What I Learned From a Homeless Man

Something strange happened last night.

I did something I’ve never done before.

I’m going to tell you the story, even at the risk of sounding like a pious, sanctimonious, braggart (which of course, I am). There’s value in this story – somewhere.

I spent the evening at the Minnesota Wild/Calgary Flames NHL game in Oracle Corporation’s luxury suite eating catered food, drinking free booze, and hobnobbing with friends about ice hockey, technology, and business – all on Oracle’s tab. For me, it was a gift, for which I paid nothing.

As I left the game, I walked alone through a park, among a sea of thousands of hockey fans, when a homeless man appeared and asked, “can you spare a few dollars?”

I ignored him, like I always ignore panhandlers and continued walking.

Then I heard a woman shout, “Get a job.”

I took a few more steps and I stopped.

I turned around.

It hit me
An awakening…
An epiphany…
A visual and intuitive understanding I can’t put into words…

I stood still in the center of the park, for what seemed like several minutes, soaking in the whole scene, without an auditory thought in my head, as if I was shocked into a standing meditation. I watched the people flow by the man, who stuck out like a dead head in a river of clones.

I almost burst out laughing, but restrained myself for fear that people would find out I am crazy.

Then I reached into my pocket, pulled out a few dollars, walked up to the man, tapped him on the shoulder, and handed him the money.

As I was taking a shower this morning, I asked myself, “Steve, why did you give that man money?”

Not because I felt morally responsible
Not because I felt guilty
Not because I felt he needed it
Not because I felt pity for him

I gave that man money, because I admired him.

27 thoughts on “What I Learned From a Homeless Man”

  1. Jane,

    Thanks for the comment…
    I don’t think I can answer you with a direct answer. You would have had to see what I saw at that moment last night. My admiration at that moment was not logical it was intuitive.

    I mean…
    I don’t know a thing about the guy. He could be anyone. He could be a saint or a child molester for all I know. It was something about the way he stood in what appeared to be the face of mass conformity and judgment. He stood in complete contrast to thousands of people, many of whom viewed him with contempt, thousands of people that looked the same, dressed the same, and were all heading like lemmings (me included) in the same direction, with bellies full of Budweiser and bratwurst.

    I hope that helps,

  2. And Jane,

    There is one other thing…

    The irony that 30 people (who do not need it) took free food, booze, and tickets from Oracle without guilt or shame, but most of us believe it would be shameful to accept money from strangers for doing nothing.

  3. I think you hit it on the head when you said that your admiration was intuitive rather than logical. There are several ways to view a homeless person – with disgust and contempt, or with pity, or with acceptance and even admiration. And our reaction can’t always be “justified” or explained logically. Either you feel it or you don’t. Thanks for sharing that experience.

  4. I think there’s a lot of value in watching someone who’s living outside-the-lines, just maybe not in the direction that the world finds respect for. He’s not a corporate sheep, he’s living radically different, and he’s taking his licks for it. It could just be a twist of fate that stopped this guy from living outside-the-lines in the other direction and have him create the next Google. It’s a very thin thread.

  5. The statement, “Get a job”….it struck me.

    I’ve thought that before as I’ve passed homeless people, “we’re all working, why don’t you get a job too.” Why spend your days dirty and looked down upon? I’ve thought about saying it, but I wouldn’t.

    But what really struck me was that deep down we would all like a free handout once in a while…rather than work for it. We just go about it differently – lottery, gambling, betting, or even investing could be looked at it that way. The difference is that it is “culturally” acceptable.

    (Ha! I just read the last comment you wrote to Jane. It kinda rings with what I was saying.)

  6. That homeless man is our elemental self. He has 2 priorities: staying alive and safety. All social norms go down the sewer when all you own is what you are wearing. He exists in hope. He is not giving up and laying down to die. Those of us that have clawed our way back into the mainstream never forget our lessons on survival and our greatest strength: hope in the face of unbelievable adversity. You simply at a gut level recognized and acknowledged a fellow human surviving in hope.

  7. Occasionally I’ve posted entries on my blog that were written by my mother. Currently, she’s calling herself “The Tent Lady.” Once upon a time, she called herself “The Homeless Walker.”

    During her homeless walking days, she walked across the country with her dog, pulling a Radio Flyer, and wearing a backpack. Both then and now, I admired and envied her. I admired her courage to cast aside the expectations of society and do her own thing. I envied the freedom that she had to go where she wanted and do what she wanted without being tied down by a clock or commitments.

    The downside is that it’s hard to consider yourself truly free if you don’t know where you’re going to be sleeping tonight or where your next meal is going to come from. But she has become very resourceful in that regard.

