OLD ORCHARD BEACH – He stands on the sidewalk next to the traffic with a sign that says “Homeless Vet — will work for food.”
She sits across from the food pantry with a sign that says “Hungry — need food.”
Then on another street corner stands a young man with a sign asking for my returnable bottles — something I’m ashamed to say I’ve thrown away without a second thought about their value.
I never used to see them until one day when my 5-year-old daughter pointed out a man picking up food from the sidewalk in front of Burger King, where we had gone to have a special treat. I say “special” because in those days, Burger King was a special treat for a single mother working for minimum wage.
She asked me why the man was eating french fries he’d picked up from the sidewalk and told me to give him some of my money so he, too, could buy some food.
What a simple solution — why hadn’t I thought of it?
That day started me on a path. I see them now. I am drawn to each and every one of them. A therapist would probably call it the result of unsuccessful attempts to get my own father off the street when I was younger.
I get into conversations with friends and acquaintances and often ask the question, “What do you do when you see a homeless or hungry person on the street?” I’ve heard many different answers, even gotten into arguments with people who say it’s all a scam to get their money. I’ve even met people who don’t even see these people at all.
I will admit one thing. If I am able — I share what I have with them. It’s not always a lot — sometimes I don’t have a lot. But whatever I have puts me in a much better place in life.
I have food, shelter and good friends and family. I don’t care what they do with the money, it’s a gift. They might indeed go to the nearest bar and drink it away. Or they might just go to the nearest corner store to buy the cheapest box of macaroni and cheese and some hot dogs and have the first meal they’ve had in a week.
To be at such a point in your life that you must ask for money or help from total strangers in this country of excess breaks my heart.
I see them, I want to know their stories, why they are there and if there’s some way I can help them. But I’m sure they don’t want to share their stories with me. At least that’s what I tell myself. So I don’t ask, I just do what I can, whether it be a cup of coffee, some cash or the bottles I save just for this reason.
I could have known any one of these people. The guy with the “Homeless Vet” sign could have been my father or brother or any one of several friends who went to war back in the ’60s or ’70s. They thought they were defending our country and then they would come back to their lives the way they were before.
Only for some of them, it didn’t happen that way. They came back to ridicule and scarce jobs, and, in some cases, dragged home addictions to drugs and alcohol. I’m sure that guy I see is someone’s brother, cousin or friend — maybe yours?
Ask yourself this question. When was the last time you actually stopped to look at that man or woman on the street? When did you put yourself in their shoes for one hour or one day? Imagine having to walk in those shoes for months or years.
Then pull over, safely, say hello and give them a hand — however you can. Maybe it’s just a few bottles or a $20 bill. Whatever it is, it is more than what they had.
I don’t know how you’ll feel after — but I know how it makes me feel. I’ve been close enough to hunger and homelessness a few times in my life — but never quite there. I would hope someone would stop and give me a hand if I were in the same position.
You may not agree with me. You still may go by thinking that this is just another scam, but I’m counting on one sure thing. At least one person will read this, really hear what I’m trying to say and use that other sense, sight, to really look at the people around them.
If you do, you will stop, you will help, and you will be blessed.
Kathy Rivers is a resident of Old Orchard Beach.