Sunday, March 6, 2011

I met Carmen as I meet so many people each week:  she was standing on a corner jingling a cup for change so I stopped to see what I could do to help her.  A Chicago native, Carmen has lived most of her life hustling on the streets.  At one point, she became addicted to crystal meth.  She's been clean for four years now - I hope she's proud of that accomplishment.

As we talked, a group of young men walked by.  She quietly held out her cup as usual.  They burst out laughing. "Shyeahright... disgusting!" and kept going.  Carmen turned to me and said "Man, you know what?  Living here on the streets?  this is punishment enough... I wouldn't wish this on my worst enemy.  But for another human being to treat me that way?  I just don't think I'll ever understand.  I'm not rude... I try to stay clean... I'm not aggressive.  Why they gotta do me like that?  Why?"  I just wanted to cry for her.  But seeing the tears in her own eyes as her lower lip quivered, I told myself, "Kelley, don't you dare cry.  Don't you dare," because to stand there crying in front of people passing by?  For people like Carmen, that's the ultimate humiliation.

I asked her about the possibility of sleeping in a shelter.  She said the same thing so many other people have told me:  most of the shelters are full of violence, theft, and a severe bed bug problem.  I began rummaging in my bag for things that could give her some comfort for the moment:  dry socks, toiletries, and a cup of hot cocoa.  We continued to talk as she sipped the warm drink.  Another group of young guys walked past.  She didn't even bother to hold out her cup.  Then, one of the men doubled back, slipped a Visa gift card in her cup and said, "here, go get yourself something to eat, sweetie."

Carmen is just one of so many people I meet each week.  She didn't ask to be born into a life of drugs, disease and street living.  Could she have gotten out of that lifestyle when she was young?  Sure.  But you know what?  I didn't grow up in her environment.  I have absolutely no right to judge her and the choices she made in her youth that she's paying for now.  None whatsoever.  The only thing I can do is be a decent human being, do what I can to help her stay alive and encourage her to make right choices now.

If you see Carmen or someone like her somewhere in this city, show a little compassion.  You don't have to give money.  You don't have to walk around with a bag full of things like I do.  Just stop a moment and say, "how are you?"  It means the world to someone to know that he or she matters enough for you to simply say hello.

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