Every year I buy myself a clear conscience. My gift to the Salvation Army allows me to say "no" to those who pitifully ask for my spare change. In other words, I'm now one of those uncaring people who look straight ahead and walk on when I see a homeless person. But since I've moved back to Sweden my soul hurts a little every time I do. And because I'm hurting I become angry at the person begging for my change outside the grocery store for making me feel that way. Then I get doubly angry at myself for feeling so.
It is difficult to become homeless here, you have to willfully and vehemently fail time and time again. Out of the wretched souls a full two thirds are caught in heavy substance abuse, another third is diagnosed with clinical mental illnesses. Many suffer from both, which leaves about ten percent who are just down on their luck or unable to function in Swedish society. Many of these last ten percent will not go to the social services out of principle and misdirected pride. This situation is so different from the experiences I had in the US. That they can't or won't help themselves makes it more difficult to relate to and help them.
In Kansas City, most of the homeless I met (a limited number I admit) were people fallen on hard times and unfortunate circumstances. They worked to help themselves the best they could, and some succeeded in getting on with a more decent existence. This is supported by statistics: The average time as a homeless person in the US is between two and three years, after which they mostly hold down a job and a life inside normal society. And, a very important difference, the great problem with drugs and alcohol isn't there to the same extent. Yes, some are loons, but so are some very successful people.
There I always gave of what I had, some coins here, a dollar bill there. It made me feel good about myself, that even if I was almost broke, it was never so bad I didn't have any to give. When I worked at Barnes & Noble on the Plaza, I got to recognize and even know a few of the regulars. Sometimes they'd come in, we would treat them to some coffee and a cookie, and talk a little if there was time. It made them feel good to have someone care. And us, because we did care. I also gave because even if the money would go to a bottle of wine, it could also go to some food and a sought after smoke.
Here in Sweden I'm scared even walking on by. By the utter despair and hopelessness I see in their eyes when they manage to catch my stare as I try to look somewhere else. Anywhere else. By the heroin shakes of their arms and heads. The stale smell of cheap wine and piss. I'm scared, and I don't give of either my attention or my money. I'm afraid to pause long enough because my feeling of helplessness in facing this doom may cause me to falter. And because the money will only help perpetuate their hell through the next heroin injection or bottle of homemade vodka.
All these feelings get funnelled into an anger that I can do nothing with. Except making my heart ache every time I walk on by. During the Christmas it was even harder. I've given my money I tell myself, I convince myself that I've done all I can because I find no other way to help. I say "no", avert my eyes, and walk on.
I leave them out there in the cold.
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