Sometimes suffering is obvious; sometimes it’s not. Sometimes we know someone is homeless; with hunger, we usually don’t know. If someone is injured on the spot, we may rush to help. If you’re in an accident or your car is stranded by the side of the road people may stop to help. If people are struggling with a natural disaster or famine, no matter how far away, there is often a wellspring of help, and we wouldn’t want that any other way.
But to people on our own streets in our own towns and neighborhoods visibly suffering from homelessness or hunger we often give a wide berth. Fear is part of it, distrust, suspicion about substance abuse or mental illness, uncertainty about our own safety, and given some of the facts these are not unreasonable reactions.
Those are the in-the-moment factors, but there’s more to it. Fear of the other, fear it could happen to us, doubts about anyone’s stability or luck, and questions about what makes us safe. At some level, we tend to blame the other, blame the person suffering, believing they made their own situation. Judgment is easier than compassion.
And who wants to be panhandled? It stops us in our tracks, inconveniences some, makes others feel bad. How do you enjoy whatever you were about to do or buy when that happens? By compartmentalizing, turning a blind eye, by forgetting about it, hopefully quickly, as soon as you’re out of range of their voice or face. By trying to parse out on the spot who’s on the level, who’s truly needy and who isn’t, who’s neediest, asking: would my donation be better given somewhere else?
I’ve learned that an adult walking around with a full backpack during the day is likely to be homeless. There’s a lot of that happening these days. What’s your strategy when you cross paths? Look away, walk on by, use the other entrance or exit? Probably the best of us will engage rather than ignore, find out what’s going on, share resources.
In media, social services, and community workgroups it would be hard to argue the topic of homelessness is being ignored; we seem to get daily bulletins detailing the scale of the problem, often with few answers. Hunger has fallen somewhat out of the spotlight, though the two issues are often linked. It stands to reason that if you’re homeless you’re likely hungry, or that someone struggling with basic needs is at high risk for homelessness. But at another level, someone who is right in our path might very well be ignored. If not ignored, hunger and homelessness are accepted, and maybe we shouldn’t accept them.
Hunger is a bit different. When someone is on the streets panhandling, purportedly for something to eat, we’re instantly suspicious about what they’ll buy if we give, especially if they don’t look like they’re missing any meals. But for the most part, hunger doesn’t look anything like that.
Hunger hides in a lot of different places, maybe in the house or apartment next door or down the street, in your daughter or grandson’s classroom, or maybe the person next to you in the checkout line, who actually can’t buy what they need to make up an adequate nutritional picture.
With 1 in 6 children without enough food, and 1 in 8 Washingtonians below the poverty line, hunger isn’t what you think, or even where you think. It doesn’t have to be outright starvation to do a lot of damage, cause suffering, or affect a child’s development. Hunger has a different face than you might think as well: seniors, children, working people. It’s obvious in the schools; frontline staff can usually spot it from a mile away because that’s a closely observed environment. Less so for seniors, working, or disabled adults, who may compound the problem by being ashamed and reluctant to seek help.
Fortunately, we live in a compassionate community. We can be forgiven for our fears about those who are down and out, forgiven for not having all the answers for those who are suffering. Organizations like ShareNet help cross that bridge between community and those within it who are struggling. On the street, in the moment, faced with real suffering we don’t always have the right response, but we can help through an organization which does.
Mark Ince is the executive director of ShareNet. He can be reached at 360-297-2266 or firstname.lastname@example.org