Comfortably Numb

James Shearer

The title of today’s column should ring a bell for anyone who is over the age of 30 or has ever listened to Pink Floyd. But this is not a story about heroin addiction.

The other night I attended a type of event called a board connection. It’s where non-profits like ours go to find and recruit new board members. The Editor and I were directed to this little corner of a rather large room. It was hard to see us and there were other groups blocking us from view. During this two-hour event, we received three visitors who were interested in us and what we do.

Throughout the evening I began to notice something. There were a few other organizations present who like us work with and help homeless people. Those organizations, like ours, had barely drawn any attention. One that I know had not a single person stop by to talk. I also noticed that when people did get a chance to look at our table, it seemed like they saw the word homelessness then nodded their heads at us as if we were holding cups in our hands and walked away. I suddenly felt like the three men in A Christmas Carol who asked Scrooge to support their charities for the poor.

Later that night as I made my way home, I noticed a man sleeping in an alcove of a store located in City Square in Lynn. Now, this wasn’t the first time I had noticed him. He’s in that same spot all the time and has been there for a very long time. He has his worldly possessions in a shopping cart, and he eats and sleeps in this very spot all year round. People even seem to know him by his name, which is Freddy. He’s a very friendly guy. I say hello to him and give him some change every now and then.

But on this night I took more notice of him than usual. The night was a little chilly and there he was wrapped up in the dirty white blanket he uses. I watched as other people walked by as if he wasn’t there, as if they were numb to the fact of his existence. I thought about the board connection I had just attended and I shook my head. People really don’t give a damn about homelessness anymore or so it would seem. Are people really “comfortably numb” when it comes to that topic, or is it that no one cares?

I think in reality it the former rather than the latter may be true. I firmly believe that most have become truly numb when it comes to homelessness, as with drugs, disease, etc. We have come to accept that it’s just a way of life. How else could you explain how people can walk by a man living in a doorway and not be bothered by it? How else can you explain how over 300,000 children and adolescents can be released from foster care and other youth programs every year in this country with no plan, going directly into the shelter systems?

There is no other explanation. I also believe that people don’t care about homelessness because they have no idea of what to do or how to solve it. If it makes anyone feel any better, many of us on the front lines feel that way too. Many advocates I know will never admit to that but I will. Some days, like that night, I want to give up. I ask myself if after all these years is it even worth it. It would be so easy to pack it in and go home for good but I don’t.

Some people don’t help because they’re scared, scared that this too can happen to them. I too have that fear. Not for me but for my grandchildren, and that’s what keeps me going. It’s what should keep all of us going. We should not accept that it’s ok for people to live in doorways, park benches, and shelters. That doesn’t make us comfortably numb—it makes us comfortably dumb.

James Shearer

James Shearer is a writer and co-founder of Spare Change News.

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