Apathy toward homeless people a collective problem

Most mornings are the same: I get up 15 minutes later than I should have, scurry around getting ready, gulp down some cereal and run out the door.

And everyday as I walk to class I see the same things: other students hustling to class, shiny iPhones (my own included), expensive Ray-Bans and designer clothes. As usual, I flit past the homeless people on Green Street, barely even acknowledging their existence.

In fact, I try to avoid eye contact. Sometimes, I even dread walking past them because I’m guilty of acting like I don’t notice them. I feel a twinge of guilt, or I cringe a little on the inside, but as soon as I cross over to the Alma Mater, the scene suddenly calms.

Since I was young, my parents told me to avoid interacting with “these people.” I remember taking trips to Chicago as a child and passing by homeless people on the streets. I always wondered why we never stopped to toss some change into their cups. They weren’t asking for much.

As I grew older, I realized my parents were just doing what their parents taught them, and I accepted it and started doing it as well. In high school, I’d go to Chicago with my friends and the same course of events would repeat. We’d pass by homeless people holding up signs and cups, and just skirt by them. It became second nature to ignore them.

And then last year, that kind of changed.

For some reason, my Muslim parents love Las Vegas, so we went over Thanksgiving break (a trip I wouldn’t recommend any 20-year-old to take with their parents, ever), and encountered, yet again, more homeless people.

And something within me stirred. I can’t say I “woke up” because it wasn’t as if I had never noticed the problem before and had a sudden epiphany. It was always my fault for choosing to ignore it. But something shifted. I forced myself to stop ignoring the homeless people and tried to move away from thinking of them as “these people” or “them.” Despite my parents’ warnings, I went ahead and started giving money to whomever I saw sitting on the street.

Before you think I’m trying to sing myself praises, realize that it took me 20 years to realize that it’s not hard to offer a little bit of change to someone in need — not necessarily a great intellectual feat. And it’s not like giving people on the street money actually solves all their problems.

But I do see merit in the fact that when you do give money to someone, it gives him or her hope that someone cares, and usually they feel grateful. It’s not so much the value that money carries with it that matters, but it’s the fact that someone is willing to give up money they earned while expecting nothing in return.

Despite my sudden realization in Las Vegas, when I came back to Chicago I resorted back to my old ways. My “good deeds” seemed to be confined to the location they occurred. Unless a little boy was badgering my guilty conscience into buying some candy from him on Green Street, I wasn’t giving anyone else a second glance.

That is until earlier this week when I was taking my usual path down Green and passed by multiple people asking for money. I guess the feelings I had in Las Vegas triggered, and after I had shamelessly passed two people I relented and dumped a handful of change into one lady’s plastic cup.

Nothing about this made me feel good. This lady who was holding up a sign saying she was homeless smiled at me and called me “sweetie” and I could barely even look her in the eye. And when I think about why I feel guilty, it’s not necessarily because I have something shiny, and she doesn’t. It has more to do with the fact that my apathy isn’t just mine. But rather that apathy toward homeless people appears to be a collective feeling — we’re all guilty of it.

We don’t want to be that way, but when a problem gets too big and complex for us to understand, we’d rather ignore it. When a problem’s solution is hard to achieve or is something we have yet to figure out, we’d rather not take the time to solve it.

Despite the fact that scraps of monetary aid here and there won’t put an end to homelessness, I still try to fish in my backpack for loose change when I can. For me, the simple interaction symbolizes moving away from a mind-set where we separate ourselves from what we don’t understand or don’t want to understand. And that is an imperative first step in eliminating the issue.

We have to stop living like we are on two different planes of existence: the well-off and the homeless. After all, we have to remember we could have just as easily been on the streets if we didn’t get lucky. Our lives are constantly intersecting, whether it be on the streets of Chicago, Las Vegas or Green Street.

Sehar is a junior in LAS. She can be reached at [email protected]