I had an encounter with a homeless man earlier this week...
...and I can’t shake it from my mind. So I’m writing about it… that’s what this thing is for, right?
Homeless people are everywhere. Last year, 66,433 homeless people were counted in Los Angeles County (0.66% of the total population of 10.04M), and that’s only an estimate. “Oh, well, it must just be because I live in a big city.” You know, city life. Home to skid row.
Wrong. Even in my tiny hometown of Lafayette, Louisiana, which stands on a foundation of family and love and community, there are 759 homeless people (still at 0.60% of the total population of ~126,600). There are an estimated 550,000 homeless people in America and 150 MILLION homeless people on our planet. Our planet. Our home. We suck.
I almost found a dead homeless man on the sidewalk today. Or rather, I found an almost-dead homeless man on the sidewalk today. It felt like an episode of “What would you do?” except IRL and without the cameras. And what do you do, when there is a potentially dead body ragdolled on the scorchingly hot sidewalk, with eyes that look melted shut and skin that is dark, crisped, and dried from the sun?
I looked around at the several people sidestepping the scene, shielding their eyes and yanking away any investigative dogs and children, both inquiring in their own ways, “what the fuck is happening over there?”
This isn’t meant to be braggadocious or self-aggrandizing. Seeing all of the blind eyes being turned was like looking into a mirror, watching the person I’ve been dozens and dozens of times over most of my adult life: leaving bars, clubs, coffee shops, grocery stores, and everywhere else I could find myself spending money; traipsing or laughing my way down streets of cities I’ve called home over the past decade; ignoring starving and dying fellow human beings, who desperately want a place to rest their heads but are indefinitely refused even the idea of a home.
I knelt down close to the crumpled body, trying to make us both invisible while I figured out what to do without having a full-on sobfest/ panic attack/ meltdown one mere block off the vibrant and lively Santa Monica Boulevard.
“Hello? HELLO? Are you awake? Sir, I’m not trying to bother you, I just need you to, like, move your fingers or something; just a little something. Blink once to let me know you’re alive.”
I’ve never been so desperate. Hoping for back-up, I found a security guard around the corner at a MedMen dispensary.
“Oh yeah, they [homeless people] do that [lay dead on the street] sometimes. Not much we can do. If he’s really dead, someone’ll be around to pick him up eventually.”
My eyes bulged wildly at the sheer inhumanity. I raced back around the corner, making sure this man wasn’t being picked up by what I was visualizing as a garbage truck with big chomping claws made for people instead of plastic bins. The body was thankfully still there, but my theory was further confirmed: We. Fucking. Suck.
I tried snapping my fingers, stomping, and making an orchestra of honking and siren and percussive noises. My desperation growing, I took five dollars out and held it toward him.
“Please? Just give me a wiggle, a little hand shake. I’ll give you five dollars if you please, PLEASE just move.”
Nothing. I leaned in and tucked the money into his limp hand, thinking, “When he wakes up, he’ll be happy to have five dollars.”
Not “if” he wakes up, but “when.” Because he was definitely going to wake up. He had to.
As I pulled my hand away, our fingers just barely grazed each other-- AND I KNOW THIS SOUNDS DRAMATIC-- but as our fingers touched, I felt a quiver. I literally screamed. It was a full-on “WOOHOO!” moment. His eyes flickered, and then it was like watching a computer reboot and come to life.
I’m sure I looked 100% psycho. I’m generally a pretty happy dude, but I haven’t felt THAT happy in a long time. I could’ve cried. I might have, actually.
As he became more aware, a woman from a nearby salon appeared with cookies and water. Together, she and I helped the man (whose name I later learned was Peter) move to the shadier side of the street, out of the sun.
“There’s a breeze.”
Peter smiled SO big-- so grateful and so happy that he was in the shade. A good reminder that none of my problems are actual problems.
I hope experiences like this one becomes a bigger, more regular part of my life and my story. I’ve walked past countless (easily hundreds) of homeless people. I’ve turned a blind eye to so much. I left Peter that day feeling like the bar to be a decent human being is so embarrassingly low; and yet, it is a standard that I don’t seem to meet often enough.
I will venture to say that you are most likely a better person than I am. And I’m not asking you to give-- this isn’t an ASPCA commercial and I’m not Sarah McLachlan (although that might be neat for, like, a day or two).
After a long fifteen months of quarantine and as many of us return to the streets of the towns and cities we call home, this encounter with Peter reminded me that some people never left the streets, or had anywhere else to go in the first place.
We could all use a reminder to stay grateful, considerate, compassionate, and kind. After all, who doesn’t deserve to feel a breeze?
Learning how to be a better human being,