Having grown up in New York, I’ve admittedly become desensitized by the homeless, conditioned to put the blinders on and hurry forward. Even more so after negative encounters with those who are hustling, aggressive, or mentally ill…as well as when making the extra gesture to give someone a meal instead of money, only to get back complaints and even anger in return. So sadly, many of us can become indifferent and lump them together into the systemic problem, instead of seeing the individual.
January 2021 Operation Impact hosted their first “Be the Change” 21 Days of Kindness challenge to spread radical generosity at a time most needed, and I was eager to find ways to contribute. One January morning commuting to work there were two homeless men on the subway smoking cigarettes. I felt irritated and disgusted by their lack of regard for others on the train. Living in New York, you have to be careful when you interject with strangers out of concerns for your safety. So like everyone else in the car, I was forced to ignore for fear of their reactions. Kindness was definitely the last thing on my mind!
That same night at CVS, I met a homeless man Eric outside asking for money for food. A gut feeling struck me, sensing there was something very different about him. Instead of giving him change, I invited him across the street to buy him a meal at Burger King. As we waited for the order, we had a nice conversation- something I’ve never done with a homeless person before. I could sense my heart transforming. Eric was so genuine, warm, and friendly as he shared a story of waking up in the subway station and feeling so frustrated with pain in his feet when attempting to put back on his shoes, he almost left them off. But then he thought of the man with no feet, and felt grateful for what he had. Eric was focused on finding a warm place to sleep that night.
Meanwhile just before, I was complaining of the relatively short walk from the subway on a bitterly cold day- on the one day a week I was going into the office, and when I had a warm apartment to come home to! I was grateful to see him a few times that winter and know he made it through. Eric taught me such a valuable lesson in attitude, gratitude, and perspective. When we’re in a position to help someone less fortunate, we have the responsibility and privilege to make a difference!
My lessons weren’t done yet! Exactly one year later this January during the 2nd “Be The Change” challenge, I ran into Eric again. We engaged in conversation and I listened as he told me about how grateful he was that he now has housing, when a year ago he worried about staying warm on the street. What especially hit me was listening to his experience being put in a hotel during the pandemic. You may have heard about upscale hotels in Manhattan that were turned into shelters, and how the residents in those neighborhoods were outraged to the point that they even protested. I am embarrassed to admit even I had my own judgements, having booked those same hotels for our VIP guests for work, and wondering how the hotel would ever get back to its “pristine” condition. My heart and mind were opened and walls broken as I stood listening to Eric share the difficulty he had with the unfamiliar luxury of a room with 2 beds and a bathroom all to himself, a luxury we can take for granted. So much, that it took him days to actually sleep in the bed. He would get irritated at the multiple knocks on the door daily, but then would remind himself each was for his benefit- someone coming to bring him food, monitor his health, and ask what he needed.
Hearing Eric describe his experience was a powerful wake-up call – and for the first time humanized the news story that had been so sensationalized and biased. Eric was proud to share how he has his own room in a shelter now, and is slowly working on regaining some basic possessions that had been lost when he was forced to vacate a previous shelter at the start of the pandemic. He also thanked me for stopping to talk to him, saying the value of our conversation was as much as people pay for therapy! Now, every time I see Eric, I stop for a chat with my new friend.
Developing a friendship with Eric, changed my perceptions on humanity and power of acknowledgement. I invite all of you to join me in getting out of our own bubbles and remember that the simple gesture of a moment of kindness to our fellow humans can go a long way. When we break our perceptions, have grace and see each other as human, relationships are built. Lives are changed. Just as mine was with Eric. Now more than ever, these small acts of kindness are greatly needed in this world. One person, one interaction truly CAN make a difference!