About a month and a half ago, I started a new job. One of the cool aspects of it is where it is located – downtown Austin. I work almost everyday a couple of blocks from the Capital Building. As downtown’s go, Austin has one of the best. It’s clean. It’s historic. It’s beautiful….And, it’s got the most expensive parking I’ve ever seen.
The company I work for, though, pays for us to park in a parking lot located about 3 blocks away. It sits right next to the Salvation Army where you can see hundreds of the homeless people lined up along the buildings and roads every single day, wandering through our lot, sitting in the shade of our various cars, and from what I have witnessed, just existing, not living.
It’s a heartbreaking thing to witness every day. Austin has become a kind of mecca for the homeless. It stays pretty warm here throughout the year. It isn’t illegal to panhandle along the lines of literally thousands of cars that exit IH35. Because traffic here is so congested, you can find yourself hit up for money by several people at almost any of the major intersections, and if you find it hard to make eye contact with them, this is torture because they have plenty of time to get you to pay attention to them.
I have always had a soft spot for homeless people. When I imagine what that must feel like, it literally terrorizes me. But then, I started a job downtown.
The first week I started, as I was walking the three blocks to my office, a homeless man jumped right in front of me from nowhere and screamed at me to give him a cigarette. He’s seen my pack in my hand, and he decided scaring me was his best bet at getting one. It was, because I didn’t want to die some retarded death over something that ironically, is slowly probably killing me but in a much more enjoyable, non-bloody way.
I like to think I don’t judge any one group of people by what a few of them do, so I chalked that one up an isolated occurrence and a good learning lesson for me. Don’t carry something out in the open I don’t intend to share with them. But then it began happening daily.
Since that first time, I’m kind of bullied by some of the homeless around downtown. Some of them demand I give them my lunch, or go buy them a bottle of water, or give them money. Never am I asked please, or even asked much at all. And I’m not the only person that gets accosted when they walk to and from their cars over there. I’ve never seen displaced people be so threatening.
The situation made me think though. I used to think that Austin letting people panhandle anywhere they wanted was kind of cool. You know, compassionate and all that. But now, I wonder if we are doing these people a disservice by not actively trying to better their situations instead of allowing them to congregate in large numbers downtown. The competition for a measly dollar or someone’s leftover lunch is making these people desperate and surly. I can’t think competition is healthy when it comes to the homeless. What I thought was compassionate and patient is really overwhelmed and helpless on the part of Austin.
It’s been really, really tight financially lately for DJ and I, which has meant we can’t give out money to beggars like we would like to. But by being called names, or screamed at, or threatened by the few, I’ve come to find I’m no longer making eye contact with people who hold up signs asking for help. I find I only want to give to people who ask nicely, or who don’t ask me for anything at all.
I wonder why we tend to feel instant guilt when we look at someone who has ended up on the street. Do we all silently give ourselves excuses for why their problems aren’t ours to fix? Because I do. Because of these last few weeks, I find myself struggling to find compassion. I find myself angry every time a hungry person curses at me for my apparent lack of concern for another human being’s welfare.
I gotta tell you. I don’t like feeling like I’m getting desensitized to the suffering of another person. But how exactly does one keep themselves from it?