Walk On By?

“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 for someone who is stuck in a desolate place.” 
― Mike Yankoski

I have been musing about the decay of dignity in the United States and around the world. It’s like a cancer spreading worldwide, eating away at the crumbling foundation of respect for our human race. Traveling through numerous countries, I am always confronted with homeless people passed out on the streets, on park benches, and on church steps. Many times with deep ridden guilt, I have avoided them, stepped around them, and walked by them. Occasionally, I give them coins or buy them food. I am sure that if you are a seasoned traveler, whether in your home country or abroad, you know the gut wrenching feelings of helplessness, mixed with realistic fear and always topped with sadness and frustration that I experience when I encounter those who are homeless. It is complicated and there is no easy fix.

When we lived in Nicaragua, we often visited friends in Granada. One day, I saw this Facebook post by the Granada expat bookstore owner. I remember the first time I saw a boy passed out at my feet in Granada, Nicaragua from sniffing glue.  I was horrified, and unsure what I could do to help.What did I do? I stepped around him.  He couldn’t have been older that 10 or 12 years of age. Glue sniffing continues to be a big problem for the young Nicaraguans in Granada. And I am haunted by my response to the young glue sniffers as well as the callous post by the bookstore owner.

Meanwhile, step around him?

We have become a world of stepping around sensitive issues like immigration, homelessness, drug addiction, and poverty. I will be the first to admit that I, too, have stepped around these issues. I stepped around a boy passed out on the sidewalk in Granada. I’ve stepped around an old disabled woman begging for money in front of Pali’s grocery store. I’ve tiptoed around many sensitive issues affecting the people throughout the world. Why?

Maybe it is because of a sense of helplessness, or usually for me, a sense of fear. Maybe it is because it is such a common sight in the larger cities throughout the world, that I’ve become blind to the ugliness of poverty and desolation.

Is that what our world has become? Do we blindly accept the fate of the poor, homeless, and destitute? Do we blindly step around them and go about our shopping as if stepping around a cow paddy? What is wrong with us? Where has our respect for human dignity gone?

What if it were me? Unintended consequences follow those living on the edge of poverty, drug addition, emergency medical conditions, and other catastrophic events like pandemics, floods, fires, and even gentrification where people lose their homes. Knowing that I could fall into despair, makes me wonder what I can do to prevent homelessness or help those who have become homeless due to unintended consequences.

It is no coincidence that we see the densest homeless populations in locations that are also desirable tourist destinations, like in my photos. We saw more homeless in warmer climates than in colder climates, simply because living outside was much easier. Ron and I often say that if we were homeless, we would live in a warm climate near or on a beach.

Tourists travel to warm places to decompress and escape the cold winters. People experiencing homelessness also gravitate to these destinations for the added security, because even if they cannot find any rental assistance or a place in a shelter, they can live more comfortably outside without the daily threat of hypothermia that they might face in more dramatic climates.

Gentrification also plays a part in homelessness. It is “the process in which a poor area (as of a city) experiences an influx of middle-class or wealthy people who renovate and rebuild homes and businesses and which often results in an increase in property values and the displacement of earlier, usually poorer residents.”

Many individuals experiencing homelessness in these places have lived there for long periods of time and eventually could not keep up with the constantly-increasing cost of living. Home prices and services are too expensive for the average citizen and access to basic necessities is often scarce. Jobs can be limited and many times reserved for skilled outside labor. The hospitality industry, for example, is very competitive; local talent is rarely developed and hardly ever brought into management roles. We know this to be a fact after living in Nicaragua.

An example of this is in Boquete, Panama. We talked to several local people who were forced to move away from their birth homes because a foreign developer bought large tracts of land and built expensive gated community homes for foreigners. The locals moved outside of Boquete and had to take a bus to go back into Boquete to work as maids and gardeners for the foreigners.

With so many factors contributing to how and why people end up on the streets, it’s not surprising that homelessness transcends borders. It is a worldwide epidemic, with an estimated 100 million people living homeless.

So, what can we do as tourists and travelers to help those in need, even if we are only in the area for a short period of time? I have made a list of ways in which we can help, below.

  1. Homeless volunteer programs
    There are numerous programs abroad in which you can make a difference from tutoring homeless children in Colombia, to serving meals to the homeless in Ecuador. These programs are always in need of temporary volunteers.
  2. Homeless people as tour guides
    Although, this raises many ethical questions for me, it is a unique way to provide awareness of the increasing problems homelessness brings for tourists and the local community. Not only do these unique programs offer jobs to the homeless, they also provide a unique perspective by providing stories of their lives on the street, and to change society’s views of the homeless.

  3. Start by asking.
    Walking through a city as a tourist, it may be something just as simple as asking a homeless person what they need. Even if you can’t speak the language, you can see that the person may need a pair of socks, a warm cup of coffee, a pair of shoes, etc.
  4. Respect the homeless as individuals. Give homeless people the same courtesy and respect you would accord your friends, your family, your employer. …
    This may entail giving them food, toiletries, clothing. I rarely give them money, but that is a topic for another post.
  5. just respond with kindness because ….

…our priority of responsible tourism should be to minimize our impact on the world, one act of kindness at a time

…it makes us feel good! That is sure better than walking by and feeling full of guilt.

…you would want someone to help you if you were in need or in trouble.

…you can make a difference in reducing the decay of dignity that exists in our world.

