Homelessness is an issue that leaves me totally perplexed. I’ve made it a point to ask my wisest friends, people of deep faith, many of whom have professional training in working with these populations. For the most part, they struggle, too.
One thing I do know for sure is I cannot pretend there isn’t a man standing outside our car window when my son asks.
Maybe I’ve told you this story before: once, when I was 22 and standing outside a phone booth in a nicer part of London, I was mistaken for a homeless woman. It was dark and cold and I was wearing every warm garment in my Floridian wardrobe, waiting for John to finish a pay phone call to figure out which friend I would crash with for the night. I had with me my big, raggedy green duffle pack, given to me by my dad’s friend, who used it in the Peace Corps. A man approached and in a thick accent (Scottish? Irish?) began to talk in a rapid stream from which I could only pluck a few words. “Same moon,” he said. “Cold night.” I tried to nod agreeably, unsure what was happening. And before I knew it, he’d thrust £20 in my hand and shuffled off.
I want to be like that man. If I’m doing it wrong, somehow unwittingly making the problem worse, I want at least to acknowledge the humanity of the other person.
So I give socks. They seem like an indisputable good. After all, “‘One can never have enough socks,’ said Dumbledore. ‘Another Christmas has come and gone and I didn’t get a pair. People will insist on giving me books.'”Probably it is better, as many say, to give money directly to organizations trained to address root causes of homelessness, and I try to do that, too, but who among us can’t use a nice pair of warm socks? I’m careful not to go cheap but to buy thick wool socks, trusting to my own instincts honed by years of outfitting my own icy amphibian feet. Sometimes I’ve assembled larger care packages with various small groups: heating packets and bandaids and granola bars. But the socks are central for me.
It’s not a solution, handing socks out the window, exchanging a few words, whispering a prayer as the light turns green. But maybe, for those of us paralyzed by a thorny issue, it’s a start.