After a couple of years working a daily breakfast at a homeless shelter, I thought it would be helpful to run a coat drive and hand out warm clothing items out of the back of my truck one morning. I solicited friends, family, and coworkers to give me warm jackets, hats, and gloves that were in good condition. I also spent some of my money at local thrift shops and searched for items in good condition for the upcoming give-a-way. By the day of the event, I had about thirty warm jackets in sizes from medium to triple X. I had the foresight to presort the jackets by size so I could efficiently fill the orders—I imagined folks would line up behind my truck and allow me to wait on them one by one.
When I pulled up to the shelter, I hopped out of my truck and opened the hatch. Within a few minutes, a man stopped and asked what I was doing. I explained that I had warm coats, hats, and gloves to be given to those who needed them. He asked if he could have a look at what I had. I looked him over carefully as he was already wearing all the items I had to give, and they appeared to be in good condition. I begrudgingly agreed. We sorted through my truck, and I gave him a jacket, hat, and gloves. Hmm.
This first guy nosing through the back of my vehicle seemed to attract attention. Now there were about eight to ten men all around me trying to reach in to see what I had to offer. I politely asked the guys to step back and allow me to help them one at a time. I assured them I had enough for all of them. The crowd graciously complied. After fulfilling the first few orders, the next man stepped up and asked for an extra-large-size jacket. I quickly handed him one, as I knew exactly where each jacket size was located. He examined the jacket, looked at me, and said, “You have anything else?” I was floored. My mind really got the best of me—I was angry. After all, I had just given the man the size he asked for. It was a clean, good condition, warm coat. There were at least a dozen other people in line behind him. What did he think this was, a department store? Perhaps he’d like to step into the changing room and try it on? Or take two or three jackets with him and pick from among them? Just who did this guy think he was?
I asked him if there was something he wanted in particular. He said, “Yes, I was hoping to get one with a hood.” So I located a hooded, XL jacket for him, and he was satisfied. I was so busy with the rest of the giveaway that I didn’t really process what had just happened until my drive home.
Then it hit me. I had totally judged this guy. I thought I was trying to help. I gave him the size he requested. He had a simple request that I hadn’t even considered. And who am I to think that just because someone is homeless and doesn’t have a permanent address that he or she doesn’t have preferences? Does homelessness cause a person to no longer have a favorite color and lose all sense of style and preference including a hooded or hood-less jacket? My first thought was, “Look, pal, I just gave you the jacket size you wanted so just move along.” I felt ashamed at how quickly I could discount someone else’s thoughts or feelings on such a trivial matter. Here I’m supposed to be serving the homeless, and yet I disrespected this man in my own mind as quickly as one could say “hooded jacket, please.”
The truth is I was that guy with the crick in my neck from trying to look at the traffic light out of my left eye so I wouldn’t have to make eye contact with the guy flying the sign outside my driver’s side window. Not long ago, I silently believed many of the generalizations about the homeless—that they are lazy, drug and alcohol addicted, dirty and smelly, lacking self-respect, and simply milking society for what they could get for free. I’m not suggesting that all the homeless are fine people with astounding character; however, neither are we who live more conventional lives. Someone living a homeless lifestyle does not necessarily equate with the stereotypes we have of that person.
An excerpt from the book, THOSE PEOPLE – The True Character of the Homeless