I was homeless once.
I slept on cold concrete. I suffered through wet rainy nights. I scraped by on what little money I had, and I became a better person for it all. It was my own choice.
Not so, here. Walking the streets of Manila, the poor and desperate abound. During the day, the able-bodied among them hawk cheap wares in the streets. The children and the decrepit beg for change. At night, we step over the sleeping corpses of those who society ignores.
I feel for them. But I don’t give them money.
The children approach me, their filthy fingers touching me, and I have to resist the urge to shove them away. They pull on the legs of my pants, and I feel their desirous gaze upon my pockets. I wash my hands of their touch when I reach my destination.
The worst days of my own flirtatious brush with poverty all were better than the best day sleeping in the filth among the poor and desperate here in Manila. Yet I understand a bit of what it must be like. The desperation, the sadness, the hunger. The exposure to the elements. All of it clings to you, and looking around all you can see are countless people who have what you don’t. A bed, a shower. A place to return to when the streets grow dark and dangerous.
I flirt with idealistic notions, sometimes. I imagine I’ll buy some bottles of water, or some sandwiches, and I see myself passing them into the open palms which inhabit Manila’s streets. Yet I know that I can never solve the greater problems here. The cynic in me shuts down the idealist. Every coin distributed produces two more hands, each more eager than the last.
In my hometown, there are plenty of homeless men on the streets. We quickly learn to ignore them. Many of us tell ourselves they’re alcoholics or addicts, and if we give them money we’ll only be fueling their addiction. Or, perhaps they’re employed by a violent gang, who will confiscate the money to fund their nefarious purposes. These things do happen, sadly.
It’s difficult to maintain those excuses when you see children sleeping on the street. These children have no sins of their own, save perhaps those committed in desperation. They are not addicts, nor alcoholics, so we cannot imagine that the money we give them will go towards anything but filling their little stomachs. And still, we walk by them.
My heart breaks to see them, but as each day passes they fade into the background, like a piece of obscene graffiti your mind acknowledges less and less with each exposure. We can’t bear to look, so we block it out from our mind until it doesn’t even exist anymore.
That’s just the world we live in today. Children die on the streets so our illusions economy can continue. The piece of our hearts that holds our empathy for the poor dies with them.