"Brother, Can you spare a... raincoat?"

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Homeless man sleeping in Seattle doorway
Photo courtesy Seattle Municipal Archives 35985
By Rob Oxford

"Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?", is one of the best-known American songs of the Great Depression. Written in 1930 by lyricist E. Y. "Yip" Harburg and composer Jay Gorney, it was made famous by Tacoma's own Bing Crosby.

In an average week I will spend between 40 to 50 hours in and out of downtown Seattle. 

My job requires that I travel from the affluent neighborhoods of Magnolia and Madison Park, through the corridors of South Lake Union and Fremont and occasionally past some of the not so glamorous dwellings in Rainier Beach and South Park.

In each of these communities you will find a home. It may not be a large home, it may not be a new home, but nonetheless it is a home. At night the lights are on, the shades are drawn and the house is warm. Inside families are conversing and keeping each other company, reliving the day's activities and making plans for tomorrow. But just outside, sometimes only feet away, the homeless wander.

I am somewhat ashamed to admit that during the warmer months of the year, I rarely consider their plight. I'm often so busy trying to complete the day's tasks that I hurry by with my mind on other things. There's so much to do and so little time. I have to make it home in time for my sons' football or baseball games. I have a yard to mow. The car needs washing or I simply want to relax. After all, I worked my 8, 9 hours. I did my time!

But during the fall, things slow down. The rain starts to fall, the wind starts to blow, it gets colder and things... slow... down. I'm not as busy. I start to notice the people on the street. I start to notice their cardboard shelters. I have more time to read their cardboard signs and I have more time to think.

I don't presume to understand why some people are homeless. I know there are many factors involved. Mental illness, drug addiction, family quarrels, all are contributing factors. But it's so much more involved.

When I first moved to Seattle from a small town in Texas, I felt compelled to give my spare change to the first person who asked for it. I'd never witnessed "panhandling" on this level before and it was "spare" change, right? I could afford it.

Then many years later, after being fired from a radio job in Denver, I found myself back in Seattle living in a van. At night it was cold. I was dry and reasonably safe, but at night it did get cold. I had a brother 45 minutes south of Seattle I could have stayed with, but I was stubborn, I was angry, full of too much pride and he'd helped me too much already. I needed to do this on my own. I was fortunate to have been employed, and I didn't need to "beg". Thankfully I only spent a few months on the street, but I learned a lot about myself.

I also learned a lot about being homeless. I learned there are ways to help the homeless without giving money directly to them. I learned that when you say you don't have any change to spare and genuinely mean it, most often they believe you.

I learned that wishing them "good luck" and meaning that too is quite often enough. I learned that a heartfelt smile is better than acting like they don't exist. I learned that sometimes I can afford to buy two hamburgers, one for me and one for you. And just today, I learned that the extra raincoat I had stuffed behind my driver's seat, that I forgot was even there, can sometimes seem like the greatest present ever received.

Sure, there will always be those who take advantage of the kindness of strangers. There will be those who try and take advantage of "the system" - whatever "The System" is. 

As my Father would say: "There will always be some who expect everything to be given to them on a silver platter". But that's not my concern, my concern is to try and treat those less fortunate than myself with kindness and dignity. Not just during the winter months, when things are slow and time allows you to give them more thought, but during all 12 months of the year.

Happy Thanksgiving!


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