Why Do We Fear The Homeless?

This post may be a bit controversial.  And some will call me naive, a bleeding heart liberal, reckless even.  That’s fine.  These are just my own thoughts and feelings.  I am not trying to belittle any else’s experiences or feelings of safety.  I am not trying to encourage people to act rashly.  Just sharing my own experiences.

“Memphis is the most dangerous city in the United States.”

“Don’t walk the streets of Nashville at night.”  

“Only use gated parking lots in New Orleans, especially with out of state plates, or else your car will get broken into.”

These are the things we have heard during our travels.  Striking fear in tourists, making people feel unsafe.

These cities do have high crime rates.  It’s not like people are making this up out of nowhere.  You should always be careful.

But I do feel that we are living in a world that thrives on fear – especially fear of the “other”.  And that “other” in this case refers to homeless men.  Most often black.  

My husband and I have visited all of these cities.  We have walked at night.  We have parked our car on the streets.  We have not crossed the street when we see panhandlers or homeless men ahead of us.

And we never felt unsafe.  Cautious, yes.  Mindful of those around us, yes.  But not unsafe.

The men that are begging for money, the men that are on the streets, are still just men.  They were someone’s son, someone’s baby.  They are likely someone’s brother, or uncle, or husband, or father.  They are human beings.  And they are not all criminals. Most are just trying to get through the day.

Many are obviously struggling with some inner demons, many are dealing with addictions.  A lot are veterans.

Very few of them will actually try to rob you.  Almost none of them want to hurt you.

If one of these men stops us for money, we will talk to them.  Make eye contact.  Ask their name, and then use it.  We almost never give money.  But I do give them food if I have some.  And we do engage in conversation.

And in return, the most amazing thing happens.  They tell us who to look out for – which panhandler will actually try to take our wallet.  Which corner is more dangerous than others.  They also tell us which restaurants are good, or what store has good prices.  They return kindness with kindness.  Imagine that.

Of course, there are tricks to making yourself safer while walking, all of which we also use.

  1. If possible, do not walk alone.
  2. Walk with purpose and confidence.
  3. Make yourself look big by standing tall and keeping your chest out.
  4. If someone does come close, back away and hold your wallet or purse.
  5. If someone tries to talk to you, look around to see if they are trying to distract you while another person picks your pocket.

Definitely be careful and make yourself look less vulnerable.  But also carry some extra food, some socks, and a whole lot of compassion. 

If you do find that you get stopped by a homeless person asking for money remember to smile.  Remember to make eye contact.  Remember to be nice. 

Remember that they are just a person like you.

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