A reminder from the homeless

In a lecture on city living, Richard Potts, assistant director of the Washington Journalism Center where I am studying this semester, spoke on homeless in D.C. “Treat them like they exist,” he said.

Before hearing most of his lecture I had already made up my mind that I knew enough about the homeless and the proper way to act since I have lived in Philadelphia my whole life. Knowing and doing, however, will always be two different things.

Potts said that we often just walk past them because we don’t know what to say. I realized that wasn’t totally true. The truth is, we don’t want to say what our American arrogance really feels, “I have it, but I want it and don’t want to give it to you.” Since that lecture, I hoped that awareness of my own actions would contribute to the softening of my calloused heart.

Early in March, nearly two-thirds of the way into the semester, I ran into a man who proudly told me his name was Captain Charles H. Massenburg. He wore a hat covering his poorly constructed gray dreadlocks and walked slowly with a walker in my direction.

He was a Vietnam veteran who was now humbly begging me, on one knee even, to help him afford a room for him and his family to stay in for the night. A half an hour later and $15 poorer, my friend Greg and I figured that someone to talk to must have been a greater desire for him. Greg and I had stayed back from our group to talk to Capt. Massenburg. He talked to us about marriage under the assumption that Greg and I were dating. And though what he had to say was nothing I hadn’t heard before and not exactly applicable, it felt good to talk to him.

I held his cracked and calloused hand and thought to myself how many people would have been disgusted. Capt. Massenburg then hugged me and kissed me on the cheek. Those reading and even my own mother might cringe at the thought alone. What makes him any different than a young child who had been playing in the dirt all day and out of love clings to his mother? Surely the man 62 years of age is different from that child, but does he not deserve the same love and respect?

Arriving back at the lounge to sit with the friends we had left almost an hour ago, my friend and I were hesitant to explain our adventures to the rest of the group. Receiving dirty looks and a skeptic’s inquisition, we were justifiably hesitant.

Why do our minds place the homeless so significantly below us that we walk by without even seeing them? Why were our friends so disgusted to hear that we not just gave him money but hugged another human being?

When we walked slowly down the street with Capt. Massenburg and his walker, we walked through a throng of homeless men. On one side with wide eyes of hope, one man just walks and stares. Another in a wheelchair glides past and asks the homeless vet if he can help him out. Slowly passing by, I look to the left and see a fort similar to what we played in as kids – two men sat outside their home. One spoke with a mutter.

“Hi, how you doing tonight?” I said.

With shock and confusion he said, “I know you’re not really asking me?”

Why shouldn’t I

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