Making eye contact with the homeless

My medical ethics professor shared these eloquent words with the class this week about homelessness.

When we walk down the street and notice someone who strikes us as homeless regardless of the circumstances, our instinct is to turn our heads. We avoid making eye contact for a number of reasons. Maybe we’re afraid of what we think they might ask from us. Maybe we feel as though we have nothing to offer. We look away because we feel uncomfortable. But what impact do you think that has on the homeless? They go through their day feeling as if they don’t exist. They are ignored and looked down upon. It could very well be that all they need is someone to notice them, to look into their eyes, and maybe even to listen to them. Very few of the homeless have had someone give them their undivided attention. Can you imagine being ignored every day? When you look into their eyes and give them a moment of your time, you are reaffirming their dignity. You are showing them that you too believe in their self-worth.

My thoughts quickly shifted to the Irving Park Road highway off-ramp in Chicago. There are two short stretches of asphalt that are each held down by a person and a sign. I keep them in my peripheral vision, afraid to look them squarely in the face, and I scoot up just as I see them look in my direction. I tell myself that I look away because I have to. Otherwise, I’d be committing help to them and I don’t have anything of value to give.

But my professor’s words have shown me that my definition of value is too elementary. My naivety is a manifestation of the prejudice the homeless feel every single day.

Spare change can certainly help. A warm meal and a thick coat will lift someone’s spirits. But treating someone who strikes us as homeless with the dignity that all human beings deserve is, I think, one of the best ways to serve. Smile, wave, look into their eyes. You might be the first person to actually notice them all week.

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