Meanwhile, will you walk on by or lend a helping hand? How have you assisted the homeless as a tourist or traveler?

10 thoughts on “Walk On By?

  1. Oh my! What a difficult topic!!! So many aspects!

    My dad loves wildflowers. He doesn’t want to mow his lawn so flowers can bloom to provide food for the bees. If a well-meaning neighbor were to cut the lawn for him, he wouldn’t be happy – even though the neighbor would have thought he did a great, good deed. This is where the “golden rule” falls down! Don’t treat the other person how you want to be treated. They have different priorities, different needs, wants, likes, and – most importantly! – a different mission on this planet.
    Trying to put myself into their situation and thinking what I would want works hardly ever and surely not for homeless. Stuff that I would want might be completely use- or worthless to them.

    Putting all homeless people in one group is highly questionable! Just like putting all homeowners into one group… Different reasons, different causes, different lives, different everything!

    That there are homeless people is a constant reminder for us to think about the inequality of access to education -and with that to life! Without good advisors from the early childhood on, it is easy for people to follow a drum that leads to homelessness. Without a good education, it becomes virtually impossible (in the US, at least) to afford a home. “Helping” homeless seems to me as useful as putting a bandaid on your sore thumb but keep on banging it with the hammer.
    There is a severe problem with our system. It is the result of a severe problem with our society’s priorities, which are defined by our society’s values (which are severely problematic), and these values are a result of our believes (also severely in need of adjustment). And the basis of all our believes is our world-view. This is the most important issue to tackle! Because it gives the general direction for everything we think, do, support or fight.
    The traditional, 9000+ years old worldview purports the idea that this world was created for us, that it is our soul that is developing, or that it is about our soul to prove it is suitable for heaven. If one inverts this world-view, and believes that WE are created for this world, that it is about this world to develop, well, then the thought comes up immediately: every person is here on a mission that assists this world to develop. Every situation we find ourselves in has the potential to facilitate change.

    If my manager makes stupid decisions which has bad consequences, but I work unpaid overtime to compensate for his mistakes, and fix the problems he’s caused, I am preventing him from understanding the problem, or even that there is a problem! My atempt of “helping” is actually hurting the company! It is burning me out, and it gets the company deeper and deeper into trouble, because the one on the help doesn’t know that he’s driving in the wrong direction. With helping homeless, to me, it is similar: it is taking the pressure off of the communities to deal with the multitude of problems that have in common that each of them has as one possible consequence that a person becomes homeless.

    I choose, instead, to appreciate the suffering that this soul has chosen to endure in this life, and am trying to work on changing the systems that are causing homelessness… here at home, and on my travels…

    I am fighting windmills (in the sense of futile idealistic battles), I guess… but, as long as we don’t deal with these issues, their symptoms (of which homelessness is only one!) will surface over and over again!

    I do fully support and encourage your item number 4 in your list! Treat people with respect! (Again: since I believe that every soul came on a mission to work on the same big project as my soul, well, I can’t help but appreciate every person and treat them kindly… see? Just a matter of the foundation of our world-view, which defines the believes, which distill our values, which inform our priorities, which define our actions…)

    Great post! Awesome topic!!! (So much more to say, so many more aspects, but I am already overextending your welcome in your blog…)


    • I don’t know where to begin in discussing the topic of homelessness. There are so many variables, and you are right. One size does not fit all. What I think may be helpful to a homeless person, because of my perceptions of homeless people, may not be something that is valuable or useful to them.
      The same goes for poverty, or what we perceive as poverty. Our neighbors in Nicaragua lived in a shack with a dirt floor, no running water, and no refrigeration. We thought one of the best gifts we could give them would be a refrigerator. So, when we were shopping for an oven, we purchased a small refrigerator for our neighbors. We thought it would make their lives easier and better. However, they only plugged in their refrigerator during a short period in the day and never at night because they said it took too much electricity to run. It wasn’t long before it stopped running and they used it as a storage shelf for clothes and other items.
      So, homelessness and poverty are complicated issues and very difficult to sort out. But, we do need to discuss these issues and how we perceive them from our individual viewpoints. Thank you so much, Thomas for your insightful comments.

  2. I make up packets in zippered canvas bags, about 5″ x 8″, with about $5 in change in a smaller zipped bag, a bottle of hand sanitizer, a few masks, a small flashlight, a length of paracord, some granola bars, a packet of hand wipes, about 1/4 roll toilet paper wrapped tight with rubber bands inside a zip-lock bag, some Band Aids, a small bottle of sun screen, and a small notebook and a pen. I add to them as I keep thinking about what I might want, were I to become homeless.

    I keep these in my truck to give to homeless people whom I encounter.

  3. We could do what they did in Finland. Build houses for the homeless. Without shelter there is no health. If healthcare is a birthright (as in Canada and Finland) then shelter has to be as well.

    • I agree, 100%. In fact, a friend of mine is doing that in California. She started an organization that builds tiny houses and recently purchased 40 acres where they can live in their tiny homes.
      Bruno, I have been trying to comment on your blog…still keeps asking me for all my information over and over again. I will keep trying.

  4. Very powerful blog, my friend. The pictures made me cry. I can relate to your thoughts, as I have seen it too. I hope our paths will cross again.

    • Johanne, I know you have seen homeless camps all around the world, too. It breaks my heart, but even the smallest act of kindness can help. Thanks for your sweet comment. Hugs to you and Doug.

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