by Thomas Brady

I do not want the scary homeless dude on the street to manhandle me.

I don’t really want to call the writer of that sentence out, but you can find them easily enough. The article in which it was found had almost nothing to do with homelessness. This quote came in passing, discussing various scenarios in which a person touching you can be an intrusion on personal space, a lapse in good etiquette.

I hear this kind of casual reference all the time. So many people seem to think it’s okay to refer to someone who they assume has no job or home in terms they would never employ in polite conversation. They’re “gross” or “annoying” or “awful.” There are descriptions of odors, odd behaviors and the like. Often there’s an observation about the relative merits of the person’s approach to asking for help — “Did you see that sign? What nerve!”

On a trip to Ireland a couple years ago, at a party in a native’s home, I was offered my choice of beers from her refrigerator. I recognized none of the labels, so I just pointed at the one that looked most interesting. My host said, “No, you can’t drink that! That’s for dossers.” I mistakenly thought A) that she’d said “tossers,” and that B)” tosser” meant “homosexual” — it actually means idiot. I assumed I’d pointed at a cider, as I was familiar with that particular breed of bigotry from back home — that only women and gay men drink ciders.

I said, “So, everyone will think I’m a homosexual if I choose that one?”

She said, “NO! We’re tolerant in Ireland! They’ll think you’re homeless!”

We — the people of the western world, and then some — are so proud of our tolerance. We think we’ve reached our big, strong, thoughtful arms out so far and included so many people. But so, so many of us can walk right past people in absolute dire straits, living in our own neighborhoods, and act as though they don’t deserve the same respect we’ve decided to give to whatever groups for which it still requires reversing our xenophobic instincts.

I don’t care what your theory about homelessness is. I don’t care whether you think they’re lazy or the victims of societal flaws. They’re people. They’re someone’s son or daughter, brother or sister, aunt or uncle, mother or father. They deserve to be treated as such. They deserve your direct eye contact. They deserve to be greeted with a “Hello!” or be get a response when they greet you. They deserve a shake of your hand. Yes, this sometimes means that you will have paved the way for them to ask you for something. It’s not impossible to politely decline. I do it regularly, whenever I don’t have any cash on me.

It’s really no different from the way that I treat people standing on the corner with a clipboard in a metropolitan area. If I have time and/or I’m interested in their cause, I stop. Otherwise I tell them, “No, thanks, I’m not interested” or “I don’t have the time to stop right now.”

If you assume that someone is “scary” or that they wish to “manhandle” you simply because you’ve assumed that they have no home, that says far more about you than it does about them.