By Darren Smith, Weekend Contributor.
I performed a very informal study to discover a way the average person could engage homeless persons in the hope of fostering empathy for these citizens, their lifestyles and outlook.
Most of us are removed from direct interaction with the homeless. The closest approach is perhaps to give them money and to then walk away, with little more than a greeting and a thank-you being the entire discourse. Our time among them is momentary and relegated to simply a transaction initiated and dismissed by each side with expediency.
I discovered cigarettes can change it all. Now, we can have a dialogue.
A fallacy most fall into is advocating for the homeless by “slacktivist” measures, that is, devoting perhaps 100 keystrokes to sound off demands that more be done for the homeless. This is of course while they slack off using their smartphone while watching a football game. Or too often they subscribe to the belief that making a ten dollar donation to the local soup kitchen via Pay-Pal provides the street-cred that one knows and sympathizes with the plight of homeless persons. While the kitchen can always use the money, No, neither that nor a pathetic politician serving food at a Salvation Army kitchen for a photo-op on the campaign trail is going to absolve a person of having ignored the homeless, pretending to know their situation and difficulties.
It is interaction that is lacking. Most people never talk to homeless persons on an interpersonal level, and most homeless people believe there is little chance of being heard as they are accustomed to being dismissed so readily.
A less mentioned aspect of giving alms to the unfortunate, especially the homeless, is that most of the emphasis for aiding these people is limited to items such as food, shelter, and warm clothing–basic survival needs. Programs to provide these, alcohol rehabs, shelters, etc. serve a need but a fundamental benefit is absent. Has anyone really considered that the need for Happiness and Friendship should be offered in the mix?
Our society, as a matter of policy, only attempts to meet the physiological needs and half-heartedly the Safety needs of the homeless. It greatly lacks Love and Belonging and especially fails in fostering a sense of Esteem in the hearts of those on the streets. A reason for this is because the average person, as I mentioned, is removed from the homeless and collectively this results in a schism between the two. Each is a faceless abstraction of the other.
And this is where the cigarettes come in.
Cigarettes for the homeless? No, I am not upsetting a nebulous claim that we are poisoning the lungs of people who are down and out. Here is a little secret most homeless people smoke.
Homeless people have little money (obviously). In states having high cigarette taxation the nicotine habit is disproportionately costly: demanding such a large proportion of the homeless person’s wallet, forcing them to somehow mitigate these demands. It is either smokes or other needs, since money is usually low. Sadly, mitigating these costs reduces many to beg for cigarettes or worse to sift through ash cans or find on the ground recently discarded cigarettes. Now which is a worse health situation for the homeless, giving out new cigarettes knowing that the homeless are going to smoke anyway, or consigning them to second hand cigarettes having untold pathogens from being on the ground? This is not a heartless characterization of the homeless, it is instead the reality on the street.
I first started my experiment by purchasing a few packs of cigarettes and ambling about one night downtown. I have noticed from past experience that giving spare change to a homeless person is always met with a thank you, but that is often the extent of it. When I came upon homeless persons who appeared to be looking for a cigarette I gave them one of mine along with a light. Most of the time, there was the Thank You yet there tended to be more interaction offered by the homeless person than was the case with small change.
I suspected that the reason for the greater affording of interaction stemmed from the fact that a cigarette is more of a token of happiness while the spare change was simply just providing for a need. It is important to recognize that these folks often have little material joys in their lives so items such as new cigarettes are prizes in many cases.
An adjunct to my observations was where I would stand on the sidewalk, holding a cigarette, and see what would come of this. I observed where some homeless individuals would just simply ask for one, but many would reach into their pocket and offer to buy a cigarette for whatever change they had in their pocket. Two offered as much as a dollar. I declined their offer of money, but instead gave them a cigarette without payment. This resulted in most being very pleased and offered conversation.
After seeing only a bit more interaction offered in just one cigarette I decided to increase the cigarette alms to three or four at a time. That proved to be a game changer.
Without one exception, when a homeless person either requested or was offered a cigarette and instead three or four were provided, it shattered the invisible wall between the homeless person and me. The act of giving several cigarettes at a time was very surprising to them and it was always met with a smile and greater thanks. But most importantly, the homeless person became very engaged with me and rather than taking the single cigarette and leaving, they instead wanted to strike up a conversation and seemed genuinely pleased that someone cared enough to offer them more.
In the multiple cigarette scenario the homeless person truly opened up for conversation. Surely someone could otherwise approach a homeless person and try to engage them in conversation out of the blue, but my experience with this is that sometimes they become defensive when strangers start unexpectedly talking to them, which in many cases is the same with all peoples. But in my experiment I would often have conversations lasting ten or more minutes talking about whatever topic we wanted. I recommend avoiding conversations about homelessness, for it will bring the wall back up. Just be a listener, tell jokes, and enjoy each other’s company: like you would any other friend.
Again these people have so little in their lives, being given three cigarettes by a stranger might be the best thing to happen that day–not to mention a showing that someone cares for them.
But whatever amount the cigarette alms are bestowed, you learn empathy through dialogue. Talk with them. Learn what each of them are about. It doesn’t need to be a profound conversation about life or homelessness or political topics, in fact I would stay away form that. Let the homeless person take the initiative and simply listen to what they have to say. Too often they are ignored and seldom do they have a chance, at least in their belief, for their words to matter to someone else and that they are respected.
I guarantee you the conversation will be different in many aspects of the white picket fence lifestyle we know, but you will also find just how similar we are and differ only in situation. Do not be condescending or talk down to them. Many will be mentally ill or intoxicated. If you converse in the same intonation and manner as you talk to your neighbor or friend you will show respect for the other person, placing each other on equal footing. Also, I would not use this approach when there are many others around, since it would interrupt the one-on-one conversation the two of you need.
By having ordinary conversation with individual homeless persons on several occasions your empathy for them and their plight will become greater and genuine. Homeless persons will no longer be abstractions, faceless political causes, or someone to be dismissed. Understand these conversations you can expect shall involve topics that are not always going to be rosy. There are myriads of personalities you will encounter, but you will benefit by enlarging your understanding of others.
By Darren Smith
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