I'll never forget the moment a few years ago when I left a store and a homeless man was sitting outside of the door.
He asked if I knew anyone that needed to have yard work done. I paused with my bags and told him I didn't. A woman walked up and handed him some change out of her pocket and he thanked her and said
"I'm so hungry, I haven't eaten in a really long time. I'm gonna' use this money to eat. Thank you"
I told him again I was sorry, glanced at the trash bag and rolled up sleeping bag he sat on. He had sharp blue eyes. Kind eyes. He told me it was okay and I began to walk away when something in my mind and heart told me "STOP". I can't explain it. I knew he wasn't dangerous. That I was okay but this man was not.
He needed someone to talk to... and God knows I know how that feels. Don't you?
So I sat down beside him and his kind eyes and asked him his name. He told me his name was Steve and began to tell me his story. I shared with him a little of mine, but mostly I listened. Steve came from a broken family, suffered from schizophrenia, was abused growing up, and fell through the holes in the mental health system. He said he felt haunted by his past, his heartache, and his life. He couldn't sleep. He felt like a failure. He wished he could be the son his Mom deserved.
I offered different resources to get him a place to stay, meals, anything I could think of. But he didn't want help. The more I offered the more his blue eyes watered. So I stopped and just let him talk.
Steve had been homeless for eighteen years and counting.
I said an apartment would probably feel really odd. Like a cage of some sort. He nodded, and said he wanted to constantly be on the move. He knew no matter where he went he would always be haunted but still he continued to run. It's all he had known. And as I sat there, and watched this man, the tears openly streaming down his face, I wanted so badly to change his world for him. Somehow.
Steve looked at me several times during our conversation and said that I was the first person in eighteen years that sat down or stopped and had a conversation with him. And he kept thanking me as he wiped his tears away. I smiled and told him that he didn't have to thank me because he listened to me too, and I appreciated him for doing me the favor. And I meant that.
I didn't see before me a bad person. I saw a lost person, a damaged person, a forgotten person. And I know how easily you can go from having a lot to having to start all over again.
Or how one day, one moment, one person can turn your life upside down. Steve is just one of those people that was unable to pick himself back up after being turned upside down too many times. Steve said it felt good to cry when I told him I didn't mean to make him upset. He said he needed to cry and thanked me for that too.
When I got up to finally go home I asked Steve what he wanted to eat. I said I didn't have much money but I had a few dollars I could give him. I reached in my purse and he held out his hand and said he wasn't hungry. He didn't want any money from me. I paused and gave him a puzzled look.
"But you told that woman you were hungry... really... I don't mind."
His eyes welled up with tears again and he shook his head no.
"You need your money. You keep your money and you go be safe and you live a happy life now".
I couldn't believe that he turned down my money. I started to offer again but realized that any offer would be rejected.
What I had given him by sitting and talking to him, by hearing his story, by caring enough to ask meant more to him than a few dollars out of my wallet ever could. I held out my hand and shook his hand.
He looked at me and said, "Thank you. Thank you. You're a beautiful person".
I walked away, glanced back at him, and said "I'm really glad I met you Steve. Thank you for listening to me".
I shut the door to my car and as soon as I pulled out of the parking lot the tears came. Eighteen years he had been without a home. Eighteen years. And in those eighteen years nobody had ever stopped to sit and talk to him or ask him his story.
We all have a story. Some of us are just lucky enough to not have our story ruin us completely or, if it does ruin us completely, we are still underneath a roof somewhere. Steve is not one of those people. And he gave me something that day. I'm not sure what to call it. Some might call it perspective but I already had that. I would call it encouragement. Encouragement to keep being the save the planet type of person that I am. Many have shaken their heads at my attempts over the years, told me to stop trying to be Superwoman, to be more selfish. But in a way... attempting to save the planet is selfish. I get so much joy out of making even the smallest ounce of a difference.
Take Steve, for example. He was hungry. Maybe even starving. But what he was most hungry for was not any meal served at any restaurant or item on a grocery store shelf. Steve was hungry for humanity. And for one hour in his life I was able to feed him.
Stephanie March is a writer, survivor, and advocate.