Editors Note: Though this isn't directly related to Environmental Education, it seemed a powerful and important message. We often separate the natural environment from the human environment and focus on environmental issues in this field. This is an interesting perspective to remember the anonymous members of ANY environment.
As I was walking the streets of Salt Lake City on a cold, brisk Sunday afternoon I happened upon a man rocking back and forth on his feet to stay warm. He was standing in the snow across the sidewalk from the Cathedral of the Madeleine holding a cardboard sign with, help the homeless, on it. I reached into my pocket and gave him a few measly dollars and apologized for not having more. He responded that it was more than most people give. I was in a talking mood and he seemed to have been waiting a thousand years for a conversation and so we talked.
Despite his haggard and unkempt appearance, within were the workings of an insightful mind. Despite his gruff and rather unlikeable personality, there was a real person with deep feelings all bundled up in a ragged coat. He began by saying that a greater determinant of whether or not a person's life ends up being a success or a failure has more to do with whether or not you get second chances than any capabilities you might possess. He felt like he was one who had received few, if any, second chances. He said he came from a bad family background and that he had made some regrettable mistakes early on in his life that landed him in prison. Though he admitted to having made some serious mistakes early on he felt that society had been perpetually punishing him; that he had served his prison sentence and upon release was doomed to live out a life sentence in the prison of poverty.
He noted how many perceive homeless people as bums who parasitize society and who are too lazy to work, but recanted that with the way he looked and his criminal past nobody wanted to hire him despite his applications. He said that when it snowed he went out and shoveled the sidewalks in hopes of making a little money, but how people respond to him as a threat or a nuissance. He summarized that society wants him to work, but no one offers him a job; when he does work no one appreciates his efforts. And so, he begs. He begs though he said he hated charity and would rather work than rely on handouts.
People have tried to get him to receive aid from the homeless shelters in downtown SLC, but he said from the few times he had gone that he had too much pride and human dignity to rely upon them. He described the shelters as dirty places with bedbugs, as violent places where one frequently gets their possessions stolen and their bodies beaten, and as crowded places where there is little sense of privacy or dignity though one can get a hot meal if they are willing to wait and endure. As such, he has a sleeping bag for his bed in the hills at the edge of SLC that he returns to at the end of a day of roaming and begging. As I watch the temperatures drop on television, and as I watch the snow fall outside my window, I wonder what it must be like to be hungry and desperate, trying to sleep at night in a sleeping bag, knowing that there is no real home to return to.
All-in-all this stranger had a lot to say, much of which I cannot remember. I left him there to beg while I went about my leisure to enjoy, what was for me, a beautiful day. I left and couldn't help but feel a sense of human potential gone to waste and a sadness at the overall bitter tone of a person I could not realistically help. I wondered what would have happened to this man had he been raised in a different family, if he hadn't gone to prison and maybe gotten the chance to get a college education and to work. Maybe he would've ended up in the same place, but maybe his life would be quite different. I wondered what I would have become had I been born him......I would've been him. I wonder how I would feel about the value of my life or the promises of society at the bottow looking up. I wonder about how many others there are, wandering the streets of the United States and around the world, eager to receive, but still waiting on their second chance.
Hours after I passed that man by, it occured to me that though I was interested in his perspective and experiences I never asked what his name was. It was a symbolic realization that revealed how I, and I believe many of us, see these people. Anonymous. Nameless, stereotyped statues of an underclass in America who, whether talented or talentless, will rarely get the opportunity to realize their potential. They carry the simple label, in many of our minds, of homeless person or beggar as though homelessness and poverty were the only things that defined them; as though poverty and homelessness was all they were or ever could be. I fear the stereotypes in my mind and feel we should all fear the stereotypes in our culture for they prevent us from digging deeper to the truths which could enlighten us and improve the quality of our lives and society as a whole. For in this one anonymous, homeless man, I met a person with gifts of insight and abundant potential, but whose contributions are now hidden behind a sign that says, help the homeless.