It's hard to know how to respond when you see a homeless person. Do you ignore them and just keep walking (they probably aren't really homeless in the first place and just trying to scam you)? Do you buy them some food, cause you don't want them to buy drugs or alcohol? Do you give them money? Do you stop and chat?
I don't think there is ever really a clear cut answer as to how to respond. People will disagree as to what the right thing to do is. At Urban Seed we try and challenge people to think about it from a different point of view. Do we really know what it is like to be homeless and what you might need if you are homeless? Would it matter if we gave them money and they went and bought drugs or alcohol? What do we buy with our money? Does anyone tell us how we are to spend our money? What would it mean if we acknowledged the homeless person? If we smiled at them? Talked to them about their day?
Roman Krznaric (a cultural thinker and writer on the art of living. A founding faculty member of The School of Life in London, who advises organisations including Oxfam and the United Nations on using empathy and conversation to create social change), believes that empathy and empathic thinking can create social change. He says that empathy is more than just sympathy. It is the ability to powerfully imagine what it would be like to be in the shoes of another. In a recent blog post he challenges us to empathise with the telesales caller. He suggests that by merely imagining what the job might be like for them (made easier for him as he once was a telesales caller himself) and engaging in conversation with them will powerful revolutionise the world.
"So while part of me wants to immediately press the red button and end the call, I do my best to focus on the caller and treat them with decency. In an effort to make a personal connection, I sometimes find out their name and where they are phoning from, which can lead to surprising – if usually short – conversations about their lives, and my own. I nearly always tell them that I know what their job is like, because I’ve done it too, and I wish them well with the rest of their calls. Imagining myself into their lives and showing a little respect is the least I can do to bridge our faceless digital divide.
Such brief encounters with strangers may, at first glance, seem trivial affairs. But I believe they are the beginnings of a revolution that can weave the world together into an invisible tapestry of human connection."
What would it mean if were to apply this same thinking and acting when we see a homeless person? Maybe next time you think just acknowledging or smiling at a homeless person is pointless act, you might think twice.
It is important to understand what empathy is and is not. If you see a homeless person living under a bridge you may feel sorry for him and give him some money as you pass by. That is pity or sympathy, not empathy. If, on the other hand, you make an effort to look at the world through his eyes, to consider what life is really like for him, and perhaps have a conversation that transforms him from a faceless stranger into a unique individual, then you are empathising.