Pity Goes Both Ways

By | Apr 16, 2013

Asking for spare change.I am homeless, but I don’t I need your pity.

Not even if I am a 66-year-old man, perched on the edge of the curb and looking like I should be in convalescent care. Or an anxious young mother, barely old enough to drive, sitting in a beat-up old car with a baby in the back seat.

I don’t need, or want, your pity.

You look down on me like I’m a failure who brought this situation on myself. Like I spend my days leeching off society because I don’t have the will power to lift myself up by my own bootstraps.

“How sad,” you briefly think to yourself as you walk into the supermarket. You feel sorry for me and my homelessness, my tattered clothes, my dirty face, my hair that hasn’t felt a comb in weeks.

I may look like the stereotype of homelessness that Hollywood and the media projects – dirty, ragged, inebriated – but your interpretation of that image is the most telling. You see me as lazy, a mooch, and an abuser of substances with no desire to change.

So don’t feel sorry for me. I know what you really think.

Sometimes, you might toss a few coins into my empty Campbell’s Soup can. The sound of nickels and dimes ringing against the metal soothes your charitable soul. You’ve paid your dues for the day.

Even if, afterwards, you wonder whether I will use that money to buy a sandwich or a fifth of vodka.

How many nickels and dimes would it take to get me off the streets and into a safe apartment? I’m guessing it would take years’ worth of loose change to end my homelessness for good.

It’s like tossing leftover coins into a five-gallon jar at the end of the day. We know it will take ages to fill, or even to save a meaningful amount, but the sound of coins clanking against the glass sounds good anyway.

I don’t need your coins of pity.

How would you feel if you knew that, during my youth, I fought in a war that damaged me forever? What if you learned that I have struggled with mental illness since I was a child, but grew up with a family that didn’t know how to handle me? What if you knew I had been locked out of my own home by a husband who decided he would rather have someone new?

Would your opinion of me change if I looked more like you? How about if my life experience matched your middle-class living? Would you still look down on me?

Sometimes I feel pity, too.

But I don’t pity myself, or even the others living on the streets beside me. I pity our society for allowing such depravity to occur. I pity those who toss coins in my can because they feel guilty. I pity those who believe their handful of coins can make a real difference in my life.

It’s time for a change in perspective.

The truth is: I am the product of a society that neglects its weakest members, and you are a member of a society that lets people suffer on its streets, despite being the richest country on earth.

I pity both of us.


Photo by Paula Steele.