Working in downtown Chicago, I pass homeless people everyday on the streets. Of course I feel pity for them. If I have spare change I typically give it to them, although I rarely have spare change. But I also feel something else. Fear.
I fear one day ending up like them. I know that at this point such a fear is somewhat illogical since I have a good job, and even if I didn’t I have a little in savings, although not as much as I would like, and even if both of those fall through there are several levels of safety nets beneath me in the form of unemployment insurance, family and friends, and temp jobs that I could work to get back on my feet. Yet I am still afraid.
I am afraid that at some point my struggles with mental health will sour my relationships, prevent me from working, and eventually leave me out in the street. Because most of all what I fear when I look at homeless individuals is someone who is alone, left to fend for themselves.
I know that this too is a somewhat illogical fear, but that is a large part of what mental illnesses like anxiety and depression are, illogical fears.
So many people ignore the homeless. Even if I don’t have money to give someone who is stuck on the street, I’ll try to respond with a simple “have a good day” or “stay warm.” Sometimes they get angry because they just want some money. Most times they seem to appreciate the gesture. Because the fact is I know nothing about how they got there, the fights they’re fighting. And I know if I ended up there, no one would no my story, or what my fight is.
I can’t solve the homeless problem single handedly. Nor can you. Nor can you or I solve the mental health crisis that exists in this country. But just because we can’t solve these problems, doesn’t mean we can’t treat it with kindness.
A common question I’ve heard is what is the best thing I can do for someone who is struggling. And the simplest answer is to just be there. Be present. Let them know that they are not alone.
I’m not homeless, but sometimes my mind seems so disconnected from society, alone and wandering the streets hopeful for some glimmer of change, something that will help me get through the day, that I can empathize with them for fear I might one day become them. And so I show them kindness when I can. Because struggles of any kind truly teach you the value of random acts of kindness.