There’s an uncomfortable discrepancy between my pocket change in a paper cup, and the intensive support that a homeless person really needs. I see your dire lack of health care, safe housing, substance abuse treatment and job training… I’ll buy you a burger while you wait for someone to help.
With my volunteer work and charitable donations allocated to other causes, I can’t do much to alleviate the poverty, chronic hunger or addiction of transient people. But they suffer another painful condition—social disaffiliation—for which I can provide some meaningful relief, one personal encounter at a time.
The desire to be seen as valuable and competent is unrelated to one’s housing status. Most of us underestimate the importance of human connection, because our own need for it has never gone unmet. At least not to the psychologically-traumatizing extreme of pervasive dehumanization. To someone who feels invisible, a little interaction with a stranger can make a big difference. I witnessed the power of such humanity when, ironically, a homeless woman extended it to me.
Walking toward an Irish pub in Washington, D.C., I was approached by a disheveled, tired-looking woman. Accepting a dollar from my hand, she leaned in and sheepishly asked if I had a tampon to spare. I didn’t. When I told her that I’d look for one inside the pub, the humiliation on her face compelled me to falsely blurt, “It’s cool, I need one anyway!” I said I’d be back in two minutes if the restroom had a dispenser, but she backed away shyly and continued on her way. I wished her luck and followed my friends into the pub. I felt bad, but all thoughts of the encounter were gone before my drink was.
A couple hours later, we paid our tab and headed for the door. Oh, no. There she was, standing outside. Her nod of recognition confirmed the obvious: she was waiting for me. I walked toward her, reaching for my purse. Do I have any more cash? Is there a drug store nearby? But my guilt was interrupted by a big smile, so I asked, “Hey there, any luck?” I felt her put something in my hand.
“Yep, and I got one for you, too.”
It took a moment to register that she had returned and waited, just to share her procurement with me. I didn’t really need it, and of course she really did. But what she obviously needed even more, was to feel helpful and appreciated. So I dropped the tampon into my purse and thanked her profusely for being so thoughtful. It wasn’t an act; I was truly thankful to receive such extraordinary kindness. She beamed from ear to ear as she turned and shuffled away, standing a little taller this time.
While it certainly didn’t change her life, our interaction did change the way she felt about herself in the world that night. Fourteen years later, I still have the tampon, and I’m still grateful for it.