Walking back from a pub last night with my sister, we passed one of the many Philadelphia denizens who spend their winters curled up by the nearest sewer grate, gathering close to the warm steam being pushed out of the city’s underbelly. I had found a dollar on the pavement earlier, and had picked it up with the intention of passing it along to the next person to ask me for spare change: a fairly common experience in downtown Philadelphia. I had not been asked, and so still had George Washington ready to cross the Delaware in my pocket.
But. Some rivers are too wide. I placed the dollar bill next to another he had in the curve of sidewalk between his shoulders and hips. He looked up and muttered something that sounded like a request for real change. Real change is not easy to find in a city with an estimated 4,000 homeless on any given day. This does not include those in transitional housing, low-demand residences, or substandard living conditions. For these citizens, and some who find a night’s rest in shelters, perhaps there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Some hope. Some chance that circumstances may change, that they may pick themselves up and lift their families out of this uncertainty.
Then there is the portion who will find no shelter, no joy, and can not find a way out but through the bottom. They can not pick themselves up anymore, they need real change, and someone to help them up. We see them as drug addicts, dangers to society, and they scare us. There seems to be no small kindness that we can extend, and again we must look to the grand task before us. Many of these people will die on the streets. Hungry, cold, and without hope. We do what we can, but we can not save most of them. They can not save themselves. Our job is to look to next Christmas, to those on the edge of despair now, who need only a little support to pull themselves off the ground where they have fallen. They could be past all hope by next year, or they could be just a little more secure, a little more full of hope.
It starts in the mind. The mind that says, “I don’t want an ex-criminal cooking my breakfast.” or “Don’t go to that part of town.” Just a mental shift, in each of our minds, eliminating the “us” and “them”. We are so inspired when some author or filmmaker is able to tell the stories of transformed lives, but we don’t see the same potential in front of us. We can not all afford to give thousands of dollars to food programs, we can not all afford to donate hours of our time coordinating evening lodgings, but we can all afford to shift our thinking. They are not dangerous criminals and drug addicts, they are us, just under different circumstances. Real change is not made through philanthropy or charity, it is through the recognition of humanity.