Like most modern American cities, Denver has beggars. They've been driven away from downtown and aren't hugely visible elsewhere, but there are a couple of corners we regularly pass where people ask for a handout. We never give to them. However, the kids are fascinated, and we've had quite a few conversations about these "knights of the open road".
I have had numerous encounters with homeless people, first in DC, later in Boston and Denver. In DC in particular, people are afraid of the homeless. They dodge and duck to avoid being confronted. The beggars there are scary. Loud, dirty, aggressive, they can be militant in their demand (not request) for change. I remember one person who had almost cleared a sidewalk with his shouting and insults to those who walked past, eyes diligently averted. I had no choice but to pass. Instead of ignoring him, however, when he asked for change I said "None today, I'm sorry" as I usually do, smiling and nodding. His demeanor immediately changed. He gave me a brilliant smile, a "God bless you, sister!" and then returned to haranguing passersby.
I carry that memory with me, because it supports my belief that every person has some good in them. I also believe that acknowledgement is vital for human dignity, and everyone -- no matter the circumstances -- deserves at least that much. Imagine my dismay, then, when we drove past a panhandler yesterday and Sam piped up "That guy is an idiot."
I couldn't speak at first. I know ten year old kids don't understand the complexities of adult life, and Sam has less grasp of grey areas than most, but I've tried to explain the myriad reasons behind homelessness and begging. Finally, instead of lecturing, I managed to ask him for an explanation.
As with many topics in our house, Sam is trying to reconcile two radically different perspectives -- one from each parent. I am liberal, Will is conservative. I grew up with modest means, Will less so. I believe people are inherently good, Will doesn't. Apparently Will has been more vocal about his opinions of street people, dismissing them as lazy at best and drug-addled cancers on society at worst. Sam has heard my arguments that people aren't always in control of their situation -- many are mentally or physically ill, and often drugs play a part but addiction is not a choice -- but I am less vehement. Thus his first reaction is to think of the person on the corner as an idiot. When pressed he says that if they are sick or addicted they might have some excuse, but he doesn't understand why they don't just get a job and work their way out of the situation.
Don't we all wish it was that easy?
We continued driving and I did my best to share, again, my beliefs with Sam. It's never easy to tell what he's heard and what he's internalized. I would like him to share my compassion, my hope, my faith in humanity. The best I can do is reinforce my teachings, and hope that our son finds a middle road, rather than feeling he is stuck in the middle.