It was an especially cold Sunday night at the Beacon Pub last winter when a man walked in and sat down near the door. It was nearing closing time and he wasn't familiar, so I approached him warily, especially after noting how shabbily he was dressed.
Since the Beacon is near the Green Line, we get our fair share of shady characters that come in to panhandle or try to sell a transit pass or some stolen goods. Once I even had a guy come up to me with a case of beer and ask if he could sell it to the bar!
Those experiences have jaded me, and perhaps your experiences have been similar. When I asked the police about the homeless in our town, they said that the primary complaint from residents is for panhandling.
But this man didn't approach anyone, so I went over and asked, "What can I get you?"
He was still shivering from the cold. It was below zero that night and his clothing was too thin. "I'm sorry to bother you, Miss. I'm homeless and it's so cold tonight. Can you tell me where the nearest hospital is? They'll give me emergency shelter."
I explained how to get to Rush Oak Park and he asked me if it would be OK if he just sat there for a moment to warm up. I said of course and offered him a glass of water, which he swallowed in one gulp. As I refilled the water, he glanced at the popcorn machine behind him.
"Is that um ..."
"It's free," I answered quickly because I could see the embarrassment in his eyes. "Please help yourself to as much of it as you want."
Then I walked down to the other end of the bar to explain the situation to Dan, another bartender who comes in at night so I don't have to close alone. I thought he might question my decision, but instead he grabbed an extra sweatshirt that he kept at the bar and brought it over to the man, along with $20. "I would have given him more," Dan said, "but that was most of what I made today."
I followed suit. When I went to refill the man's water glass, I also brought him half the money from my tip jar.
He left soon after that. I closed the bar and went home to my warm bed, but I couldn't sleep. I felt like I should have done more - offered a ride to the hospital, paid for a cab.
As winter approaches again, I realize one thing I can do is share my experience and open peoples' minds.
On the PADS Web site, they list 50 ways to help people who are homeless. The last one really struck me: "Look a homeless person in the eyes when you address them."
My perception of the homeless shifted just by looking into that one man's eyes. I could see that he was proud and he hated having to ask me for anything. I wondered what his story was. As Nancy Ford at PADS told me, "everyone who is homeless has unique circumstances."
The majority of the people that are struggling are those you don't see. Did you know that the Forest Park Food Pantry consistently serves around 50 families and that number jumps to 150 at Thanksgiving? Did you know that 11 Forest Parkers had to seek emergency shelter with PADS last winter?
Just some things to think about. Compassion is the best gift you can give this time of year. And it's free.
Stephanie is the author of "I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone" and "Ballads of Suburbia." She's a proud Forest Parker who holds a master's in fine arts degree from Columbia College Chicago. She also works locally at the Beacon Pub and loves to hear from people through her Web site www.stephaniekuehnert.com.