He was asleep on a metal grate inside a fence on National Park property just 653-yards in front of the White House in Washington, DC. As I stepped closer he awoke looking slightly startled. His eyes were blue, but heavily glazed over as if he had cataracts and could barely see. Every wrinkle on his face was embedded with dirt and grime.
I asked, “How long have you been homeless?” He said in response, “I love the National Parks, they are convenient to everything.” I said, “No, how long have you been here?” He closed his eyes to think and said, “37-years - I’ve been here 37-years.”
I was curious as to how others viewed him so I stepped back to watch tourist, business leaders and even police walk past him on a busy Thursday around noon. It was as if he did not exist. The temperature was down to 27-degrees and he was on top of a grate blowing warm air, but his clothes were literally falling off of him.
I walked to a nearby food stand selling water, chips and hot dogs and asked the woman behind the counter if she took credit cards. With a thick accent in the melting pot of the world she said, “No, cash only.” I told her I was out of cash, but asked if she could spare a water bottle for her neighbor. She said, “No, I not sold anything yet. I help after sell.” I said, “He just needs a water, perhaps you have a cup and you could give me some water out of the cooler behind you?” With a frown she stated, “You not understand, I not sold anything. I help after sell.”
I walked to a National Parks operated concession stand within eyesight of the man and bought a hot dog and a bottle of water with my check card. I asked the woman behind the counter, “Can you spare any left over hot dog buns or chips so that I can give them to the man who sleeps in the park?” At this point, I felt like I was in the middle of my very own social and psychological experiment, which in a way I enjoy, as weird as that sounds. I like to study the interactions of people. In this case, the government worker responded, “No, we don’t giveaway our left over food to anyone. We don’t want them to get sick and then come back to us and blame us!?!?!?” I smiled and calmly stated, “That is a silly excuse to avoid helping someone in need... someone who looks as if he has not eaten in days” I paid for the hot dog and water and walked away.
After giving the man both, he smiled and said thank you. He ate the hot dog as if he had never had a bite in his entire life. The water was like a medication to him as I noticed he was surrounded by bottles filled with a very dark urine. It was both disgusting and sad at the same time. But, it was his reality.