Joe is homeless. He panhandles under a bridge in downtown Spokane. The last time I saw him, Joe was holding a cardboard sign. It read, “smile” and “anything helps.”
I pretended not to notice Joe. My car still at the stoplight, I looked down at my knees. I noticed how dirty my floorboards were. I thought about driving to Target to get a small vacuum cleaner. I changed the radio station.
It’s not that I don’t care for Joe. I just didn’t have anything to smile about. His homelessness made me sad and mad, not smiley. Also, I didn’t think I had anything particularly helpful to offer. Standing before the overwhelming problem of homelessness, I often feel helpless.
A Quaker View
I had just left a church meeting at Spokane Friends. Incidentally, I gave a sermon about how Quakers—and all friends of Jesus, really—should develop new and meaningful practices that will help people in Spokane feel loved and cared for. As a group, we queried how we might fulfill George Fox’s instruction to walk cheerfully over the world and answer that of God in everyone.
Uncertain about whether it would make a real difference, I said a prayer for Joe. I asked God to help me understand how to care for him and all of our unhoused neighbors in Spokane.
The light turned green. I said “amen,” released the break, and began to drive forward. Then something terrible happened. In front of me I saw three men in a Ford Explorer roll their windows down. They yelled and screamed at Joe. In a flash, they threw left over Mexican food at him. On the ground I saw chips, a paper cup, and a few bites of a burrito.
My heart sunk. I pulled over and got out of the car. I walked over to Joe and asked a stupid question: “Joe, are you OK?” He had tears in his eyes. Joe fumbled his words. I remember him saying, “just so mean.”
A Dissertation on Homelessness
I have been living in Spokane for the past year. During this time, I have been writing a dissertation about the spiritual and religious lives of people experiencing homelessness. My dissertation is based on more than three years of fieldwork with people who live on the streets of Seattle and, now, Spokane. Fieldwork is a technical research term to describe something really simple. At its core, fieldwork is about spending time with people in a certain time and place in order to understand what really matters to them.
For our unhoused neighbors, everyday life is really hard. That’s not terribly surprising. It can be dangerous and lonely and unsafe. What continues to surprise me is what people often tell me is the hardest thing about living on the streets: being treated like trash and seen as something inhuman.
Before I began my fieldwork, I used to think a panhandler’s sign asking for a smile was phony. People don’t want smiles, I thought—they want money and food and yes, sometimes, unfortunately, drugs. But I don’t think that way anymore. I’ve come to understand that some people really do want a smile. That a smile can go a long way in lifting the crushing burden of dehumanization people who are homeless live under—and which so-called documentaries like “Seattle is Dying” and “Curing Spokane” make worse.
A Smile Alone Won’t Fix It
Smiles won’t fix homelessness. They won’t fix the underlying social problems that really cause homelessness. People are homeless because they don’t have a home, and they don’t have a home because they can’t afford one. Fixing homelessness will require real and robust political action that will bring wages up and the cost of living down; that will create supportive services to help people who have been pushed down get back up. But let me tell you: smiles are a real cure for the pain of dehumanization our unhoused neighbors like Joe experience every day. It helps them understand something we all need to know: that we are seen and good and that our lives matter.
So, friends, go out and smile. Smile and revolt. Throw your fists in the air. Vote. We need an economy that works for everyone.
Paul Houston Blankenship is an interim pastor at Spokane Friends and a PhD candidate at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. He has taught theology and religious studies at Seattle University, Fordham University, and UC Berkeley. Paul’s dissertation, Soul Suffering, is an ethnographic study about the spiritual lives of people living on the streets of Seattle.