Have You Ever Had a Conversation with a Homeless Person?

I was interviewed yesterday about a young man I met who was homeless.

I was in Journal Square in Jersey City, NJ. He walked up to me, ranting and using expletives. He couldn’t have been more than 25. I listened to his story, which was terribly sad. He’d been in multiple shelters, he’d had no place to go on cold, snowy nights, and that recently, the person who’d raised him, his grandmother, had died. I tried my best to calm him down. I encouraged him as best I could. I learned from him and gained perspective from him. After our conversation, I thought about doing things I’ve never done before.

We love movies where characters have interesting back stories. The TV show “LOST” had amazing back stories for each of the characters. Marvel movies can make a back story you already know come across in a completely new way. Sometimes we call it “Character development” or sometimes we just simply say “I love that character”.

Back stories help us understand why characters behave the way they do.

It’s sad that we look for back story in movies, but not often do we look for them in people. We’re more interested in what people are going to do or planning to do next. In this particular case, the young man I met had a terrible back story but he’d learned so much.

He’d lived in many places around NJ, and in a number of homeless shelters. His stories about being cold and hungry were heartbreaking. One time, he and his girlfriend had no place to go, they were wandering in a snowstorm when a hotel manager let them sit in the lobby overnight so they wouldn’t freeze. They found a pizza in the garbage can that night with only one slice missing, and he knew that someone out there cared about him. His girlfriend didn’t believe in God, she had been saying “where is God?” and when he found the pizza, he told her “this is why you have to believe in God.”

This young man told me how, when he sees people who are homeless and worse off than he is, he gives them whatever money he can. That is amazing to me. I’ve never given money to a homeless person, but that moment, he taught me the value of empathy. He reminded me how important it is to do what you can to help others, even if you don’t have much.

I like to find out people’s back stories. You hear stories about things that happened, what shapes their view of the world. Sometimes a tragic thing happened in their past and they never move on, and you can tell it instantly. Sometimes the story they’re telling you is something they invented, something they believe is real, but it’s just in their head. Don’t try to tell them it’s invented, just listen.

Toward the end of our conversation, the young man who was homeless told me “you need to keep doing this. People like you need to keep doing this so you can help people like me.”