Vox Populi

A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature

Patricia A. Nugent: Rush to Judgment

She shuffles up to me on the sidewalk, paper cup in hand. She speaks so softly, I can’t understand what she’s saying. I ask her to repeat it.

“I’m homeless. Can you spare some change?”

This is an unusual scene on the streets of Saratoga Springs, New York, a refined city known for thoroughbred horse racing, mineral springs, and the arts. While there are homeless people, and a shelter to prove it, panhandlers aren’t typically encountered on the streets.

My arms are full, as I’m delivering my books to a local gallery. “I’ll be right back,” I promise. “I’ll help you then.” She knits her brow; she’s heard that before.

When I return ten minutes later, she’s nowhere in sight. I walk to the fair-trade coffee shop and order an egg sandwich and large chai latte with almond milk. As I wait for my carry-out, I spot her sitting at a table, eating a thick sandwich and drinking coffee.

Well, look at that, I say to myself. She can afford to eat in the same upscale coffee shop as I can. I’m glad I wasn’t hoodwinked into giving her any money.

I want her to see me, so she knows I’m wise to her. But she averts her eyes, as she nibbles on her sandwich. She shuffles to the bathroom and when she returns, she pushes the barely-eaten food away.

She leans forward. “Sir, would you like half a sandwich?”

Being so obsessed with her, I hadn’t noticed a man sitting alone at the next table.

He asks her to repeat what she said, and then responds, “No, thank you. I’ll find something later today.”

“You sure? I can share this with you.”

“Yes, I’m sure. Thank you, again.” There’s no food or drink in front of him. His hands are folded like a Catholic-school boy.

Her generosity piques my interest. I approach.

“Ma’am, I saw you outside a little while ago. You told me you were homeless. Are you living on the streets?”

“Yes.”

“It’s so cold out. What do you do at night?”

“I have several layers of clothes on. See?”

She begins to peel them off, one at a time, as she gestures toward her plate. “I’d like to eat all of this sandwich, I’m so hungry. But I have to save the rest for later because it may be all I have today. So, I’m going to take it with me.”

“I heard you offer it to that man. That was very generous of you.”

“We have to help each other. Maybe someday, someone will have extra food and offer it to me when I don’t have any.”

She rises to get a carryout box but halts when I continue talking.

“Do you sleep on the sidewalk?”

“Yes.”

I ask if she knows where the shelter is. She says she does, then asks where it is. The man at the next table tells her how to get there because I don’t know. I advise her to show up during the day, to not wait until dark.

I look into her faded blue eyes, framed by her white, straggly bangs. John Prine’s song Hello in There comes to mind, but I can’t think of anything else to say.

“You are a child of God,” comes out of my mouth. More to remind myself than to remind her.

“Thank you,” she says, meeting my gaze.

I slip some bills into her paper cup.

“Thank you,” she says again.

As I walk away, I wonder how I could have been so judgmental of her when I should know better. I taught in and then directed a Head Start program for many years. In that role, I was frequently accosted by those who questioned the legitimacy of poverty, and I became one of our clients’ fiercest advocates when challenged:

If they don’t have enough to eat, how come they’re overweight?

Because they don’t know about proper nutrition. They eat inexpensive processed foods.

If they’re so poor, how come their kids have name-brand sneakers?

Because they don’t want their kids to be ridiculed in school so they buy them what’s in fashion, sometimes at the expense of other necessities, like medication.

If they’re so poor, how come they have cable TV?

Because it’s a lot less expensive than going out to movies or concerts. They need diversion, too.

If they’re so poor, how come they have a car?

Because there’s limited public transportation. And too often, it’s where they end up living.

I know that the route to poverty takes many twists and turns. I’d interviewed Head Start parents and published their stories in a booklet titled Rich in Spirit. And yet, today, I’d stood in judgment at the coffee shop – a place willing to offer homeless people short-term respite from freezing temperatures.

I’m tempted to blame the raw political climate in our country for my rush to judgment of this homeless woman. Tempted to say I’m becoming desensitized to the issues of low-income families because the overall rhetoric has become so cruel and inhumane. And, anyway, how can we worry about poverty when nuclear annihilation hangs like the Sword of Damocles over our heads?

While that all may be true, I can’t blame external factors. I have only one person to blame: Me.

I’m the guardian of my own moral compass, responsible for my own sense of social justice. I must build a psychological fortress against those who would blame the victims rather than point to an unjust system –  against those who would criminalize homelessness. Too bad if homeless people don’t square with the image this city has of itself – don’t tell me not to give them money because “it only encourages them to panhandle.” They don’t need encouragement – starvation and frostbite are motivation enough to forsake your pride and beg strangers for a pittance.

“Button up your overcoat tonight! We’re expecting 8 to 12 inches of snow,” the meteorologist on my car radio warns as I drive home on my heated seats. I eat half of my now-cold egg sandwich; I’ll save the rest for later, remembering, with shame, the woman whose name I never bothered to ask.


 

Copyright 2017 Patricia A. Nugent

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Patricia A. Nugent is the author of the book, They Live On: Saying Goodbye to Mom and Dad, and the editor of the newly-released anthology, Before They Were Our Mothers: Voices of Women Born Before Rosie Started Riveting.

17 comments on “Patricia A. Nugent: Rush to Judgment

  1. jfrobb
    December 31, 2017

    Pat – When I first read this piece I was out of town w/ a phone that was being cranky in terms of letting me respond. Now I’m back, reading ALL the responses. Clearly a from-the-heart piece that has struck many of us. Bravo! You have articulated something we all seem to be shuffling around.

    My version is similar to all the above responses. Giving, not giving, putting my head down and hurrying by. Then joining mission committee of my church, strongly supporting our support of local mission efforts. Even at time attempting to corral/perhaps nudge street people I came across into these programs. Without taking into consideration whatever their specific details were.

