Dacosta and Lewis
Helping the Homeless is Sometimes Hard to Do
BY KATE STEIN
Even if I’m not looking for them, I’ve learned to notice the homeless residents of Evanston, Illinois.
They’re not aggressive in their panhandling, but they do place themselves, strategically, in order to get the attention of passers-by—particularly Northwestern University students like me.
One woman comes to Northwestern’s student center almost daily—with her cat. Several other people take turns sitting on a stack of milk crates next to the local CVS pharmacy, a convenience store frequented by students.
Growing up, I lived in predominantly white, upper-middle-class communities, so I had little experience with homelessness when I came to Evanston. Because seeing homeless people was a new experience for me, and because I’m both a journalism major and (I think) a compassionate human being, I wondered about the homeless people I encountered. How did they come to be homeless? What are their days like? How could I help them, given my limited time and money, and my concerns for my safety?
From a fellow Northwestern freshman, I learned that many Evanston-area homeless people attend a weekly Bible study at a local warming center. Last winter, I sat in on two of the group’s meetings. I talked informally with many of the participants and then found two men who were willing to speak with me for a journalism project about what Northwestern students could do to combat homelessness. Their names: Dacosta and Lewis.
In my conversations with Dacosta and Lewis, I struggled with the very issues I was hoping to address: the gap between my experiences and theirs, and how this gap inhibited my attempts to help them. I thought to myself, “How can I, a relatively well-off college student, connect with someone who lives on the streets? How can I, a student journalist, authentically retell their stories?
If Lewis and Dacosta sensed my worries, they didn’t show it. They simply told me that Northwestern students could indeed help homeless people if the students knew how to do so. But I left the interviews wondering if I really could help, or if Dacosta and Lewis had simply told me I could help because they knew that was what I wanted to believe.
In his interview, Dacosta opened up to me, but also left me with many questions. He hoped Northwestern students would “just hold their heads up, hold their heads high. Do their studies. And, make something of their life.” He said he believed we could give him, and people like him, jobs. But I wondered, who were the people like Dacosta? And were jobs actually what they needed? Of the panhandlers and Bible study participants with whom I’d talked, Dacosta was the only person who had mentioned a desire for employment. Perhaps the others had become too discouraged to keep looking, or perhaps–because of disabilities, addictions, immigration status, a lack of education, or complicity with their situations–they hadn’t ever started. And anyway, would a job really even help Dacosta? After all, since he had to walk across Evanston to the warming center (instead of taking a bus
or staying in a warm house of his own), he didn’t seem to be in a position to reliably work.
My interview with Lewis also left me with more questions than answers. For instance, I asked him where he was living and he said, “I am living outside. I am homeless–been homeless 29 years.” But then, instead of giving me more details about where he was living or how he got there, he continued, “But you know how hard that is? And being a Christian, too, it gets to be really cool. People be taking stuff, stealing stuff…” Throughout our interview, his responses followed this pattern: a vague or confusing answer to my question about his life, then a long tangent about God or homelessness.
On the recording of this interview, you can hear me changing my tone, questioning Lewis’ ability to tell me how I could help him. Each time I said “OK” to him, to show I was following what he was saying, my answer became more hesitant, my questions, less direct.
But after the interview, Lewis said I was “an angel for listening.” I was touched. I was tearing up. “Perhaps,” I thought, “I helped him just by talking with him. Maybe that’s all homeless people need from me—a confidence boost.”
Five minutes later, though, Lewis asked me if I could loan him some cash. He told me he didn’t like to ask for handouts, but he needed to mail a letter. He also asked me if we could meet on St. Patrick’s Day to see the Chicago River dyed green. He might have actually needed to mail something, and he might have wanted to meet just to see the river, but frankly, I was unconvinced. I found myself stereotyping my worst fears about homelessness—that he might have actually wanted the money to buy drugs, and that he might want to meet me at the river to rape me. My suspicions were most likely completely wrong, but how could I know for sure?
I declined both requests, but promised Lewis I would bring him stamps and envelopes the next week. He left a few minutes later, and I found myself disillusioned. Had I done anything at all for him?
It’s been nearly a year since I conducted these interviews, and I still don’t have a definitive answer to that question. I’m not a social services caseworker, or a city development expert, or an economist. I’m a journalism student, and because I haven’t spent much time “studying” homelessness, I really don’t know what sort of aid is best to help alleviate the problem. (And really, even among “experts on homelessness,” who does?)
But intuitively, I believe I did help both Lewis and Dacosta, even if I didn’t give them anything more than my attention. I acknowledged them as human beings. I showed them someone cares about them and the circumstances in which they live.
And they reminded me that I feel conflicted, uncomfortable, and guilty about living in a place where people attend $60,000-a-year universities literally across the street from people who don’t know where they’re going to sleep at night.
Kate Stein can be reached at email@example.com
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