How much effort does it take for another person to affect your day, with a smile or a small gesture of thanks, recognition of your work, or even just being courteous? The answer is, not much. Imagine now how a small act or gesture might affect your day when you have nothing, if you were out in the cold with no home, no food, no money and not even proper clothes, or bandages for your wounds or medicine for your infections.
We have shelters and food banks, soup lines, many agencies and wonderful people providing all kinds of humanitarian aid for our less fortunate citizens, but there are those who fall through the cracks, those who do not get into a shelter at night, and many who, for a variety of reasons, do not participate well in organized charity efforts. Aren’t those the most vulnerable among us? When we slow-down from our busy lives and look around, we can see that there are a lot more unfortunate, homeless, and challenged people than most of us realize. They are hidden in plain sight, having learned to be unobtrusive for fear of being pushed out, we even sometimes step over them, barely distracted from checking our cellphone for texts and e-mails while running for a break at work. Admittedly, we all have our problems and life to deal with, and it is overwhelming to think about all that is going on in the world; but there must be some balance; we also have responsibilities as citizens. We should find some balance between responsibility for our own private lives and for social problems in our community.
On my 4AM walk to work in downtown Winnipeg, I see people sleeping in bus shacks, and running around in the streets. A person could freeze to death or lose fingers and toes to frostbite in minutes in our frigid winter weather. Inquiring with the shelters that exist, I found that, for a variety of reasons, there are a lot of people stuck (my daughter Chelsea above) out in the elements at night, from teenagers to elderly, some in wheelchairs, some with obvious substance abuse and/or mental health issues, and some who have run into financial problems. They are from all over, and their stories are as diverse as their backgrounds; not all are homeless; some are displaced only for a few days and some choose to be there. Whatever the reason, it does not seem right that some people are cowering in cold bus shacks and doorways on a cold winter night while the rest of us sleep soundly in our homes.
My family decided to try a small gesture and see if it helps. We started bringing hot coffee and soup for those who seem to be lost in the system, in the middle of the night, after everything is closed, when the bus shacks are some of the only places to escape the cold. They are disturbingly easy to find, and amazingly appreciative. We’ve had some laughs and heard some (my daughter Chelsea above) interesting stories, just offering a non-judgmental gesture with a compassionate intention. There are some who we wonder about when they suddenly aren’t in their regular spot. Surprisingly, there are different faces each day, an endless parade of different people, each with their own story. Some are unresponsive, obviously struggling with their issues, but many are bright, sober and are just getting by, day-by-day, to overcome the challenges life has dealt them.
Most are thankful for a hot cup of coffee, hot chocolate or soup to warm their belly in the wet snow and the cold night air. It has been a heartwarming experience, and has taught us that we can respect a person’s human dignity with very small acts. All of us have daily opportunities to do something nice for someone. It doesn’t have to be someone homeless; you never know what challenges other people are struggling with. These are chances that should not be wasted, because life’s lottery could have placed any of us in a different position than we have in life, and a compassionate act can give us the feeling of restoring some balance, some social justice in the world, one small gesture at a time.