It has been quite a while since I wrote anything, but I feel it’s important to write something today. A while ago, my coworker sent an e-mail to everyone in the office, asking for blankets, coats, hats, gloves and gift cards to distribute to the homeless people in our community. I thought this was a great idea, so my boyfriend and I gathered some clothes and I brought them to the office. Since I wanted to do something more “hands-on,” I offered to help my colleague pass out bags with gloves, Cosi gift cards and other items that had been donated.

We set out on yesterday with only eight plastic grocery bags between us, thinking that we’d be back to the office in a half an hour or so. We went to every place we had ever seen homeless people and we were shocked that we didn’t see anyone. It must have been so cold, that most people were already in shelters. We walked quite a bit, checking all of the places we could think of – street corners, bus stops, parks.

We were able to talk to two men, one of whom was the man with the poncho mentioned in my previous post. When my colleague approached him to ask if he needed warm clothes for the winter, he said “No, thank you. I really appreciate you offering, but I have enough already. I would like to extend my hand to you and wish you a Merry Christmas though.” I was completely and utterly shocked.

The next man we spoke with was sitting on the cold sidewalk, next to a shopping cart filled with what I can only assume was everything he owned. He, too, thanked us for the offer and said that he was fine.

My colleague and I were baffled. What about helping the needy? What about making someone’s day? I had set out thinking that I was going to help people in the community, hoping that I might make a tiny difference. Instead, I learned a much more valuable lesson.

I had always looked at homeless people skeptically, wondering where my change was going when I did decide to give to them. I had thought that most of them suffered from alcohol or drug abuse, or had mental illnesses. Perhaps this is true for many homeless, but in thinking about these things, I had somehow managed to shut out their humanity. I grouped everyone together, neglecting that these could be people who in another time and place, might be my friends.

In speaking with these men, I was jarred out of my misconceptions and back into reality. At the core, we all have the same needs, wants, desires. In my eagerness to help, I forgot the person I was trying to help – his pride, dignity and where he was coming from.

My colleague and I ended up donating the bags of clothing and gift cards to a nearby church which has an outreach in the community. On the way home from work that evening, my coworker handed out the two remaining gift cards to people he saw on the street. One of them was the man in the poncho. He accepted the card and, as a thank-you, pulled a Christmas card out of his backpack, signed it and handed it to my colleague.

We had expected to give of ourselves and out of the extra things we had, but generosity and thankfulness turned up in unexpected ways. Yet again, my perceptions were shattered. The one we thought had nothing gave us something of his along with a glimpse into a different side of homelessness – a very personal side. And so, I can only say “thank you, John,” for bringing things into perspective.

© 2008. Annabelle Peake. All rights reserved.