described as a body, because that is what they looked like as I drove by.
In those few seconds I slowed the car, but I wasn’t sure what to do. Should I stop? Should I see if they were okay? What could I do to help? I pulled over and thought for a second. I really wanted to help this person- they were clearly in need. Most of the time when I see individuals suffering from homelessness, they are stooped in a corner, huddled against a wall, or on the move. This person however had no stereotypical cardboard, no doorway, no cliche blanket. They were just lying in the middle of the sidewalk, unmoving.
I stepped out of my car and grabbed a package of trail mix that I thought I would have eaten on my long drive from CT to PA, but hadn’t. As I approached the individual, a Philadelphia police van drove by. I thought they might slow down when they saw the person on the sidewalk, and I wished they had- what if they were dead? Just a few weeks ago, there was a memorial in Philadelphia to remember the lives of the 83 homeless and formerly homeless folks who had died in 2008.
I reached the person, whom I could now tell was a man, but I couldn’t be certain if he was awake or not because he had a hat pulled down over his face. “Excuse me?” …”Hello?” (what do you say to a body on a sidewalk?). To my relief he moved and pulled his hat up. The drool on his cheek told me I had woken him. I apologized and mumbled a few lines about whether he was okay, or if I could help him.
It was an awkward 45 seconds during which I, the social worker, asked a man sleeping on the sidewalk at midnight over a subway grate, whether there were any shelters that he might be able to go to. He told me no, and I began to feel incredibly ridiculous. What could I offer this man at midnight that was worth waking him up for? I asked him if it was okay if I left him something to eat. He said yes and eagerly took the bag of trail mix.
I told him to take care and as I walked away I looked back. He was still on his side, still trying to warm his body from the subway grate, as he opened the bag of nuts and raisins and began to eat them. My heart broke, and I had to ask myself was my stopping more about assuaging my guilt, or about actually helping this man? I walked back to him and asked if he wanted to grab something hot to eat. He looked at me and said no. He didn’t seem like he was interested in more conversation.
Back in my car I shuddered and turned the heat up. I sat for a while angry, frustrated, and hopeless. I was angry- I was angry that during this interaction two city police vehicles drove by this man without so much as stopping. I was angry that I lived in a society where the sight of what might have been a body on a sidewalk aroused no curiosity from the police, or the sole other passerby who continued on by as if the man were little more than an obstacle to be avoided. I was frustrated. I was frustrated that I had little more to offer him than a bag of nuts that might not have even been worth the difficulty with which he would now face in trying to fall back asleep in the cold. I felt hopeless as I turned the key in the ignition and headed for home. What was the answer? Was there an answer?
Seeing this man tonight, it was with irony that I wondered if he would have been better off in D.C. where authorities have been conducting a massive operation to remove homeless people from the streets of the Capitol ahead of inauguration.
At least he would have been noticed there.
(After going home, I went on the internet and was able to locate a resource that may have of been to help to this man. It was a program called Philadelphia Homeless Outreach Hotline- 215.232.1984. They can help house a person for the night, and encourage people to use the number to help individuals experiencing homelessness. If you don’t live in Philly, take a minute to go online and see if you can locate a similar resource in your town. If you don’t have one, lobby for it!)