I sat at the streetlight just off of the 580 Freeway, one car ahead of me, a few more behind. I had taken the exit for Grand Avenue and Lakeshore Drive and was preparing to go to Trader Joe’s, where I would buy overpriced avocados and indulge in a $10 bottle of Bordeaux.
I avoided making eye contact with the long-haired man on the left side of the road. He was blonde. Maybe 30. I snuck a glance at the small piece of cardboard he held in his hands. “Homeless. Anything Helps.”
I looked over at the stack of bags on my passenger seat–the second-hand purse stuffed with personal belongings, shoulder bag full of homework, empty grocery bag, empty tupperware. I had no fruit, no bottled water, no snacks. None of my usual offerings. I looked back at the street light (still red) and at the man who held the cardboard sign. I reached over to my glove compartment in search of a granola bar and pulled out a thick white pair of socks I’d stowed months ago (because you never know when your feet are going to freeze…in California).
I rolled down the window.
“Excuse me,” I called to the man with the sign. “I know this is kind of odd, but do you have any interest in a pair of socks?” I asked, holding them up.
He looked over at me and then reached out his arm to grab the folded white stack of cotton.
“They’re clean,” I said.
“Dude,” he responded. “This is what we need. The best thing you could give us is socks.” He seemed sincere, if not a little surprised. “Thank you,” he said. “Have a good evening.”
The light turned green. “You too,” I offered as I rolled up my window and took my foot off the brake.
When I got to Trader Joe’s I bought a box of granola bars, knowing it would do little to solve the problem of homelessness in Oakland, but hoping it would do something to solve the momentary hunger of a few of its residents.
I thought back to the man’s comment. “This is what we need,” he’d said. Not I, but we. This one man with his duffle bag of belongings and Sharpe-marked cardboard was a representative, an ambassador for an entire community of people that have more immediate and basic concerns than the price of gas or whether or not their strawberries are organic.
As someone who lives in a city like Oakland, I love and hate that poverty is constantly in my face–whether it’s the travelers who sit with their signs beside the roadside, the dark-skinned man who peddles the Street Spirit on Grand Avenue, or the homeless couple who sleep in the Pay to Park lot beneath the freeway each night. I love it because it keeps me from becoming insular, from believing that life exists within a bubble of security where everyone has a job and we spend serious time thinking about things like home decorating and sustainable farming. The presence of poverty stops me from giving into greed and entitlement, reminding me of how easily all I have could be gone. But then I hate it for the confusion and heartache it causes. I become frustrated by the bigness of the problem and the lack of a solution.
I’m not sure how to responsibly respond to needs I cannot fully fill. I don’t know how I can claim to be loving and fail to feed someone who is hungry, how I can hold any strong beliefs on the importance of community and then do nothing to support a person who cannot meet his own basic needs.
I’m a student, I reason. I’m working part-time while going to school, taking out loans to pay for rent as well as my education. I have bills to pay and debt to work off. I have a future to think about. But those excuses, though they are all true, seem so…weak. Doing what I can–buying a burrito here or a granola bar there, serving a meal on Thanksgiving or donating to a food pantry–just doesn’t seem like enough. It isn’t a sufficient answer.
Maybe a better answer lies in that two-letter word: We.
Maybe it’s not just about what I do on my own, but what I do as a part of a “we”, as an active member of a community that has the collaborative ability to make a bigger difference in a more meaningful way. Maybe if I shared with that “we” what my thoughts and feelings are on the topic of poverty or homelessness or hunger in our community, that “we” could follow the practices of other “we’s” across the country and together all of us might actually do something that would benefit the “we’s” who need a meal, shelter, or even pair of socks.
Maybe it all starts with realizing that you’re a part of something bigger than yourself.
For much more well-thought and well-researched thoughts on the issue of poverty, check out the blog series, Wisdom for Charity.