“Just keep your head down and walk quickly,” I thought. Paranoia entered my mind and I immediately began to think of ways to avoid being noticed by him. My mind raced, I could walk on the opposite sidewalk but I would need to cross the street eventually to reach the front door. Going around wasn’t a viable option since the drive-thru is blocking the opposite side. I had no other choice.
I noticed the homeless man sitting on the sidewalk beside the McDonalds on my way to get breakfast. The cold weather had made his face beet red. A thin, Asian man, I had seen him sitting bunched up on the sidewalk for days at a time.
As I got closer to him I became more and more worried. As bad as I felt for judging the less fortunate, my past experiences had scarred me and the stigma against the homeless population had increased my anxiety.
In grade school, my dad had asked me to give a homeless woman sleeping in a parking lot some old shoes. I was frightened by the idea – the preconceived notion that homeless people were something to be scared of had already developed. However, I worked up the courage to deliver the shoes.
My heart was beating as I walked deeper into the parking lot while my parents waited in the car. A couple of steps felt like miles but I kept moving. I saw her fringed gray hair as she paced back and forth, speaking to herself. I laid the shoes on the concrete close to where she was standing. Nothing felt right.
As I began to walk back, a loud scream from the lady hit my ears. I picked up my feet and ran the fastest I ever ran in my life. The shoes I had just delivered were thrown back as I retreated. Tears ran down my face as the pit in my stomach widened. My vision blurred as I felt my body sprint across what seemed like the longest parking lot in the world.
It took me a minute to catch my breath when I got back to the car where my parents were waiting. They had seen everything. My dad apologized for making me approach her but looking back, there’s no way he could have ever expected that. I begged them to drive away in fear that she was following me. I cried the hardest I ever cried that day.
“Can you bring me water?” His voice startled me, it was quiet but rough like he was struggling to get the words out. My heart stopped. After the initial shock, I tried my best to understand. He was asking me for a cup of cold water and a cup of hot water. With no idea what to say or do, I simply agreed. The man looked weak. I imagined he had probably been ignored by countless others who had the same prejudgements that I had.
I brought out the two cups of water and, at that moment, I looked past my fear and saw the man in front of me. This man was brought to the point where he did not simply make a drink choice like any other person. It was necessary for his survival that he had hot water to keep warm or stay clean and cold water for the hot day that was to come.
I laid the cups where he was sitting and looked back. The man promptly thanked me. My fallen heart had climbed back up from my stomach and a sense of appreciation entered my mind. While it wasn’t instantaneous, I wasn’t afraid of homelessness anymore.
After that experience, I decided to work on facing my misconceived fears and the social anxiety they had created. I want to understand homelessness – not look away, trying to ignore it.