Help can come in all forms, in all sorts of ways.
Yes, giving a homeless person food, money, or something to drink can act as baby steps to helping them, but in order to fully connect with them, we must transcend this. In saying this, we must give empathy and not sympathy. We must understand them and share their feelings, share our experiences and more.
Prior to You Over Me, I myself, like many of you, have always felt nervous in approaching the homeless to try to start a conversation or simply ask their story, worried that they would take it the wrong way and react badly, even though I’ve really wanted to. Why can’t it be as easy as it looks when they’re human beings as well?
That was until I read about Patrick McConlogue’s story.
A computer programmer in his late 20’s, Patrick would walk past the same homeless man who lived with his bags of belongings near the Hudson River everyday on the way to work. Both men were around similar ages, and every time he saw him, like myself and others, Patrick would feel a mixture of empathy and shame for not going over and helping him, as he wanted to but was always just too nervous.
One day, Patrick saw him using old boat chains to exercise, lifting them up and down in a similar re-enactment to a Rocky Balboa scene. He decided to approach him with the intention of wanting to help him out.
He gave him two options: either he would give the man $100 cash, or use his own laptop to teach him to write computer code. An unusual proposal, but one that could change the man’s life for a day, or forever.
The man revealed his name as Leo, and then accepted the latter offer. Patrick believed that if Leo could master coding, he would be able to turn his life around with a skill that many people can’t even possess and hopefully get a job.
With a second hand laptop, three books on Java, and the programming language, Leo and Patrick began these one on one sessions. Although Leo had a limited knowledge of computer basics, Patrick realized that he had an extreme willingness to learn about coding, along with a remarkable memory that could easily remember word for word.
Leo even proposed an app idea for a smartphone- a car-sharing one that would monitor the amount of CO2 emissions you’ve avoided, an idea that spurred from his interest in the environment and to make the world a better place.
“It has become the best part of my day. I usually spend my working life staring at a computer screen, but here is a real human being, who is enthusiastic and focused. It is a pleasure to spend time with him,” said Patrick.
Leo works hard every day for three hours with him, and it’s become a surprising friendship that both of them did not expect.
Something interesting that I gathered from this story was Patrick’s realization that the homeless are more complex than one might think.
“I always thought homeless people were isolated, but Leo is part of a very supportive community. He says the hardest thing is not the practical challenges but society’s view of him. There is an assumption that homeless people are addicted to something or mentally ill, but Leo doesn’t drink or smoke; he became homeless after he lost his job and then his accommodation in 2011.”
We hope that Patrick and Leo’s story is one that will encourage you to look past the myths that surround the homeless, you might be surprised at what you find. I once saw a homeless person holding a sign with the line, “If you don’t see us, then we don’t exist” written on it. Like Patrick, let’s show them that we care, that we do see them and that we do value their existence.
“If he said he needed anything, I’d jump through hoops for him, but I don’t ever want him to think we are anything but equals.”
Not only has Patrick’s approach proved that we need to start seeing the potential of the homeless, but to actually become that stepping stone to help or motivate them to turn their lives around. Let’s put their needs over our own as they’re much more in need of it.
Written by JC