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  • As a resident of Chicago, and a frequent rider of the CTA trains, I have had my fair share of interactions with homeless people. Generally speaking, the interactions leave me feeling uncomfortable. I always have this inner battle over whether or not the story they are telling is the truth and whether or not they are actually using the money for food. Add to this the fact that it seems like there are a standard set of stories that I hear over and over again... leaving me evermore dubious. I should also mention that I rarely ever carry cash so that when someone does ask for money, I never have anything to offer. Still, I tend to feel like I could still be helping them in some way, but I never know what to do.

    A little while ago I encountered a woman on the train who asked for everyone's attention. I felt a sigh among fellow commuters as we knew what was coming next. She went on to explain that her house was being foreclosed on and she had nowhere to go. She needed $67 more in order to take a train to California to join her family there. I listened to her and I searched her face for some sort of clue as to the validity of her story. I saw nothing. I looked inside of myself and tried to search my feelings and came up empty handed. I don't know what it was about this woman, but she just didn't seem truthful. I watched the other passengers to see their reactions and they did what I had witnessed many times before: ignored her the best they could.

    She began to walk through the train car and ask riders individually for money. They all declined her request. When she came to me I was sure to look her in the eyes as I was still searching for clues. She asked for money and I said that I had none. As she left our train car, in order to move on to the next, she turned back and said that she hoped none of us would ever be homeless.

    A few weeks later I was on the train again, on my way to school, when a young homeless man called for everyone's attention. This time it felt totally different. He didn't give some sob story about his life. He didn't even ask for money. He just said that he was homeless and very hungry and if anyone had some food to spare he would appreciate it. After a long pause he added, "...or money." He clearly emphasized food over money. Still, no one acknowledged him.

    I studied his face and found a look of despair in his eyes. He was about my age, in his twenties, and he appeared dirty and not clean shaven at all. He looked thin and indeed very hungry. Being on my way to school meant that I had a snack with me. I reached into my bag and pulled out a blueberry Lunabar. Due to the fact that it was a hot day in June the Lunabar was somewhat melted and squashed, but I figured that if I would have eaten it later anyways then this homeless man would definitely appreciate it. I got up from my seat, walked across the train car, tapped him on the shoulder and said, "This is all I have with me" as I handed him my snack. His eyes brightened and he thanked me profusely.

    I returned to my seat and then what happened next shocked me. As he made his way through the train car, almost every passenger began handing him money. The passengers that previously ignored him were now handing over singles without him even asking. It was almost as if I had validated his truthfulness by giving him food. As the train was approaching the next stop he made his way over to me again. He thanked me once more and seemed so happy to have food in his hands. He exited the train at the next stop clutching a blueberry Lunabar with a smile on his face.
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