During my ritualistic Starbucks run, I noticed something today. There was a homeless lady outside the coffee shop. She had the standard sign, “Homeless. Anything helps.”
This alone is not abnormal. We live in a small town, about 30,000 people, but homelessness feels more prevalent here than it should for a town our size. I see homeless people at Starbucks, at Safeway sometimes, near a few different banks as we’re driving down one of the main streets in town. There’s probably half a dozen locations in our little town that I can be fairly sure to see homeless people at on a given day. Like some, I’ve found myself more or less desensitized to them.
Not today, oddly enough. It may be in part due to the Christmas season; heightened sense of generosity and all. Might be because I was pondering, just the other day, what data/statistics analysis and A/B split testing might look like if applied to panhandling (seriously, has anyone studied this?). Could even be gender bias, feeling more empathy because she was a woman, rather than a man. Whatever it was, as soon as I saw her, I was nearly in tears. And I’m not a particularly emotional person.
So, as I was in the drive-thru line at Starbucks, waiting for my kid’s breakfast and my wife’s Americano to be prepared, I decided to get her a $20 gift card. Not much, compared to her plight, but it was something I hoped would help. And from experience, I knew that, while she’d thank me for buying her a hot drink, it would be stacked up next to the other four house coffees that had been purchased for her out of pity. So, today, I figured a gift card would suffice.
But the thing is – it doesn’t suffice. It doesn’t change whatever systemic issues she has encountered in her life that have put her where she’s it. It doesn’t change any bad decisions she has made or that have been made for her. It doesn’t erase her past, and if I’m being entirely honest, probably has little effect on her future.
More important than the gift card, though, is the human touch. I can’t fix her or her situation, as much as my momentary sense of compassion would have liked me to do that. I leaned out my window, held her hand, and asked her what her name was. I asked her if she was staying warm enough. She was.
Her name is Jackie.