When James and I were in Atlanta in May, we ran into a homeless woman. We were pacing back and forth along Peachtree Street, scanning the storefronts for the Marta station sign. We doubled back two or three times before she saw us, heads ducked over a phone screen, trying to navigate our way.
She asked if she could help us find something. And then we were off, her and I chatting away up front, James trailing behind, slinging out water bottles and necessities in a bag on his back. She asked me where we were from, how we ended up coming to Atlanta. She told me about his bright blue eyes and smiled.
We were just steps from the escalators leading down when she shared her own story—how she’d lost her apartment two months ago, how she was trying to stay positive and how her son was embarrassed about her persistence, but could we spare some money for her breakfast?
I didn’t have any cash—we were going hiking—so I apologized. She looked me in the eyes, asking if I’d buy something, if I could just get her a bagel or something to tide her over, so of course I said yes.
When we left, down a second escalator, her arms full with a hot breakfast of grits and eggs and meat, I felt good. James, though, wasn’t sure about her.
Where we live, the streets are stocked with homeless people. My father-in-law swore once he knew one of the men, that he went home each night, changed out of the ragged clothes, and slept in a warm bed with his family.
The whole ride down the escalator, onto the platform, into the train car, on the tracks, I told him it didn’t matter, really, but of course she was homeless. She asked for breakfast, for God’s sake. She would’ve moved on if I didn’t have cash.
She had so much warmth about her, a wide smile, a genuine tone. I was happy to help her. I was happy to believe that something good had come from that morning.
“Two months,” I told him. “That’s not long enough to have found a whole new job and gotten back on your feet. She needs all the strength and energy she can get and that breakfast could be what she needs to get herself up—mentally and physically—so she can get a job. My kindness might have meant the world to her today.”
He’s still not convinced, but for me, it felt so good. Because when you’re standing in front of the world, telling your story, afraid to admit that it might not be going as planned, it takes all kinds of courage to ask for help. And when you’re standing on the other side of that conversation, looking into the eyes of a stranger with a kind heart, it shakes you. It stays with you.
The problem of poverty becomes real. It becomes a woman in a white tee shirt with black sneakers. It becomes her fast clip and warm smile and appreciation over and over as you pay for her meal. It becomes the itch inside you when you wonder how she’s going to make it through tomorrow, when her stomach starts to empty and she’s not having any luck finding a job and she’s hoping someone might give her a chance.
It’s hard to ignore. It’s something we shouldn’t ignore.