The other day I was driving along a busy street in Charlotte. It was chilly and had been raining, and I was tired from doing errands all day. I was driving in the left hand lane and was at a stoplight when I saw a woman over on the right standing on the side of the road, holding a sign that said “Short on a room and food. Anything helps.” She looked to be fairly young, maybe late 20s. And she was crying.
I was flummoxed. She was three lanes away. I had no cash on me. I wanted to do something but I didn’t know what to do. Should I turn around and offer her a place to stay? I had someone else in the car with me, and that person was currently staying at my house as a guest. So I did what everyone else did. I drove on. And I hated myself for it. Now, I realize the least I could have done was find an ATM and gone back and given her twenty bucks. It wouldn’t have solved her long-term problems but at least she could get some food.
Out of sight, out of mind. I forgot about the woman and went on with my life. A few days later, I took some of my students to see STOMP, an amazing percussion performance at one of the nicer venues in Uptown. It was a fantastic production and I came away with a sense of awe about the power of art to connect people. It was life-affirming.
After the performance I parted ways with my students and proceeded to walk through Uptown Charlotte. It was a chilly night but I was warmly dressed in my down coat, and I was thoroughly enchanted as I walked among all the people who were out, enjoying the night. And then I came to a row of benches. On each bench sat one or two blanket-covered mounds. The mounds were people, of course. People with nowhere to go. I halted, my breath caught in my throat. One woman glanced at me and then glanced away. A voice screamed in my head, this is an emergency! These people are going to be cold tonight. But I wouldn’t be cold. I had a warm bed to go to. So I walked on.
When I got to the library, I saw even more people, covered with blankets, lying on the sidewalk in front of the library. A sense of utter helplessness overwhelmed me. Then I saw something remarkable. A woman with a blond ponytail was depositing take-out containers of food beside each bundle.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
She smiled cheerfully and said she was helping to make sure these folks had something to eat.
“Are you with an organization?” I asked.
She said no, and then she introduced me to her friend, Diana. This was Diana’s idea. Diana worked at a restaurant and for two years she and a few friends have been coming out to give clothing and food to people in need. I got her number. My feeling of helplessness eased up.
I know that just bringing food and blankets to the homeless isn’t enough. What we need are systemic changes. We need affordable housing. We need a higher minimum wage, and we need to have hearts big enough to take care of those who simply can’t take care of themselves. We need programs like Housing First and the support of policy makers. We need to vote for the right people to make these things happen.
But in the meantime, I’ll be calling Diana to see how I can help because those things won’t happen overnight, and as long as we live in a country where the politicians are more concerned about which bathroom we use, who can buy wedding cakes, or how they can take away poor people’s healthcare, then those people on the street are going to need food and blankets.