Have you ever met one of those people who just seems to sparkle, who makes you feel like a million bucks just by being you? Lesley is one of those people. Even though she’s only been an in-person friend to me once, she is Pure Joy to be around. So lean into what this mama-writer has to say today …because how we respond to poverty and homelessness is a problem many of us encounter every single day.
When I think about China, I think about gray weather and that woman in the subway exit near Tiananmen Square with her face flat on the cement. She had a young toddler with her. After I collected myself from almost tripping on them, I briefly considered my options. And then, I looked down on the pair of precious women living in a country with gender preferences, and for a moment I believed a lie learned somewhere along the way: Ignore them because giving attention only encourages the problem.
So I kept walking.
It wasn’t my first experience with poverty, which is perhaps why the short encounter still hurts my heart all these years later. I should have known better.
I grew up in a beautiful small town in Southern California where the homeless weren’t welcome on neighborhood streets. It was a safe and wonderful place to grow up, but the city’s policies meant I wasn’t exposed to poverty until college. In Santa Barbara—another beautiful small town—the homeless line State Street with signs and guitars and bowls meant for donations. It was during those formative young adult years that I began thinking about how I, a young single female, should respond to people in need. I didn’t want to encourage the “problem” and I couldn’t help everyone, and I didn’t know who’d use my money for drugs. Every time I headed downtown I felt inner turmoil and immeasurable guilt.
Do I smile and say ‘God Bless You’ but not stop? Do I throw a quarter to everyone I pass? Do I pick one person and buy them a hamburger? Do I avoid eye contact? Do I hand over a dollar bill with instructions to use it wisely?
Depending on the day (and whether my wallet was full) I used one of these replies, but never did I come to a conclusion as to the best one. Encountering poverty made me uncomfortable no matter how I responded, so I threw a buck here and a dime there and tried not to think about it too much.
I can’t exactly remember what challenged me to specifically think about women and poverty differently—whether it was a book or a blog post or a documentary—but a few years after returning from China these words entered my life: “There is no excuse for ignoring women and children with an evident need for food or shelter.”
While there’s a lot about poverty I don’t understand, those words rang truer to me than anything else I’d ever been told. They also explained why I’d never been able to forgive myself for not stopping to help the mom and daughter in the Beijing subway station.
When I think back to that muggy May day in China, and a mama trying so desperately to provide for her child, I no longer experience waves of regret. Instead, I remember that day as the last time I kept walking.
While I still can’t financially help every person I come across who needs help, my eyes are now open wide to the women and children on our streets because they are especially vulnerable. I pray for the right words to say and I never turn my eyes the other direction. We have water and snacks in our car to offer, and I stop and ask how I can help get them shelter for the night. I’m learning how to safely ask if they’re being trafficked or living in danger, and who to call if I know I’m not prepared to help. I’m not usually their solution, but I try to be a bridge to get them to a safer place.
Poverty and homelessness and women on the street still make me very, very uncomfortable. And I’ve realized that’s exactly how I should feel.
Lesley Miller is a wife, mama and writer living in Santa Barbara, California. She loves running, the beach, avocados, Pilates and chocolate cake. When she’s not chasing children, she’s blogging atbarefooton45th.com or writing for various places around the web. You can also connect with her attwitter.com/lesleymiller. Thank you, Lesley, for your thought-provoking, moment-capturing words. Leave Lesley some LOVE in the comment section today!