  8. I do the same sometimes. I only do it though if the sign they hold tells the truth. case in point last year I saw a homeless man holding a sign that said “Why lie I need a beer”. so I pulled into the gas station, bought him a 40 ounce bud and gave it to him. I told him that I reward honesty and to enjoy the beer. I also gave him the change from the purchase which was enough for him to buy a second one later.

  9. nice story ldyrhiannon ! That homeless person deserve a beer ! We don’t have the right too judge any one, even a homeless !
    My opinion is:
    If you want to help him..then do it , if i don’t want to help him , then…don’t do it, but don’t judge his actions, you don’t what is like to live on the streets !

  10. OMG Steve….I was in tears….that was a non selfish thing that you did…sooo non selfish.

    My name is Ivy and I have been homeless off and on for the past 5 years…Im 41 years old and like people say…about gradeschool children being cruel…well so can the way that society thinks about people such as myself…

    I used to work the streets….and I have recently learned in life that a “Closed mouth dont get fed” and by saying that what I mean is….I have learned that if I just tell people of my situation…most of them have no problem giving a few dollars..but then I have run into ppl that say “get a job”

    Being homeless and in that rut in life is no fun…but for some its a way of life…I chose that way because I thought the man I was with for FIVE years broke my nose….so homelessness for me was a choice….then it became no choice because I cant afford first, last, and damage dep to move into my own place…

    After a 4 year wait…my name for low income housing finally reached the top of the list….I was excited…I went to the interview and they sat there and told me I would probably be denied because I have no rental history…I was shocked and almost went into tears…if that falls through Ill be basically homeless again…..all over. I dont know what Ill do.

    If I had to do anything in my life all over again…I wouldnt change a thing…because I would not be who I am today….


    please send me an email….would love to say hi from time to time..Ill keep you posted on my situation….fiestyangel38@yahoo.com

  11. Steve,

    It makes complete sense to me as the rawest display of gifts we all deserve when we recognize who we are.

    Social conditioning creates a condition that some may take time to believe what they recognize. Others will never believe it unless other social conditions are fulfilled (The woman who said, “Get a job!”).

    Jane Chin

  12. Your reasons for “admiring” someone who is down on his luck are misguided. Press political leaders to change the affordable housing situation; make a donation to a local soup kitchen, if you must. But never, NEVER give money directly to beggars. Unless you are willing to take on a more active role in helping that specific individual extricate himself from an unfortunate situation, you do him as well as all of the hard-working volunteers who strive to help people like him a great disservice.

  13. Peter,

    You are making the same prejudicial assumptions I made as I passed him, and others made that taunted him. You and I know nothing about him. The only thing that I saw was that he appeared very different than the masses, and for that he was ridiculed.

    To be accurate…
    I don’t even know if he was homeless…
    That is also an assumption.

    About the problem of affordable housing…
    As they say… There is more than one way to skin a cat, your way is not the only one. But the first question to ask is “Why are we trying to skin the cat?” The second question is once we skin the cat, what will we do with it’s hide?

    Delegating your responsibility for your fellow man to political leaders is a risky proposition. You better have very wise and honest leaders or they will only magnify the problem you asked them to solve.
    And it makes it far too easy for you to point your finger at this party or that party instead of looking in the mirror. Plain and simple abdication of basic decency. This isn’t my problem, it’s the government’s problem.

  14. this is in response to the man whose mother called herself the homelesswalker…

    youre right!

    there is a certain freedom…to not having anything tie us down…however…when one has to worry about where we were going to sleep at nite…sometimes that was the hardest thing for me to accomplish for the day…being a female…I wouldnt go home with just anybody…I paid people $15/nite to sleep on thier couch…and then there were some nites where I would walk around becuase I couldnt sleep on someone’s couch,.

    its a scarry world out there….and there are days when it takes every ounce of our being to stay alive…right now Im working on my 10th life..Ive been through my share of attacks and alot of times out there I went to bed in tears wondering why god has kept me alive all this time…..but Im here for a reason and mayb these responses are it…who knows…all in all…Im glad Im still here.

    thanks to all who wrote to this blog…

  15. I stumbled by this and I was amazed at what I heard. I can only imagine that you (steve) are a somewhat successful man doing well enough for himself. In the real world how many acts of kindness do you see daily?

    you have to think about it don’t you? That is an unfortunate happening. However you did a random act of kindness to this man.

    Those who say get a job to a man like that homeless (or possibly homeless man) should think twice. People who end up homeless are just like you and me. They just happen to be in a different situation? Have you ever given a homeless person the respect to sit down and have a conversation with them about their experiences? Do you have any idea what they have went through in their lives?

