Chicago in June 2023.

        Juxtaposition, antithesis, juxtaposition; billion-dollar skyscrapers hide people rotting away on the streets; opulent women and men shop in Louis Vuitton while, beside the entrance, a man shakes a cup for spare change; Mercedes sedans and Land Rover SUVs speed past signs of “Homeless. Need help” and “Veteran going through tough times.” on Michigan Avenue; I–though not wealthy, but still financially secure–encounter a woman who begs to me, “Could y’all please help me?!”, to which I respond, “I am sorry, ma’am.”

I made a mistake two weeks ago. I should have given her spare change. Honestly, I should have given everyone I encountered that day a dollar or two. But I didn’t. I made a mistake two weeks ago.

She was in her forties, her frizzy black hair grayed by the immutable stress of poverty and the streets. Her eyes were motherly yet worn, her face strong yet strained. Society made her untouchable, a hidden figure in the city who was classless, lawless, homeless. She was probably the only person within a block who really knew what it means to survive, who knew what hunger and desperation and fear really are. She was honorable in every aspect, natural in the raw thirst for survival she was forced to experience daily, and individual in her perpendicularity to societal expectations. And yet her forced independence from society has starved her; the vast inequalities around her–the billion-dollar buildings flanking her on both sides, while she lacked even a dollar for food–made her its most vulnerable victim. She, too poor even for a meal, was affixed in an animalistic hunger, made a starving woman in (and by) a society built on excess. As the hunger pushed her towards death, she expelled a final blast of energy and began running at us, begging, crying her eyes out just for spare change or food. As she reached us, she asked in a heave, “Could y’all please help me?!”

I made a mistake two weeks ago. I told her, “I’m sorry ma’am”. I was so brainwashed by the misguided stereotype that homeless people are drug abusers, that I refused to make the smallest sacrifice during one of her most vulnerable moments. As I began to realize my mistake, she continued, towards the next couple, for the chance at having dinner.

I cannot apologize to her; I cannot legitimize her or give her a voice; my split-second mistake reinforced the idea that she was untouchable, that she was less than me, even though she is no less human, no less individual than I. But I’ve come to believe, as I look back on the mistake I made two weeks ago, that she is indeed more human, more individual than I; she, like those with whom she shares the streets every night, has the courage to approach random strangers and beg them for money–knowing that her efforts would be met with humiliation and dehumanization–and by choosing to beg rather than steal (a choice that yields a far more difficult route), she maintains a moral highness that even our bravest soldiers cannot: Courage without barbarity, without violence. She is courageous enough to sacrifice her humanity for food without forcing a cost upon someone else. She is human, more human than I, who chose not to help her in one of her most vulnerable moments, and more human than all of the rest of us.

I made a mistake, and I regret it. But that chance encounter has taught me to be more like myself, more human. I think we all could use some advice on honor, survival, and humanity from our homeless siblings. 

I made a mistake two weeks ago. I wish I could give her what she is owed.