Smile and say hello.

Today, there was a homeless man asking for change on the sidewalk. (Actually, there were several because this is NYC, but I’m just focusing on this guy for the purposes of this post.)

He asked me politely if I had any change when I walked by, and I said, “I can’t give you anything. I’m sorry.”

Then, we small-talked about some things like the weather and how his day was going.  

He told me to have a great day, and then he said, “I understand that you can’t give me any change, but thank you for smiling and stopping to say hi.  That’s more than anyone else has done today, and it means a lot more to me than change!”

The conversation that we had wasn’t that significant and lasted about two minutes, but this isn’t the first time that a homeless person has thanked me for just smiling at him/her and saying, “Hi, how are you?” I always thought that was strange, because most people in New York scowl at you when you smile at them, and because I smile and say hi to lots of people and never think twice about it. (Clearly, I am not a lifelong Manhattanite.) I definitely don’t expect someone to thank me for smiling.  That seems a little extreme, because it takes almost no effort.

Anyway, this made me think, because I want to help people who are homeless but giving them money isn’t always beneficial and giving them food stresses me out.  Once, I gave my sandwich to a homeless man at the train station.  This is not something I usually do, but it was Thanksgiving Day, and he just seemed like he needed a sandwich. He was grateful, but I proceeded to stress about it the entire train ride. What if he has allergies that he doesn’t know about because he can’t afford a doctor, and then he has nowhere to go to get medical attention if he has an allergic reaction? I will have literally killed someone with kindness. These are the kind of things that keep me awake at night.

Seriously, though. I can give them information for different organizations that can help them, but a lot of times, there are hoops to jump through, such as a small fee or a qualification process. Or, especially in Manhattan, they’re just too full.  And churches, well, in my experience, not all but sadly too many churches will turn homeless people away for disrupting their services or for just being “too lost for the church to help.” (This is a phrase I heard at one church in college, but that’s a whole different rant for another day.)  I’m also just kind of afraid to talk to people I don’t know, because I’m shy. So I end up walking by like everyone else.

If I’m honest with myself, though, all of the previously stated ideas are just excuses to cover up the larger issue that I feel inadequate, unprepared and unequipped to do anything to help homelessness.  

Is donating spare change, giving away a sandwich, providing information or just stopping to talk to one person really going to do that much? And the answer is no, probably not, when you think about it from a macro-perspective.

But the guy on the sidewalk today reminded me of something I can easily do and a simple concept that I originally read about in THIS book: “Sometimes it’s easy to walk by because we know we can’t change someone’s whole life in a single afternoon. But what we fail to realize is that simple kindness can go a long way toward encouraging someone who is stuck in a desolate place.” –Mike Yankoski, Under the Overpass.

It’s true. It makes me feel really good when someone smiles at me and says something kind (Unless they’re being a creep, which also happens a lot in New York.) Especially when I’m having a rough day.

And I mean, a baby born to a carpenter and his wife in a tiny, impoverished town in the middle of nowhere eventually changed the whole world, so maybe we should start small, too.



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