Just Say 'Hello'

IMAGINE if you didn't exist. What would you feel like if all humanity refused to see you or acknowledge your existence.

One afternoon last summer, I was standing at a pay phone in Harvard Square. A few feet in front of me, a disheveled man asked passers-by for spare change. While I was on the phone, I was able to observe a few minutes of this man's life, and what I saw disturbed me.

During the entire 15 minutes, not a single person even looked the man in the face. Instead, people averted their eyes and hurried past, thinly masking their pity, disgust and scorn. Each person who passed without acknowledging the man's presence heaped insult upon his injury.

But because of his desperation, the man could not give up and leave. He was forced to stand there and stoically take each slap in the face.

Whether to give money to homeless people is not the issue here. The issue is the incredible insensitivity with which many of us treat the homeless. What upset me about this man's situation was not his economic dilemma, but how he was spurned in the face of his desperation.

IT HAS become routine to avoid the homeless problem on an individual level. Pedestrians hurry by outstreched hands and pleading eyes without even giving homeless panhandlers a look that would acknowledge their existence. Such behavior is not harmless. It is insulting, degrading and denies homeless people their humanity.

There is no such thing as neutrality in this situation. To ignore a request for help is an active decision, and to pretend otherwise is to fool oneself. But it does not fool the supplicant. To the person who has suffered the humiliation of asking a complete stranger for help, the refusal of the most basic courtesy is like a splash of salt water on open wounds.

Many passers-by do not want to be friendly for fear they will encourage further contact and perhaps harassment. Admittedly, this can happen. No one should risk personal safety, and there are times to be curt or even rude in order to protect oneself. But this is not usually the case. A blanket negative reaction toward any group of people undermines everyone's right to be judged individually.

People also often feel that being friendly to homeless people won't have any impact on the problem. This argument is a paralyzing trap that prevents people from helping at all. When doing nothing can be so hurtful to the individual, something is better than nothing. And just saying "Here you go, take care," or "Sorry I don't have anything with me, but good luck," is something.

People also worry that their efforts won't be appreciated. The most common arguments against giving money to the homeless--that they don't deserve it or that they will spend the money on vice--simply do not apply to the gift of a smile or a polite greeting.

Passing a destitute person on the street is disturbing and sometimes frightening. But our fear and discomfort is nothing compared to that of the destitute person. Treating homeless people with the basic dignity that all humans deserve is costless to us, and priceless to them.