What do you do when you come across a homeless person?
Here in Lyon, there are not as many homeless people as you see in the U.S., but being in any urban area puts you in closer contact with people living on the streets than if you live in a suburban or rural environment. Having just read this article about the relationship between power and empathy, I reflected on my walk this morning with the 2-year-old of the family.
Wanting to window shop a little bit, I decided to strap the kid in the stroller and launch out into one of the nicest shopping areas around here (even better–you do not have to climb five million steps to get there, unlike the other place I like with lots of shops). We’re heading down this large, relatively clean boulevard, and I’m daydreaming about a pair of boots I really want to buy (winter is coming!) and all the nice European fashion on display.
Aaaaand then you hear these little dogs barking or you see the little cats on leashes (bizarrely, French homeless people manage to not only keep seriously adorable dogs, but I’ve seen several with leashed cats hanging out with them), and you notice that there are presumably homeless people dotting the boulevard, begging for change. I find this really jarring: you are thinking about buying things that could cost fifty or a hundred euros, easily, and which you don’t really need, and there are people sitting on the ground hoping for a coin or two. You might want to grab a bite to eat–hmm, a freshly-made crepe? a chocolate-filled croissant? Oh, the choices. And then you see, very directly, people who don’t have choices like that.
What’s worse, I think, are when you start to look past these people, taking for granted that the landscape is not one hundred percent idyllic. When I started writing this, I had a sentence about how there aren’t visibly homeless people near the apartment I’m living in, though there are just a few blocks away.
That’s not true, though. At the corner of the street, there are at least two or three people who are begging there every day. I’ve just gotten used to them–already.
Having said that, the general situation weighs on me. I don’t give money, I don’t even give a moment’s regard. The other day a youngish guy, fairly clean-cut, addressed me directly (and really politely) in French and I felt seriously compelled to at least have a conversation with him (practice my French, right?–I’d pay for that!). Instead, I looked away, mumbled something.
Granted, my parents would say this is just like me every morning, but still. I’m fortunate enough to have the resources to be adaptable and I have a safety net thanks to the generosity of my parents, who also have resources not only to be adaptable in their own situation, but in mine as well. None of this is something I “deserve” or “earned.” There are ways I could quickly start to erode my bank account or the banked trust my parents have in me, but I had really easy rules to follow, growing up. The lines in which to color were far apart.
I don’t have an answer for what to do when you see homeless people. The best situation I have seen so far was a young woman about my age who came up and handed an older man sitting on the pavement a box of food–with a smile, no less. It was all very casual and it seemed very natural. That impressed me. What has also impressed me is how much less I feel the desire to shop or buy fancy pastry places where there are people begging nearby.