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“Please help, need gas”

“Please help, need gas”

Clearly pregnant I rolled my way through the shadowy, uneven parking lot of the grocery store with a cart full of groceries and a preschooler strapped into the shopping cart.  I noticed him through the corner of my eye but tried to keep my cool.

It would be unfair of me to profile this homeless man as a threat right? Yet I couldn’t help the swell of heat permeating through the crisp coolness of the winter evening and invading my body. I couldn’t slow down the pace of my heart that started sprinting as if I were running a race as he quickly headed over to our van demanding money.

I fumbled my words, telling him I didn’t have cash as I tried quickly release my child and wrestle her protesting body into the car seat as she asked me what the man wanted. I feared for our safety when he started swearing at me. I offered him a banana as I haphazardly threw the groceries onto the seat next to my daughter. I didn’t dare leave my child out of sight to unlatch the back of the van. As I got into the drivers seat and drove away, there he stood, still yelling at me.

When I got home I called the store and the police. Seems as if this particular man had been regularly spotted at this particular location. The parking lot wasn’t bright enough, and no one was in sight when this incident occurred.

I have felt so conflicted as a mother and a citizen over the homeless population in our town. Because the fact of the matter is, for some people homelessness is not a choice. It is a compilation of difficult times: bad luck, mental illness, and a poor economy.

We are so fortunate to have services in our community that address homelessness and officials who are talking about how to best serve their needs.

I find myself caught between compassion and cynicism. My three children at very different stages of growth seem to understand the conundrum. We have open discussions about how fortunate we are. They see their grandpa volunteer weekly at a food bank and have been involved themselves in food drives and sorting beans and rice into packages for families in need. But sometimes they see a homeless man passed out with an empty liquor bottle by the side of the road. And just this weekend the RV parked in numerous locations with a family holding a “we need gas, please help” sign.

My teenager has become cynical. My youngest is still innocent. My middle is caught in the purgatory between the two. And I am stumped. All I can do, and continue to do is put the unfortunate parking lot incident to rest, try to be compassionate, and continue to look out for the safety of my children as we talk about difficult issues of community, dignity, and the cruel side of society that I wished to hide them from as long as I possibly could.

Just the other day I found a scratched piece of paper in which I had written a song. It was dated the week before my incident at the grocery store. Why I found it now, after eight years I do not know. But perhaps it was a reminder to me, that as a mom I won’t ever really have the answers to some questions my children ask. And that needs to be okay. Because some questions are just too complicated to answer.

WHAT IS OUR ROLE?
Jen Slayden 2003

Homeless faces all around the town
Sad eyes singing an unknown song
Camped out on Van Buren Street
Cardboard sign saying “need money to eat”

Well it’s a shame, a crying shame
We avert our eyes to avoid feeling their pain
Tell me, what is our role?
How can we feed their soul?

Just this morning a man held a sign
Said “Down and Out Anything helps-God Bless”
I stared into his hopeful eyes
Unsure whether to stop or keep driving by?

Well it’s a shame a crying shame,
I avert my eyes to avoid feeling his pain.
Tell me, what is my role?
How do I feed his soul?

Every day a new sign to read
With a new face standing alone in the street
Looking fragile, run down and alone
My daughter asks “why doesn’t he have a home?”

Well it’s a shame that I can’t explain
Is it bad luck or past war that caused all their pain?
Tell me what is our role?
How do we feed their soul?

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