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This coffee-stained, handwritten message was tacked up outside of the Dunkin’ Donuts on South Crouse Avenue. I had turned toward a wall filled with placards, looking at advertisements for apartment complexes and Syracuse-area concert notices. Then I saw the scrap of paper; the question posed by the writer of this note made me examine my conscious. Do I care about the homeless in CNY? Answer: yes, sort of. What am I doing about it? Not a whole lot.

Posted outside Dunkin’ Donuts. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

And this makes me wonder whether a financial contribution to the Rescue Mission or the Salvation Army would make much difference. Would it really help someone?

I always feel like I am being scammed when panhandlers ask me for money when I’m walking in downtown Syracuse or in the Marshall Street area near Syracuse University. I get the sense my money will be used for drugs, alcohol or cigarettes. Sometimes I politely tell the person I have no change. Other times, if I am in a hurry, I’ll just put my head down, avoid eye contact and walk briskly past the person. But as a Christian I feel guilty for rejecting someone who is asking for help. I know Christ would not snub the person, and a passage from the Gospel of Matthew instructs us to be charitable to those in need:

Matthew 25:40 (New International Version):

“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’”

But I also understand spare change will not solve our city’s and our nation’s homeless crisis. Unfortunately, there are no easy answers to the problem. Maybe the first step is to recognize the homeless exist and maybe try to treat them with dignity. Maybe that’s what the writer had in mind when he or she posted the missive.

One of the poems in my new collection Sidewalk Stories explores the issues of mental illness and homelessness. I’m sharing it here because it seems relevant; yet in reading it again, I realize the poem is pointless because it raises questions without offering solutions—in short, a lot of words but no action.

Crazy

Where do those with mental illness go?
What worlds do they navigate in their minds?
Are they able to restrain their thoughts?
Can they find a place of rest in society?
To exist without hurting themselves
Or someone else?

Go downtown in any decent-sized city,
And witness for yourself the ghost people—
The mumblers, the droolers, and loiterers.
They are fragile, cold, broke, and alone,
Dressed in tattered clothes caked with dirt.
The men wear shaggy beards
And flimsy baseball caps
Topping their matted hair.
You see them pacing at bus stops,
Begging for change outside Starbucks,
And sprawled out in city parks,
With their pushcarts and
Garbage bags filled with empty
Soda cans and plastic bottles.

I force myself to observe
The unbalanced people out in public.
I refuse to look away.
I am not gawking.
I am not a voyeur who finds humor
Or pleasure in studying the deranged.
But I do want to remember
The way they look,
To record their facial expressions
When they say things like: “Go away,”
“Stop touching me,” and
“I will devour your children.”

Whose problem is this?
It’s a dilemma with no easy solution.
And I wonder, just where do we start?
How did we begin the process
Of trying to restore the street people?
Are we obligated as human beings
To care a little bit?
To notice the other life forms
Walking toward us?
Instead of quickening the pace,
Looking at the ground, turning away.

Of course there is an element of fear in us,
A desire not to be attacked
By the crazy people.
This instinct is natural and correct.
But what do we owe our fellow citizens
Who have no intention of harming anyone?
And what do we demand of ourselves
When we see others
Who are suffering a few feet away?
Look, I know it’s not your problem,
And it’s not mine either.
But it does exist and these souls
Are not going anywhere.
We can’t avoid them,
Or force them out of our cities.
So is there anything we can do,
Anything at all to make things better?
And can we at least take a moment
To think about it,
Before dismissing the idea,
And being on our way?

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