There’s a man at the station whom I see every now and then, always around midnight when I’m on my way home from an evening out. This man is not the loveable type. This has less to do with his lack of a home address, and more with his following me out of the station and down the darkened street every time – until I either reach for my wallet or tell him I have no change. The man sighs at me and rolls his eyes, disgusted, when I say I usually pay by card these days. He claims he needs the money for overnight shelter. That may or may not be true. On winter nights he tells me he’ll freeze to death, his breath fogging the air. Google tells me my city council offers free beds when temperatures plummet.
All the same, if I have the cash I give it to him. The man never says thank you. He just vanishes into the night like he was never there at all. He doesn’t recognize me. But I know him: He’s got an earring in his right ear and is missing molars on both sides of his jaw, so that his cheeks look permanently sucked in. His eyes are blue. When a person lives on the streets long enough, dirt and smog from the city collect in the folds and wrinkles of their face. The shadows look permanent.
One night, I try to ask the man at the station for his name. He squints at me in a suspicious sort of way and spits on the pavement and my courage fails me. We walk off in opposite directions. I tell myself it would’ve felt wrong to ask a man to give me his name and story in exchange for money anyway. Truth be told, I’m a little afraid of him.
I wonder: Does someone need to be loveable or even sort of presentable for us to care about them? I think we all know what the answer should be. But the reality is that appearances matter. In the Netherlands, homelessness has risen by a staggering 74% over just six years, and yet coverage of this crisis is mostly nonexistent or limited to a very specific group of homeless, like the young people who sleep in Amsterdam’s Vondelpark. There’s also no explanation for why numbers have risen so dramatically. It’s just kind of a thing that happened when we weren’t looking – whether it was the economic crisis, austerity or even the refugee crisis, I couldn’t say.
What I do know is that we live in a society in which more and more people seem to think that our fates are entirely of our own making – whether you’re a #fitgirl or a right-wing politician. Sympathy usually is reserved for people who most resemble ourselves – or those that are unusually adorable (animals), photogenic (young people) or remarkably talented. Homeless people tend not to fit into any of these categories and are thus easily ignored, unless they do something that makes for an inspiring video on YouTube (a search will turn up viral hits with titles like “Homeless man makes J-Lo cry“, “Homeless man sings John Legend” and “Homeless man with Platinum Voice“, all of which have millions of views).
Most people who are homeless aren’t social media superstars waiting to be discovered. I imagine many of them are more like the man from the station, which is to say, permanently down on their luck but not waiting for you to save them. Many homeless people have real problems. The kind of problems that might not be fixable and that will never go away. Addiction, trauma, mental illness, any of the countless complexities that underpin our vulnerabilities as humans. We need to recognize that these people may never change. And that this is more of a reason to care, not less. Even if you never receive anything tangible in return. Even if the person you’re trying to help is kind of rude about it.
But why should we care? Because it could’ve been us, if the circumstances were different. Because we want to live in a society that offers people a safety net, always. Because we’re all human, and therefore by definition all fallible. But mainly because caring about those who aren’t like ourselves is an act of empathy: it takes us out of our own experiences for a moment and makes us gentle and generous towards the imperfections and upsets that life deals us all. It teaches us that not everything is fixable but that we should try anyway. This kind of empathy is hugely important: it is the key to balanced debate and to a politics that are restrained and kind. Practicing empathy might be the only chance to heal the divisions we’re facing today. It starts on our doorsteps and happens on our streets.