Whom Do We See In The Homeless?


Originally published two years ago this week, I see no evidence that anything has improved here in New York City. If anything, it’s gotten worse:

The temperature has dropped considerably here in New York City – seemingly earlier than usual. And the homeless, ever present, are now even more noticeable.

No, not as people.

But rather as bundles of battered, shivering flesh. The lucky ones have blankets, and hats and gloves. And cups for begging.

We might never look into their faces. But we see enough of them to realize that they are there – so that we can side step them.

For all practical purposes, they aren’t really there at all.

The New York City Rescue Mission (NYCRM) recently conducted an interesting social experiment which it called “Have the Homeless Become Invisible?”

Several volunteers were dressed – but not particularly well disguised – as homeless men and women. They were then placed in strategic spots around the City. Relatives of these “homeless,” including a spouse of some 34 years, were filmed as they happened by.

Obviously, NYCRM wouldn’t have publicized the experiment if it hadn’t proved the point that the group was trying to make. But that doesn’t make the experiment any less valid, or any less real – for prove it did.

Not one person filmed took the time to see, to truly notice, the men and women sitting right in front of them. Yet these were their cousins, their friends, their parents, their wives.

Some, no doubt, were distracted by important goings-on in their own lives. Others, perhaps, simply wanted to avoid unnecessary hassles and street entanglements.

Certainly very valid reasons. Certainly very human reactions.

Interacting with the homeless can be intimidating, scary, depressing, and – truth be told – annoying, aggravating, and guilt-inducing.

You can’t help enough to lift someone out of their immediate predicament. You can’t solve any of their long-term mental, emotional, and financial problems.

Besides, most of us sincerely believe that we might even make their situation worse by discouraging them from seeking practical, beneficial, and effective long-term help.

We all easily recall the old adage about “teaching a man to fish” after all.

And no doubt one can give much financially and still be made to feel guilty – if not by our own consciences, then by the homeless themselves.

Those living on the street can be conniving, lying, abusive, foul-mouthed, violent, and ungrateful.

The homeless are not saints just because they are poor.

So we may feel secure in our need to ignore. To pass by. To feel both pity and contempt.

But we may also, at times, feel a gentle tugging at our hearts for something better. For something not wholly recognizable in human terms.

And so along comes the reading for Sunday, November 23, 2014.

Christ’s haunting words provide us with one of our greatest challenges (See Mt. 25: 31-46):

“For I was hungry and you never gave me food, I was thirsty and you never gave me anything to drink. I was a stranger and you never made me welcome, lacking clothes and you never clothed me, sick and in prison and you never visited me.”

Then it will be their turn to ask, “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty, a stranger or lacking clothes, sick or in prison, and did not come to your help?”

Then he will answer, “In truth I tell you, in so far as you neglected to do this to one of the least of these, you neglected to do it to me.”

Every one of the poor is Christ in the flesh, in the here and now, in 2014. Of course, so is every prisoner – perhaps not a very popular notion, that.

Here’s what Mother Teresa had to say about any of the poor that cross our paths:

The poor, in whatever part of the world they are to be found, are the suffering Christ. In them, lives and dies, the Son of God. Through them, God shows us His face.

When we pass the homeless on the streets, what do we see?

Are they completely invisible? Would we not even see a family member? Not recognize their face?

Or perhaps we might see just enough to be repelled – by the poverty, the illness, the stench, and the filth. And then we move on.

Perhaps a better question is whom do we see? For if we long to see the face of God, we might want to take to the streets.

What would happen if we were to take a closer look at the homeless?

We just might need to pray for better vision.

For who among us would want to miss the chance to see the face of God?


Image Credit: Pixabay

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  1. I’ve been homeless off-and-on for the past year or so, so this hit home. I remember seeing something about this on TV and was not surprised in the least bit by the relatives’ reactions (or non-reactions) to those in disguise. But I’d argue that the homeless are not invisible — they’re just ignored and avoided, often for good reason. But that doesn’t make it right, especially if you’re trying to do as Christ tells us.

    One thing that keeps coming to mind is how Pope Francis keeps imploring us to step out of our comfort zones and reach out to those on the fringe. Sure, there are those homeless who are just looking for a handout and have no interest in improving their lot in life. And then there are the addicts and the mentally ill who’s situations require professional and medical help before any other help would be useful. Even so, the majority would love to live a “normal” life — but they’re intimidated or overwhelmed by the hurdles they need to jump to do it. Many have simply given up.

    My advice to anyone wanting to do the right thing is to look the homeless in the eye and help where you can. Yes, that buck you gave to the homeless guy might go to drugs or alcohol, but it might also go to a sandwich. Looking them in the eye — and doing so with compassion and concern — lets them know they exist and that someone cares. In my experience, that alone — just being recognized as a fellow human being — meant as much or more than spare change.

    1. Thank you for your thoughtful, heartfelt, beautifully written, and direct words. I agree with you – just recognizing a homeless person “as a fellow human being” can go a long way. Thank for commenting and for reading my post. God bless you. You are in my prayers.

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