Why I didn’t buy a starving homeless man a sandwich

A homeless man sits outside Subway on The Alameda in San Jose, Calif. (Photo by: Eric He)

A homeless man sits outside Subway on The Alameda in San Jose, Calif. (Photo by: Eric He)

By: Eric He

July 17, 2015

SAN JOSE – Walking to work this morning after getting off at the bus stop, a homeless man blocked my path as I entered Subway to buy lunch.

“Excuse me sir, can you buy me a sandwich?” he asked.

I shook my head at the unkempt, disheveled man who looked like he hadn’t shaved or showered in a year, hoping he would just move on if I ignored him.

Instead, he followed me in, and asked me if I could spare a dollar. I told him I was sorry and went on to order my sandwich.

I didn’t feel any pangs of regret until a couple of minutes later, when a woman who wasn’t even going to Subway walked in and asked if he could buy a breakfast sandwich for the homeless man. And when she turned to leave, he thanked her like she had just gifted him a new home.

At that moment, I felt like a gigantic asshole who didn’t want to help the poor and didn’t want to feed a man who was clearly starving and desperate.

But as I walked toward my office near downtown San Jose, I thought about it and knew exactly why I turned down his request, and it’s not because I’m an ungrateful jerk.

It’s because I know that buying him a sandwich will only help him now. It will provide him with breakfast, and probably enough to get him through half the day.

But what will he eat tonight? Or tomorrow morning? Or a week from now?

Buying this homeless man a sandwich (or giving him a dollar) gives him what he wants, but not what he needs. What he needs is a permanent solution, a homeless shelter or food pantry or a soup kitchen – anything that can help him get back on his feet.

SAN FRANCISCO - FEBRUARY 28:  Joseph Cappa, a homeless person,  pushes his shopping cart through a residential neighborhood February 28, 2007 in San Francisco, California. According to a report by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, there are over 750,000 homeless people that live on the streets, shelters and transitional housing throughout the United States.  (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

SAN FRANCISCO – FEBRUARY 28: Joseph Cappa, a homeless person, pushes his shopping cart through a residential neighborhood February 28, 2007 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

I understand affordable housing has become nearly non-existent for low-income earners in San Jose, due to the boom and extravagance of Silicon Valley. The city shutting down “The Jungle,” a homeless encampment near Happy Hallow, didn’t help and forced many onto the streets. I can’t even begin to think of how much this man has suffered throughout his life, and how it feels to have literally no money, no home, and no support.

It’s striking though, because I see him every single day when I get off VTA at The Alameda and Hanchett and cross the street to buy lunch. And he does the same thing every day for food and water, begging passersby at Peets Coffee and Tea, Starbucks, or Subway.

On one particular morning, with a coffee in hand, he bellowed, “What’s up” across the street at a man walking into Starbucks.

“Not today, man,” was the response.

That same afternoon, while waiting for my bus home, I saw the man sitting at the bus stop across the street, presumably planning to beg a bus driver to let him on so he could go somewhere else to find food. When no bus came for 10 minutes, he jaywalked across the street to my stop, and when the bus finally came, he was refused entry and sauntered away dejectedly.

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - DECEMBER 10:  A  homeless man begs for change on December 10, 2012 in San Francisco, California. Despite efforts from the Federal Government and local officials to provide more shelters and beds for homeless people, the number of people living on the streets remained unchanged from January 2011 to January 2012. The number of homeless families increased while the number of veterans on the street decreased.  (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

SAN FRANCISCO, CA – DECEMBER 10: A homeless man begs for change on December 10, 2012 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

It’s hard to imagine living like this, like a food-deprived predator whose prey is elusive. And he probably doesn’t even realize it; when you’re mired in a hole that deep and sinker faster and faster into the abyss, it doesn’t hit until you’re forced to admit it, forced to comprehend the gravity of the situation.

But maybe he can live like this – and I mean “live” as in keep his heart beating and his body temperature around 98 degrees Fahrenheit. Maybe he can keep begging pedestrians to buy him his meals and be dependent on the good graces of others.

To me, though, what he – or any human, really – requires is more than Maslow’s first and second hierarchy of needs, physiological and safety. He needs belongingness, love, esteem, and a chance at self-actualization.

I’m neither a psychologist nor an expert on homelessness, and I’m not going to solve San Jose’s vagrancy issue.

What I do know is that this man needs a method to turn his life around, get off the streets, and start anew. Buying him a sandwich will do none of the above.

Follow Eric He on Twitter at @erichesports. Feel free to leave comments below. 

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