    It may be true that alcoholism is rampant in homeless people. However, it is rampant in non homeless people too and it isn’t fair to say that you should never give a person on the street money. It is true that most of the time I don’t and prefer to give them food or some other commodity.

    While i think peters idea is good of getting a hold of political leaders and letting them know what you think. That is at best a fix for 10 years from now. Political leaders don’t move fast and who knows how long someone living homeless will make it? We have hearts and this thing call intuition for a reason. I believe that most people also have a conscience and that all those should be exercised daily.

    anyway i am all mumbly jumbly…

  16. I commend you Steve! It takes a good person to do something like that. I remember when I first saw homeless people – at first I felt sorry for them, then I started not even noticing them because they were located in the same areas so it was like a tree or any other “normal” thing you passed by.

    Now I notice them all the time. They are human beings. Some are honest, some aren’t. But it’s not my job to judge that. If I have a sudden urge to give, I give. If I simply can’t I say I can’t and send them a blessing.

    I know people that are close to me that have been homeless, not because they were lazy or anything of the sort. But because they were forced into it. They had no place to live because the place they initially lived in was unsafe and they had nowhere to go.

    Good job!

  17. I can see that! It really would take a lot of guts to ask people streaming out of a stadium for money, especially since the guy probably “looked” homeless. Maybe he should get cleaned up and get into selling! (I’m serious!) Great post!

  18. Another response to Peter..

    The problem with donating to an organization or talking up your local politician is there is not guarantee that these actions will actually benefit the individual in person. In particular “pressing political leaders” tends to earn a lot of empty promises and little action.

    However, giving someone a few dollars can guarantee them a few minutes of happiness, whether they choose to apply that for a beer or a sandwich. And one shouldn’t underestimate the value of that.

    These individual donations do not undermine anyone. On the contrary, they may provide an immidiate, if small, ray of sunshine for the person in question.

    Sometimes working very very small scale can be beneficial.

  19. Interesting. I’ve never lived anywhere with homeless people around, so it’s kinda difficult to fully understand. I don’t know how I would react to that situation, or if I would even react at all!

  20. I don’t know, Steve. I think he had a job. Sales.

    Everything in this world is a sale. Either you close, or you get closed. You got closed, albeit, with a little exterior help, I think you closed yourself.

    Actually, I think that’s what marketing is…

  21. This is in response to Mr Wesley’s writing…

    there are alot of homeless people….such as myself…whom have been homeless off and on for the past 20 years…

    I used to work legally once upon a time in my life…and somewhere in time my life took a few fatal blows…I have some diagnosis’s that prevent me from probably ever holding down a “good” job again in my life…

    I dont think its a matter of havin or not havin the balls…to get or not to get a job…

    I from personal experience know that once you have been homeless its harder than hell to get out of that rut…one needs a understanding , compassionate, helping hand to get out of that situation.

    In order for one to become “gainfully employed” and a “productive citizen of society” again there are some things that they need to be willing to do for themselves…which one of them is counseling…

    I have been through medical billing schooling but that was many years ago…I would need a refreshers course on that..but in order for me to think about schooling again there are things that I need to work on first…and the formost #1 thing is myself and the hell that I went through out there being homeless.

    we see things that “normal” ppl wouldnt fathom seein in thier lifetime…and it marks us for life.

    Im sorry that society thinks just one tunnel vision way of homeless ppl…not all dont get me wrong.

    and beleive it or not…if one is honost about being homeless…WHO is willing enough to take a chance to HIRE them??????

  22. Why the hell didn’t you just take him home with you????
    Because you really don’t want him in YOUR neighborhood, that’s why. Maybe you didn’t want his filth on your fancy leather seats in your (let me guess) ridiculous four wheel drive SUV. Or would it be snotty Prius???….
    The word “Hypocrite” leaps to the forefront in this conversation..

  23. recently i was a truck driver,then the company i worked for let me go,now
    i am homeless and living in my pick up in a rest area in colorado,down to my last 20.00 dollars,looking for work but just not that easy right now,
    every day i get up,go into the rest room and shave & clean up then i go up to the local library get on the internet and look for jobs in 6 different states,
    currently waiting on my tax return so hopefully one of these six states will
    have a job i can do,and with the tax refund i can get their,when i use to drive through Denver i would see people pan handling some people would throw things at them some would just say crap to them,my self i always tried to help out and would give them 10.00 or 20.00,one time in calif,a lady came up to me with everything she owned in a cart,ask me if i could spare some change,i gave her 40.00,and hope it would last her for sometime,next time you see people in this position ask your self this,
    if it was you,wouldn’t you want someone to care or just help or listen,being alone at times like this is not a good thing,don’t judge to quickly,just offer some help.

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