The Conspiracy

My Homeless Friend

May is Mental Health Month in America. 25% of homeless individuals in the U.S. suffer from some form of severe mental illness, compared to 6% of the general population. This article is a tribute to the daily positivity of one homeless man in the face of all his struggles. 

A homeless person is, first and foremost, a person. [CC http://stormiweatherr.xanga.com/]

One of the friendliest people I know is homeless, and spends his days collecting money on a street corner in New York City. Sometimes, I might see “Dennis” a couple of days in a row, and sometimes weeks will go by before we cross paths in front of “his” corner again. Living in New York City, encountering people who are homeless or asking for money is far from a rare occurrence.  The other day, I walked by a man sitting in a wheelchair with neither arms nor legs and a sign reading “please help me so I can help myself.” Smiling at him, asking if he’d like a banana, I privately wondered how a fellow human being could be struck by such a double tragedy; first to lose his limbs and then to have no one better to turn to for help than strangers on the street.

Unfortunately, this disabled man is not alone. According to data from the National Alliance to End Homelessness and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSHA) of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, about 407,966 individuals in America and approximately 66,269 individuals in New York City do not have a home to go to at night. 66,269 is a large number. Most New Yorkers probably encounter several of these homeless individuals each day, sometimes pausing to offer a snack or some loose change, sometimes stopping to feel a stab of sadness. However, this connection with the 66,269 homeless tends to be fleeting, by necessity lasting a few seconds or minutes before we rush off to continue with our own lives.

Sometimes though, an individual like Dennis can put a personal face on the anonymous homeless.  I look forward to seeing Dennis, and get nervous when he hasn’t shown up nearby for a while. You see, Dennis is simply pleasant to be around. Over the past two years I have pieced together parts of his story, and know he lives in a shelter with some sort of consistent meals, at least during the week. According to data from the Food Bank for New York City, 1.4 million New Yorkers rely on NYC’s dozens of soup kitchens for their meals, and perhaps Dennis could take advantage of some of them instead of relying on passerby for food. But I have a suspicion that part of the reason Dennis continues to rely on the charity of passing strangers because he simply likes people.

Dennis may live in a shelter and spend his time on a street corner, but he has a way with people. While oftentimes donating to the homeless can feel like a chore, I am actually excited to give food to Dennis. He is always so happy with an appreciative of what you give him, telling you you’ve read his mind by giving him an orange or that you’ve brought him just the kind of granola bar he likes. Psychological principles of reciprocity tell us that people like being around people who like them back. Dennis has mastered this principle; laughing, smiling and upbeat, Dennis makes you feel like he is happy to see you, that you have always brought him something extra special. Little wonder that in return, I am happy to see Dennis too.

I don’t know enough about Dennis’s particular story to know why he has not been able to find a more stable home. I don’t know why he depends on passing strangers to eat, why he does not find a more comfortable way to live. But if Dennis had to be without a home, I am glad he chose to occupy a street corner near me. I am glad that I have had the opportunity to meet such a happy, positive person. I am glad that over time I have been able to get to know Dennis better as a unique individual as opposed to a charity case, to learn that he enjoys salad and healthy food, that he prefers cinnamon powdered donuts.

I’ve learned a lot from my interactions with Dennis. Dennis has reminded me that homeless people are people first, with unique likes, dislikes and personalities. He’s taught me that even when you are receiving help from and are heavily dependent on others , you can still choose to be a giver, to appreciate those who help you and make them feel needed. America’s 400,000 homeless may be some of the most invisible people in our society. Take a minute today to speak a little longer with a homeless person you may pass on your way to school or work, to get to know these  often unseen people better. You might be inspired to advocate for better solutions to get more of these individuals into warm homes where their health can be better cared for. You may lift a lonely person’s spirits. You might get lucky and meet one of the friendliest people in the world.

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