I had to drive through downtown Portland today because of a detour, and I realized how rarely I actually go into the city. Usually I stay on the interstate until I get to the airport or the mall or Trader Joes.
Today the detour took me past Hadlock Field and around Lincoln Park. It was a sunny day and there were a lot of people out.
And then I remembered.
The homeless people.
I lived in the D.C. area for many years and I never became used to seeing homeless people on the street corners with their makeshift cardboard signs, asking for work, for help, for money, for food.
One night I was walking down a city street with a friend when a homeless-looking guy came up to me and asked for money. I learned long ago that I can help some, but I can't help all. I had a little cash but I needed it to take the Metro home, so I told him No. He pressed and said that surely I had a little cash I could give him. It was then that I noticed he was smoking a cigarette. I was annoyed at being pressed and I told him maybe he ought to spend his money on something more useful than cigarettes. Then he called me a nasty name and thankfully, went on his way.
After that, I spent several years on the California coast where the homeless population was so large that we really DID get used to seeing them, which I now find sad. Though in retrospect, if I had to be homeless, I'd much rather be homeless in San Diego than in D.C. Or Maine.
Today I saw a homeless man in downtown Portland standing on a street corner with his cardboard sign. I didn't have any cash in the car other than maybe few pennies, and besides, I was on the other lane from where he was standing. But I felt that familiar guilt - guilt at having a car, at having had lunch, and at having a home to which I was driving right then and there. Where will he sleep tonight? There are shelters in the area, and thank God the weather is getting warmer, but it's no San Diego. And what about that man's future? Where will he go? What will he do?
In the small towns of Maine we forget about such things.
But we shouldn't.
Copyright © 2012 - Paulla Estes