Homelessness. A View from There to Here
Our country’s homeless problem requires a healthy dose of radical compassion. In Nashville, Tennessee, where I’m from, homelessness has risen ten percent in the last year. Two out of five homeless people there are chronically homeless. This is more than in any other US city, according to the most recent US Conference of Mayors’ Hunger and Homelessness Survey. There are a couple thousand people in shelters and many more living on the streets. In New York, where I live now, the statistics are even more staggering. There are over 60,000 homeless people in shelters each night, with thousands more sleeping on the streets. In 2016 there were over 45,000 children in New York City homeless shelters. In a recent New York Times article, it was reported that more homeless families are being denied permanent shelter, and many are being forced to reapply multiple times before the city finds them eligible to enter the system. Rising housing costs are to blame for this epidemic in both cities. So is politics. Also to blame are other issues like chronic illness, domestic violence, and addiction.
In Nashville, I could interact with the homeless from the comfort and safety of my car. At a stoplight I would hand over a dollar in exchange for a copy of The Contributor, a newspaper written and sold by the homeless. When I moved to New York, I wasn’t fully prepared for the unavoidable onslaught of homeless people I’d be forced to interact with. Almost every day, I cross paths with someone who is or appears to be homeless.
Sometimes they say so as they ask for money. Sometimes they are sitting on the subway steps jingling a cup of change and say nothing. They may hold a makeshift sign, ‘Desperate, please help,’ hand scrawled across it. Other times they walk through the subway cars selling candy, singing a song, or telling a sad story.
One day a middle-aged woman with red hair got on the train and told her own story. She said she was homeless, that she had kids, and that her husband had beaten her and she couldn’t go home. She was holding a large photograph of a person in a hospital bed with black eyes and bandages all over their face. It was her.
Radical Compassion Meets the Panhandler
The way I feel and how I respond to these people changes from day to day. When I first moved to New York, I was more likely to be receptive and giving. I made more eye contact and took the time to hear people’s stories. As time has passed, I find myself less inclined to help. I am generally in more of a rush and I see many of the same people telling the same stories on my commute. I have become jaded and I’m even annoyed at times by the presence of theses panhandlers. Why don’t they get a job? Why should I help them? They’ll just spend the money on drugs and alcohol. This is how I feel when I’m closed off to the suffering of these people, when I can’t respond with compassion.
Recently I was hosting some out of town guests and they had a similar response. They said, “Those people are just looking for a handout and would rather be begging for money than working at an actual job.” On a gut level, this response infuriated me because I know deep down that no one wants to be homeless.
What if someone you loved suddenly lost their home? Wouldn’t you want to help them? Homelessness on a basic level is simply a lack of housing. Having shelter is a fundamental human need, and some would argue, a right. And yet somehow, even nice people can turn away from this issue and not see others with eyes of compassion.
The pope, when asked in a recent interview about how to deal with panhandlers, had this advice: “Give them the money and don’t worry about it. Giving something to someone in need is always right.” But, the interviewer wondered, what if they use the money for a glass of wine? His answer: If “a glass of wine is the only happiness he has in life, that’s O.K. Instead, ask yourself, what do you do on the sly? What ‘happiness’ do you seek in secret?” Another way to look at it, he said, is to recognize how you are the “luckier” one. You have a home, or a spouse, or children. So ask yourself why your responsibility to help should fall to someone else. He then said the manner of giving is as important as the gift, that you should not simply drop a bill into a cup and walk away. You must stop, look the person in the eyes, and touch his or her hands. The reason is to preserve dignity, to see another person not as a pathology or a social condition, but as a human, with a life whose value is equal to your own.
Meeting my (near) Enemy
This, I believe, is what the Buddha meant when he spoke about compassion and generosity, saying that kindness is always an appropriate response to every situation. When confronted with difficult circumstances, especially, it is important to care about what is hard. This practice of compassion, or Karuna, in the original language of the Buddha, literally translates to “the quivering of the heart in response to suffering.” While not always easy, compassion is especially important because we are all connected. We have the choice in every moment to be kind or not and that decision impacts everyone we encounter. It is essential, however, not to confuse compassion with pity, which the Buddha called the near enemy of compassion. Pity has an element of separation, like “poor you over there,” whereas compassion is having a spacious enough heart to hold the suffering of others without being overwhelmed by it.
We can actually incline our hearts and minds towards this state of being, by not turning away from the suffering of others. Instead, we can be moved to do something about it. There is a meditation practice we can do to cultivate this quality. While most people are familiar with mindfulness meditation, there is another type of meditation. Sometimes called heart practice, it includes compassion. To do the practice, the instruction is to silently repeat phrases to yourself, in an effort to generate certain qualities.
You can use phrases like, “May I learn to care about what is difficult.” And you can turn the phrases towards others, including your loved ones, people you know. You may even try reflecting on a homeless person you’ve encountered, “May you be free of pain and sorrow. May you be free from suffering.” Some might view compassion as sentimental or even weak, when it is actually a radical and powerful concept. Compassion can truly revolutionize the way we interact with one another.
The Stain of Stinginess. Removed.
In the West we often begin our Buddhist practice with mindfulness; however, the first training the Buddha offered to his students was actually generosity. Before he gave any meditation instructions, he offered a lesson on dana. He taught that dana, or generosity, could essentially release us from the pain of selfishness. In parts of Asia, monastics wander through the villages and are provided with everything they need from the local people. Monks and nuns walk barefoot at dawn with alms bowls, receiving food from poor villagers who happily give whatever they have. The practice of compassion and generosity can eliminate our illusion of separateness. Try letting go of this sense of disconnection a little bit and see how much freedom you gain.