How women can safely help the homeless

How women can (safely) help the homeless

I think a lot of women wonder if there's a safe way to help the homeless or people begging on street corners. I've had a few incidents in my own life that left me very confused about when I should help, and how. One happened fairly recently. 

Many years ago during my first job out of college, I became friends with a middle aged homeless man. His name was David, and he greeted me each day at the post office as I mailed packages for work.

David held a sign that asked for a smile or money, and I always gave the first and sometimes also the latter. For many months we exchanged greetings, sometimes talking in greater length depending on how busy I was. David was a little odd, but certainly kind, and while I didn’t understand why he was on the streets I did my best to show him compassion and love. For Thanksgiving I packed him up a bag of food, and occasionally I brought him dinner leftovers or a cookie.

I can’t remember what happened exactly, but after knowing David for a year he started making me feel uncomfortable. As a woman, I’ve learned to pay attention when the hairs stand up on my arms or my heart flutters faster than normal. While David didn’t seem dangerous, he was also a man on the streets and I was a young woman. When I started seeing him at the grocery store where I shopped, which was only a few blocks from our apartment, I knew my friendliness needed to be scaled back. I began looking for other places to take the mail, or going earlier in the day when I knew David wouldn’t be there. It was a slow break-up of sorts, sad and awkward but also necessary.

A few weeks ago, I took the kids to the post office by our house—the same one I frequented almost 10 years ago. Imagine my surprise when I noticed David sitting in the same spot next to the mailbox. His hair was still a bleached blond from the sun—or was it gray?—and his face was still tan but it wore more wrinkles than before. I hesitated before getting out of the car. Should I go inside? Would he remember me? Should I say hello?

As much as my I wanted him to know I remembered, my maternal instincts said otherwise. While it’d be extremely unlikely for him to hurt us, I needed to play things safe. Plus, he wouldn’t remember me, right? He very likely had some type of mental illness and probably watched hundreds of people go in and out of this post office for over a decade. I’ve aged. I have children. I’m just another face in the crowd.

When I reach the post office doors, I see him running over to me. My hands are full with children and he opens the door for me. We make eye contact for the first time and I thank him and continue inside. When I return outside and begin walking to the car, I thank him again. A few seconds pass and he yells, “I remember you, you know!”

I stop in my tracks, a kid in each hand. I’m not sure what to say, and I fumble in my words. Now is the moment when I can use his name—“David! Wow! Hello and good to see you again”—but I do not.

Instead I make an awkward comment asking if he’s been here a long time, and his eyes look crestfallen for a moment when he realizes I don’t remember or won’t remember.

“Yeah, it’s been awhile,” he says.

I smile and say it’s good to see him and then I head for the car. I am about ready to close my door when he yells, “I never forget a face like yours!” I back out and give a quick wave before driving away.

The whole interaction leaves me with so many questions. I question my judgment all those years ago, and then I question the walls I’ve since put up. I question if he’s really someone to fear, or just another lonely soul. I question if he remembers my kindness and compassion, or if he remembers my body and face. I’m a woman, after all, and things get a lot more complicated when a woman wants to care for someone living on the streets.

I think too many people fear or judge the homeless and don’t treat them as humans, but it’s also more complicated as a woman, and especially so when children are involved. There are real risks. How can we show love and kindness to those on the streets, even as women, even with our children nearby?

I’ve love to hear your thoughts and I plan to share more of mine next week.

Related post: The last day I walked away