It's been frickin' cold out. Okay, so it's not as cold as New England (I had one housemate call it "snot-freezing weather," where the snot freezes in your nose), but the wind in Center City's so strong that I almost got blown off the sidewalk yesterday.
I like winter, but I worry more, about people who can't just go home, turn on the heat, and wrap themselves in blankets. There's a guy I pass on the corner of 19th and JFK. Usually he sits and asks for money. If I have change in my pockets, I'll give it to him.* And when it's this cold out, I feel like I should be offering something else: shelter, food, something.
My introduction to Philadelphia was through homeless people. More specifically, it was through a group at my college called Youth Against Complacency and Homelessness Today (yup, the acronym was YACHT; we liked irony). Our main thing was Saturday morning trips to the city. We'd bring bagged lunches and give them to people on the streets.** The point was not just to give out lunches; the point was to sit down and get to know people--if they wanted to talk to us, that is. Often they didn't, so we'd just give them the lunch and wish them a good day. Sometimes, they just wanted someone to ramble at, and that was fine.
Anyway, you do that every week for four years, and you do get to know people--their quirks, where they hang out, what topics to talk about and which ones to avoid. In Suburban Station, there was one hallway filled with people during the winter. They'd wait for us on Saturdays, and we often hung out there and talked to people for a while. Then, one day, we went down there to find the hallway locked down and the people turned out. This city does not have the best reputation when it comes to homelessness.
My standard thing, the last two years, was to visit a guy named Pop who stood on the spiral staircase across from City Hall (under the clothespin statue, if you know it). I got to know him pretty well. He liked Mountain Dew when it was warm, tea when it was cold, and sold t-shirts and umbrellas to tourists. He still hangs out there, as far as I know, and I've seen him a few times since I graduated. After college, I worked at a day center for homeless women in DC for a year...that deserves a post in and of itself.
All that to say--well, I'm not quite sure. Something about feeling guilty about not being able to do more. Actually, I wrote about this six years ago for my college paper, quoting T.S. Eliot: "For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business." I think, sometimes, I need that tattooed somewhere, because, yeah, I have a bit of a save-the-world complex. And it can be paralyzing, because I think of the world's problems and it's overwhelming.
The guy on the street corner--I'll give him change, yeah. And maybe, if I'm not in a rush, I'll get him a sandwich and coffee. It's not going to solve the world's problems, it's not even going to solve his problems, and I'll probably keep worrying.
Still: "For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business."
Or, if you like Beckett: "Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better."
*There are lots of differing opinions on giving money to people who are homeless. I know that. But I often think of this story about C.S. Lewis: Lewis and a friend were walking down the street when a homeless man came up and asked for change. Lewis emptied his entire wallet into the man's hands. As the man was walking away, Lewis's friend said to him, "You know he'll spend it all on drink"--to which Lewis said, "Well, I would have spent it all on drink, too."
** One of the interesting things about going to a Christian college is the way certain ways of doing things permeates everything. For example, we'd always have at least one or two people a semester who wanted to "witness to the homeless." We banned the giving out of tracts during our Saturday morning trips--"this is not about converting people," we'd say. "If someone wants to talk to you about faith, feel free. But we're not giving out food with strings attached." And really, giving someone what he or she needs as a conversion attempt? Really, really shitty, in my book.