The Secret Life of Homeless People
This is the true story of an encounter I had with a homeless man when I was doing my undergraduate studies and how it changed my perspective on the less fortunate in our society. I was about 19 years old and attending my first year of university.
The campus is located downtown and is not in the best neighborhood. The houses, especially in the back of the university are run down and the area is known for being violent. It has gotten worse since then, but even over 20 years ago this was not an area that you wanted to walk through at night alone.
I had a small car, a beat up Plymouth Horizon, one of the worst vehicles ever made. It would break down all the time, the doors did not close properly, and the steering fluid leaked out the minute you added more, so that every time I turned the wheel the car made a God awful screeching noise that announced my approach from a block away. Even so I was proud of this car because I had bought it with my own earnings, my first really big purchase - $2,000 from a repo auction lot, and because most of my friends had to come to classes by bus.
I would drive to school and park my car on one of the side streets near the university, usually two long blocks away. I would finish classes in the evening and by the time I walked back to my car it was usually getting dark.
A lot of times I would run into a man. He was very tall, extremely thin. He looked like he was starving. I guessed the man was about 70 years old, but it was hard to tell. He always wore the same tattered black raincoat, no matter what the weather. He was clearly poor. I thought he might be homeless or that maybe he lived in one of the many tenement houses that lined the streets around the area.
He always walked slowly, as if he did not have the strength to move because of his hunger. He seemed to be exhausted, the kind of exhaustion you get when you haven't eaten properly in a long while.
There were a lot of strange characters in the neighborhood, but for some reason this man caught my attention. He never said anything to me, and never asked me for money but I made a point of looking for him.
I noticed that when he would walk by houses that had big guard dogs chained in the front yard, the man would go and pet the dogs and they would all jump up happily asking to be petted. even the meanest looking Rottweilers would frolic happily around him. He seemed like a kind man as he patted the beasts.
Who Was the Charitable One?
As Fall turned into Winter, the man still only wore the same tattered black raincoat. It had holes in it and was paper thin, with no insulation. The winds were terrible and the temperature began dropping. Winters in this Canadian city are always some of the worst, and by the middle of winter the temperatures were regularly minus 40 degrees celcius. I was freezing just walking the two blocks to my car and I was well dressed with a parka and a hood; whenever I saw the man he was wearing only a raincoat for protection against the cold.
Whenever I passed the man on the street I would feel uncomfortable thinking about how poor he was and how better off I was by comparison. I pitied his coldness, his tattered clothes, his obvious hunger. He had never begged for money but I resolved to help him, and promised myself that the next time I would see him I would give him some money.
I kept a $20 dollar bill in my pocket ready to give to the man the next time I saw him, but I did not see him again for several weeks. Finally one day in January or February I saw him on the street. He was wearing the same tattered raincoat, walking slowly through the cold snow.
I approached him and told him that I could see that he could use some help. I held out my hand with the $20 in it and offered the money to him. The man looked at me for a moment and then took the money. He smiled at me and spoke. It was the first time that I had heard the man speak; he had a German accent or maybe eastern European. I had trouble understanding him but he said something that sounded like "Thank you. I will use it for the children."
I smiled politely and said some insincere words in agreement, thinking that the man was probably too proud to admit that he needed the money for himself. What he said made no sense; what children?
I wondered what the man had meant as I walked away toward my car. He remained on the windswept street, only his raincoat to keep out the biting cold. I have to admit that I was a bit disappointed by his reaction. He had not seemed extremely grateful for my charity - $20 was a lot for me on a student's budget.
And Then He Was Gone
I never saw the man again. A few days later I opened up a newspaper and saw an article about a man who had been killed when he had been run over by a car. The article said that the man had been pushing a cart full of scavenged pop cans to a recycling plant in order to earn a few dollars. Because of the snow on the sidewalk, the man had been pushing his cart down the street when a car slid into him. He had died a few days later in hospital.
This could have been just one of the two line accident reports that barely warrant any notice in the newspaper, but this article was different. There was a picture of the man and his name. I recognized him as the man who I had given the $20 only a few days before. He must have been run over a day or two after I had given him the money. Now he was dead.
I read on. The article said that for the past twenty years the man had shown up at the graduation ceremonies of the university where I attended classes and that he had always stood in the background, just observing, and speaking to no one. These were simpler days of course; now the man would have been presumed to have been a creep and arrested. But then he was simply an item of curiosity, a familiar figure in a black raincoat watching from the back room.
But not so familiar, because the man had a secret life. A life I could never have guessed at from his threadbare clothes - the newspaper article went on to say that over the twenty years, the man had donated over $100,000 to the school. No one knew why he helped the university; the article said that he had never been a student there.
Now I understood what he meant when he said that he would use my charity for the children.Here was a man who lived in abject poverty, who scavenged discarded pop cans in order to earn a few pennies, who did not even have proper clothes, a homeless man perhaps, and yet a benefactor, a man who had devoted himself to helping others even when he so clearly needed help.
Who could have guessed the secret depths of this man's soul? What was my small act of charity - $20 - compared to this man's lifetime of charity and self denial to help students he had never met and who did not even know his name?
The next time you pass a homeless person on the street - do not make assumptions about their lives or the strength of their character.
© 2010 Robert P