    Now I’m back to giving. I figure it you’re out on the street for whatever the reason I’m going to share. In some small way. I’ve also started first steps in finding a volunteer spot in one of the local programs. Always trying to remember these are people in many ways just like me. People I want to look in the eye and acknowledge as fellow human beings. A connection perhaps as important as whatever is being shared from my pocket. The last person’s comment is correct. The Bible’s got this one – no matter what your specific beliefs are. Amen!

    A great piece – for so many reasons. It encourages me to move into the new year with hope and action. Many thanks!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. kimberleylangfordauthor
    December 29, 2017

    Thank you. I too have been in judgment mode when interacting with the homeless. Your post was a wake-up call for me to use compassion instead of judgment and to be grateful for all that I do have!

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Chris Morrell
    December 25, 2017

    Nice job Patty and most appropriate for a snowy Christmas morning.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. nananoyz
    December 24, 2017

    Reblogged this on Praying for Eyebrowz and commented:
    This. This is important.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. drjudybricbrac
    December 23, 2017

    This article is a striking comment on a personal struggle to face and accept our own shortcomings in grappling with the realities of poverty— the personal wish to blame the victims, and yet the acknowledgement of the severe hardship that poverty imposes on each of its victims . A beautifully written essay! Bravo.

    Liked by 3 people

  6. Leslie Sittner
    December 23, 2017

    Pat–with an intensive infection of guilt throughout my being, you’ve forced me to acknowledge my lack of volunteer efforts to help with this ever-present problem. Thank you for this sensitive reminder.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Patricia A. Nugent
      December 23, 2017

      Thank you, Leslie. I’ve been gratified by the number of people who have similarly contacted me with a resolve to get more involved. As we know, the most personal of our stories is also the most universal. Glad my confession helped nudge others toward increased social consciousness about this shameful scourge.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Marie A Jordan-Whitney
    December 23, 2017

    Beautifully written, Pat. An important message for us all!

    Liked by 2 people

  8. robert okaji
    December 23, 2017

    Reblogged this on O at the Edges and commented:
    In this article on Vox Populi, Patricia A. Nugent talks about homelessness, rushes to judgment and blaming the victim.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. majokmindfuleating
    December 23, 2017

    What actually occurred to me, while reading this, was the people who lost their homes in Cohoes recently. Where did they all go? Are some of them homeless? It takes some time to find your way in an existence that you never imagined. Would you then lose your job because you have no way to bathe or no appropriate clothes to wear? Some of my best teachers of empathy and non-judgement were my clients when I worked for the AIDS counsel. I admired the resiliency and creativity of the women, some of which were living on the street. Thanks Pat, this was lovely to read.

    Liked by 3 people

  10. vriedmandangler
    December 23, 2017

    Thank-you for your reflection and insight-
    Reminder for us all that dignity is often hidden
    beneath tattered clothes and tired eyes. It is up to us to validate those, when we can, who have less than.

    Liked by 2 people

  11. vriedmandangler
    December 23, 2017

    Thank-you for your reflection and insights-
    Reminders for all that dignity hides behind tattered clothes and tired eyes. It is up to us to validate this for those who do have less than.

    Liked by 2 people

  12. Charlie Knight
    December 23, 2017

    I thought the homeless wanted to live that way, then God saw to it I became homeless. I have tried, to help with many programs and committees in the past 22+ years, but probably the only thing that will help is getting someone a good solid job and even before that, safe housing with the ability to move up to something better. I did not always think this way, but now I see some of the “benefits” I have received have actually do nothing more than to help me to stay alive and not allow me to move onward. The thing about a job is that people expect you to be there on time and do a certain work and your co workers look for you and come to appreciate you and that, more than the money, is priceless. Look at Maslow’s theories of “Self Actualization” and you will see that being homeless pretty much knocks out the supports needed for this. Hence so many homeless use drugs or drink or pastries to drowned out the noise in their head that they are at fault for being homeless. One of the best things that happened to the cit/town I am living in right now was that a tornado came through and devastated things that people are still trying to rebuild from. Within seconds vice presidents and high paying job holders in responsible positions were homeless, the house was blown away. For some there was no savings to build right away again.. For some the job was blown away also. It was then they realized you do not need to be a drunk, drug addict or mentally sick to be a homeless person. In some ways, Mary and Joseph and his children were also homeless when Jesus was born in Bethlehem. So this “holiday season” take a look around you and notice maybe for the first time that person eating the sandwich so slowly and savoring each bite. It may be the only meal they have that day and maybe it was given to them from a wagon parked for a few moments at a street corner at a certain time a few days a week. That person will need to leave and try to sleep under a bridge or in a box or somewhere so they can awaken by about 2 or 3AM so they can walk the streets and not be asleep at 4AM when the night is the coldest and they might freeze to death. When homeless some complain, others go to sleep thanking God they are able to rest in an old refrigerator carton or some other place to keep the cold winds away from them. When I was an intern in D.C. with Phi Theta Kappa I found people sleeping on cardboard on the streets, it seemed like there were thousands of them. They had “dissipated” by dawn. We need to help our people with skills or maybe just confidence so they can be employed and save for the future and help us again. We need to be a nation that cares for each other and celebrates each other’s successes. We need to throw out that idiotic saying from the ’80’s, “looking out for number 1”. We need to look out for each other, like the girl in the story and the man. The scripture says to “Love thy neighbor as thyself” and I would say that the only way you can truly love yourself, is if you LOVE your neighbor, and I don’t mean physically. AMEN

    Liked by 4 people

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This entry was posted on December 23, 2017 by in Personal Essays, Social Justice and tagged , , , , .
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