Guilt by Association

A few times a year I hedonistically substitute a meal for dessert. I don’t mean eat dessert first. I mean eat dessert. Why waste the extra calories on a full meal? Usually this occurs once during the fall and winter holiday season when desserts are in greater supply than other foods. This time it was one of the first beautiful summer days as strawberry season was threatening to come to an end, a perfect occasion for a scoop of vanilla ice cream topped with fresh strawberries. With none of either in the house I headed out through the busy neighborhood street life to pick up my “lunch.” By the time I returned home it left a bitter taste that was downright unpalatable.

We live a few blocks off of one of the busier business districts in Portland. The location has its ups and downs, but it is generally considered highly desirable. One thing I appreciate about our neighborhood is that everything is so close we literally walk absolutely everywhere. So does everyone else. As with any pedestrian-friendly urban neighborhood, we have a significant population of what I refer to as “street life.” By this I mean a generic term for the people and activities who occupy the sidewalks and keep the business district vibrant. Our local street life usually includes musicians, petitioners, artists, peddlers, panhandlers, and an occasional general entertainer or even a poet.

To some extent, to live in this neighborhood you have to learn how to tune out the street life, or it would be impossible to walk out the front door. If you stopped to greet and attend to everyone’s presentations and requests it would take at least an hour or two just to walk a few blocks. We are fortunate to have had some quite talented musicians and artists. On the other hand, I would, just once, like to make it all the way to the grocery store and back home again without being stopped by someone requesting a signature or to join yet another cause. As for the panhandlers, some are just passing through, while others are permanent neighborhood residents. Most of the time I acknowledge folks with a smile and an appropriate greeting, and politely decline whatever it is that has been requested, all without even slowing down.

Enjoying the sunshine on my way to get strawberries and ice cream I nodded to the peddler selling an assortment of items laid out on a folk blanket. I cringed when I smiled at the clipboard that was shoved in front of me, as I shook my head and said, “no thank you,” as politely as I could muster. And then I saw a familiar looking pair of blonde heads. A platinum blonde woman holding her young, giggling daughter in long blonde braids glanced up with a smile asking for spare change. I did not know the pair, but even their matching round faces with rosy, happy cheeks and her warm, soft voice resembled a close friend and her daughter who had been homeless for a time.

I could scarcely choke out my usual, “Oh, not today, thank you. I’m really sorry. Have a good day.” Our friend and her daughter have safely had stable employment and their own home for five years, but seeing their likeness on the sidewalk as beggars was still painful. It brought back a flurry of memories of a time when I was well aware that we did not know how give our friend what she needed. I spent many years feeling like a terrible friend because I could never quite figure out how to help, or how to support her. It is not that easy to understand and respond appropriately to someone’s many layers of grief, loss, and trauma that are both the cause and result of homelessness. I was too self-centered in my privilege to figure out what she needed. It was hard for us to ask, and even harder for her to say. To this day I feel a lot of guilt. I am so thankful that she still talks to me and considers me a friend.

As I continued past the woman and her daughter I tried to contemplate what I could do for them. I truly did not have any cash at all, but since I was nearly at the store I thought maybe I should purchase groceries for them. As I wandered the store I unconsciously picked up an extra pint of berries, as if that would magically solve their problems. Walking away from the cash register it was clear that, just like our friend so long ago, I had no idea what they really needed.

I wandered back out to the sidewalk and made my way home. By coincidence of the timing of the traffic signals I did not walk past their small family again, though I contemplated backtracking just so I could. How would that help them? I missed the opportunity to offer to pick up a few groceries for them while I was at the store. I could share my basket or offer to go back to the store. If she was interested in a meal in downtown I could track down some Sisters of the Road coupons and transit tickets. I have none of either right now, and was not in a position to make the offer. If they needed a safe place to sleep I could call the Crisis Line and find out if there is any shelter space available. Unfortunately, these days most of the shelters are full and have a waiting list. If they needed transportation to get to a safe place that is not so easily accessible on TriMet I could find out from the Crisis Line if there are any cab or bus vouchers left. Of course, this late into the month the transportation vouchers are long gone. Maybe she just needed to fill her gas tank, so she could be on her way to family, friends, a new home or a new job. Maybe she needed to find a job or some training to get one. I was definitely in no position to help with employment, and the situation was not appropriate for me to spend time with her on an intake and advising session or financial aid application.

By the time I inventoried and evaluated the various ways I could help I had reached home. None of the options seemed especially helpful and pragmatic. I never asked what they needed, so there was no way to know whether I had anything to offer. I did not even know whether they were homeless, just that they triggered memories of friends who once were. Once again I was well aware I did not know what to do to support the woman and her young daughter. Part of the struggle I have is the volume of need, coupled with the need to be fair. I have a finite amount of energy and resources I can put into helping someone without breaking our own bank, and without neglecting my own needs. These days, my reserve supply of energy and resources is pretty low. Further, how do I decide who is deserving of my limited energy and resources? Why this woman and her daughter who remind me of our friends? Why not the woman I see out on my walks who has lived in the neighborhood longer than we have?

I sat down at the dining room table and opened the ice cream. It no longer seemed appetizing. Instead of rifling through the refrigerator for something healthier I scooped melting sweet gruel into a wide cup. I sliced a handful of fresh berries over the thick, pooling, white, speckled slop. The unpleasantly firm berries tasted acidic and tart. I contemplated putting it all away and skipping lunch altogether until I could clear my head. There was not much that would have made any meal more palatable than chewing on large dry vitamin pills at that moment. That would just be wallowing in helplessness and would do no good for the woman and her child. A while back I’d promised myself always to carry plenty of meal coupons, bus tickets, and resource cards so that when someone needed help I would be in a position to fulfill the request in some way. The pocket resources may really be for my benefit, so I don’t feel helpless in the face of need. It allows me to tolerate my own privilege.

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