I’m in a constant wrestle with the whole notion of ending homelessness in the United States. The lack of affordable housing and the resulting struggles of millions of un-housed Americans are profound and can be paralyzing. But, sometimes we’re presented with clearly contrasting personal stories that can help us make sense of these global problems. Recently, two law enforcement officers were each faced with a situation all too familiar to both of them: a homeless man was living-out his private daily existence in “the public square”.
In Sarasota, Florida, Police Sgt. Anthony Frangioni spotted Darren Kersey charging his cell phone in a public park. Mr. Kersey was homeless at the time and unable to access a private resource for recharging. The officer arrested him for theft of a public utility. He spent the night in jail.
In New York’s Time Square, Officer Larry DiPrimo spotted a homeless man sitting on the sidewalk in frigid temperatures. DiPrimo crossed the street and purchased socks and boots for the man with $120 of his own money. He crossed back over and helped the man on with his boots. The homeless man spent the night with warm feet.
These two examples remind me of the cartoon I used to read as a child in Highlights Magazine: Goofus and Gallant. The cartoon featured two contrasting boys responding to the same situation. Goofus was irresponsible, while Gallant chose the responsible route. The situations were always stark comparisons of right and wrong.
If we are to end the nationwide tragedy of homelessness, we could begin by respecting the inherent worth and dignity of each and every human being, especially those we may find most abhorrent. An important aspect of respecting someone is to understand them and their condition. Officer DiPrimo accepted that challenge and met it with compassion. The result was an outpouring of support from the general public. Sgt. Frangioni confronted the challenge and met it with ignorance and cruelty. The public cried foul.
I’ll end this message the same way the narrator would end each Goofus and Gallant strip. When Goofus saw the homeless man charging his cell phone he saw only the wrong that was being done, instead of a person in need of understanding and compassion. When Gallant saw the homeless man without shoes, he saw someone in need and a problem that he could solve. When we see our world as full of offenders requiring consequences, we see things only punitively. When we see our world as full of people with problems that we can help solve, we see things with limitless possibilities: perhaps an end to homelessness.
- Neil Donovan, executive director, National Coalition for the Homeless