There really aren’t many times I can say a single conversation has changed my life. But going down to Seattle for a dear friend’s birthday brought on one of the most incredible discussions I’ve had in a long, long time.
It’s been a few years since I’ve gathered with many zookeepers from Woodland Park Zoo. I’ve hung out with several of my friends, and even visit the zoo from time to time. And there are the AAZK conferences where I hang out with attendees. But Stephanie’s party was like a reunion I wasn’t expecting.
I met quite a few new people that night, mostly from Stephanie’s community, which is a co-housing community, so many of the neighbors are quite close. I shared with them my program and talked about small practices we can all do to take better care of ourselves and better care of the planet. Everyone was receptive to my message, because, like my dear friend, we are all of the same tribe.
But when I started talking to an old colleague about what was going on with her, I never expected her to change my entire perception and ideas on how I treat people. You see, after the 2016 election, Amy decided to DO SOMETHING. She wasn’t exactly sure what, but she knew she had to do SOMETHING significant to combat the wave of hatred and negativity heading our way.
So, Amy slowly (or maybe quite abruptly, I’m not sure) backed out of her commitments to the Association of Zookeepers. While they do great work for zookeepers and conservation, my old work friend wanted to make another difference, closer to home.
I don’t know why she decided on helping the homeless, but I’m so glad she did. Not just for their sake, because, you guys, she is a FANTASTIC advocate when she’s on your side, and you don’t ever want to be on her bad side. But I benefited from her choosing this area as well.
As Amy shared her experience at Facing Homelessness, I contemplated ways I could help. Her suggestion? Just say hello.
Oh, my god, guys, I’m tearing up already.
Just say hello. That’s it. Giving food, socks, essential items are great, too. Especially the socks, since Seattle winters are wet and cold, new socks help those outside all the time stay warm.
But when you stop and say hello to someone who is homeless, you give them their humanity.
How often have we passed by homeless people outside the grocery store, or the street corner, and completely ignored them? We are taught to avoid eye contact. God forbid they ask us for money!
But think about what that does to a human, one of the most social animals on earth. How would you feel if you were struggling like no one has ever struggled, and instead of receiving compassion, you were COMPLETELY IGNORED by hundreds, if not thousands of people each and every day? How would you feel if the only interaction you DID get were people sneering at you, saying “get a job” (by the way, HOW do you recommend they go about that?), or holding their nose?
I can’t fathom how depressing, and despairing such a life could be. If I lived that way, I’d turn to drugs for comfort as well. I’d probably kill myself.
The best way we can help the homeless, even when we have nothing to give is to give the homeless some dignity and humanity. Just say hello.
Let them know they are seen. You see them. You feel for them.
“Hi, how are you doing? It’s a nice day today, don’t you think?”
How difficult is that? And the simple statement could change their entire life, if not yours.
Amy went on to share with me how she has gotten to know a few of the folks who she either visited or who visited her when she’s volunteering at Facing Homelessness. And their stories are moving, emotional, and they are real.
I admit, I have always ignored people on the corner or outside a store. But that practice already feels like it is eons in my past. Now, I will practice kindness. I will share my humanity. I will say hello.