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December 25, 2014 at 6:02 AM

The day I stopped ignoring homeless people

I stepped off my bus Monday morning with a mission. The day before my church distributed gift packages for parishioners to give to homeless people.

I felt as if my church had entrusted me with a special task. The large Ziplock bag contained packs of raisins, crackers, band-aids, as well as a knit hat and gloves among other items.

My commute by bus takes me from West Seattle to Belltown and then I walk to The Seattle Times’ office in South Lake Union. I see at least a handful of people who look like they could use some help each day near my stop by Third Avenue and Lenora Street. I figured it wouldn’t be hard to find a worthy recipient.

People sleeping on the ground in Pioneer Square. (Bettina Hansen / The Seattle Times)

People sleeping on the ground in Pioneer Square. (Bettina Hansen / The Seattle Times)

The mission seemed simple enough: find a needy-looking person and hand over the package. Soon after of arriving at my stop, I saw an elderly woman with a walker and a cart.

I had seen her near that corner before. I remembered her because her feet seemed to be wrapped in various layers and covered with plastic bags.

I asked her if she would like a gift bag and she said, “Sure.” Then we exchanged a “Happy Holidays,” and “Merry Christmas.” I set off for my office.

The act was simple, but during my commute I felt anxious about not finding a homeless person or worse mistaking someone for homeless if they weren’t. Would someone find it offensive? Strangers ask for money all the time, but would I make someone feel uncomfortable or patronized if approached them? I pondered the bigger picture: how much can a stuffed Ziplock bag help vs. larger needs like landing a job or stable housing?

The experience made me think about my own attitudes about the less fortunate and homeless people I encounter on a daily basis. I tend to set up barriers between myself and strangers by thinking about the larger policy and economic issues vs. the faces I see on the street.

One of the things I love about cities is the opportunity to engage with other people, but I rarely interact with anyone who’s homeless.

Most of the time I say “no” when strangers ask for money because I question where the cash is going (and the fact that I rarely carry cash). I wonder if the person will use it for drugs or alcohol or if they might rob me if I take out my wallet. That’s why I was excited to offer a package of supplies instead.

In an editorial this week, The Seattle Times called for long-term solutions to homelessness and better use of resources. King County’s goal of eradicating homelessness in 10 years came and went and the work continues.

I’m glad that local government and nonprofits set a high bar for addressing the issue of homelessness even if they haven’t come close to solving the problem.

Some people may not care about helping the homeless, but I’m sure plenty of us do. I started with one Ziplock bag. I hope in that the future, we can all do more.

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