A Boy on the Sidewalk

“Is he sleeping there? God, I hope he’s just sleeping.”

My car crept along in the right lane. I was caught up in the morning rush with other drivers who, like me, were trying to avoid even slower traffic in the I-94 construction. 7th Street is a nice alternative to the freeway. It brings me through old city neighborhoods straight into downtown St. Paul. 7th Street isn’t necessarily a faster alternative, but the fact that traffic keeps moving, however slowly, takes the edge off my commuter frustrations.

I’ve only recently begun to regularly use this route to get to work in the morning. When construction began on my usual route, I needed to find a less frustrating way to get to work. The routine of my new route brings more familiarity each day. Just beyond the 7th Street Bridge, I always notice a sporadic procession of men walking east toward the traffic moving into downtown. I never thought much of them on those random days when I drove 7th Street instead of the freeway. But now that I see them daily, I’ve begun to notice things. They wear jackets even on the warmest of days. They are of varying ages, but are all adults. Many of them tow rolling duffels behind them as they walk. Some have long hair or long beards. Some travel alone, some in groups of two or three. One sits on a retaining wall and watches the cars go by every morning. I wondered out loud to Mark one day, “Are they homeless?” He thought they were most likely leaving the Union Gospel Mission over on University Avenue for the day. I was skeptical at first; they look too tidy, most of them, to be homeless. But each day I look at their faces as they walk up and my car creeps down the street. Maybe Mark is right and maybe I am just naive for not knowing it immediately.

7th Street Bridge

I’ve grown used to the men. Most seem to possess some level of confidence and wherever they are going, they don’t seem too worried. It was the boy who struck me as out-of-place. I could see him sitting on the sidewalk on the corner of 7th and Payne Avenue, his back pressed up against the wall near the entrance of Gregg’s Auto Body. It was after 7:30 this morning, the sun already blazing in the sky and the day shaping up to be another hot one. Yet here he was, wearing a black sweatshirt. He had his knees pulled up to his chest, his elbows propped on his knees and his arms crossed over his chest. His wrists were crossed in front of him so he could prop his chin up.

Traffic was moving so slowly that I was able to watch him for a couple of minutes before I inevitably passed him by. It seemed a strange place to just sit, with busy traffic turning the corner and cars driving up and down the street in front of him. There was plenty of pedestrian traffic as well, both coming from Payne Avenue and of course, the procession of men coming up the street toward the bridge. A group of people waited at the opposite corner for the next bus. A big Sidewalk Closed sign sprawled across the sidewalk right next to where the boy was sitting.

All the while I drew closer, he didn’t move. All I could think was that I hoped he was just sleeping. He had to have been, right? People were coming and going past him both on foot and by car and no one was stopping. Finally, my car drew near him and as I rolled down the street, braking every few moments with the ebb and flow of traffic, I got a good look at his face. His eyes were definitely closed. “Please just let him be sleeping.”

I would guess he was maybe fifteen or sixteen, definitely not older than seventeen. His face was so boyish, so innocent. What was he doing there? Why was he sleeping on a busy street corner on the outskirts of downtown on a bright summer day. He brought tears to my eyes. I tried to tell myself that maybe there was a reason he was there, but what possible reason is there for a boy to sleep on a street corner unless he’s alone, homeless, in trouble … ?

In a matter of seconds I was past him and any chance to check on his well-being was quickly slipping away. If I’d tried to stop, I’d have held up traffic even worse than it already was. And what was I going to do anyway? There was a young girl a few weeks ago on this same street. She was in a visibly heated argument with a young man. His body language was aggressive, though he did nothing but yell while I watched from my car. She kept backing away from him and I wanted to roll down my window and offer her a ride, but in those moments, she took off running behind my car, across the four lanes of traffic and was gone. Mark wanted to know what I thought I was going to do. I said I would have given her a ride somewhere… anywhere away from him. Mark didn’t say so but I think he was glad the opportunity never arose.  I remembered the girl again today as I thought about the sleeping boy.

Really, what is someone like me going to be able to do? Still, that boy kept coming to mind all day long. If he really needed help, did it matter whether I would have held up traffic by stopping? Would I really have the guts anyway? Didn’t he have parents somewhere worrying about him? And how bad does your life have to be before sleeping on a busy street corner seems acceptable? I kept asking myself what I thought I could have done and a nagging voice in the back of my mind kept asking, “If not me, then who?”

I don’t know what, if anything I could have done. But the failure to do anything has weighed me down all day long. It’s a strange feeling to know that a world where people sleep on the street is only just miles from my safe and comfortable world.

22 thoughts on “A Boy on the Sidewalk

  1. Most homeless folks know how to “work the system” so I wouldn’t worry about trying to personally get involved. Because you never know….

    Many years ago, a federal employee in Jacksonville who worked in the program that provides our office with funding and who also regularly volunteered at a homeless shelter became acquainted with one of the “regulars.” When Thanksgiving came, he decided to invite the homeless man to his home. He (volunteer) was single and not spending the holiday with any family and thought it’d be nice to help just one person experience a “normal” Thanksgiving.

    The homeless person murdered him, took his car, cash and credit cards and was caught on I-10 somewhere in Louisiana.


    • It’s so disheartening to know that someone trying to lend a helping hand ends up dead for his efforts. It does make it hard to jump in quickly and try to help others.


  2. You have such a sweet, caring, nurturing heart! I can see why not being able to help him is a burden for you. It’s sad, isn’t it, to think that we can’t save every person or animal in need.
    It may help if you focus on the great life you’re giving Lucy, and the loving home you’ve allowed your children to grow up in and continue to come home to. And maybe, if you can’t help him in particular, you can donate to the homeless shelter or a food pantry or something along those lines, and know that in some sense you ARE helping him.
    I’ve always thought you were a great person, Terri, but your posts these past few weeks have especially shown the kindness you have in your heart. You’re doing a lot of good for a lot of people! :)


    • You’re too sweet! Thank you, SR, but I haven’t done anything that anyone else wouldn’t do when friends experience hardships and tragedy. There’s just been too much of it lately. Hitting too close to home. The boy today? I just couldn’t help but notice him. He made me think of my kids and how much I would hate if they ever ended up in a situation like his.


  3. I know what you are describing. I have had several times where I wanted to stop and help someone but felt powerless to do anything. I think what we do is support our social services and non-profit organizations, and try to make sure they have the resources to do what we individuals cannot.


    • I think you’re right. I often feel as if I need to do more in the way of charitable donations. Maybe this is just a wake-up call for what to do with that money.


  4. I think there are many of us who, like you, wish there were a way to lend a hand, even just an ear to listen to people in circumstances such as you described here. And then too, I think just as many of us, because of seeing something on the tv on the news, or an article in the newspaper or by word of mouth even, learn of people such as the first commenter here mentioned about the man only wanting to share his Thanksgiving with a person he felt was in need only to end up being murdered by the other guy and we shrink back and shirk what we think might have been the right thing to do, to help. How to make a determination that helps and still keeps the person trying to be the “Good Samaritan” safe in the process is something too difficult, too convoluted perhaps for people to be able to come forward and do whatever is needed then. Sad circumstances for the ones truly in need and also, sad for the ones who wish to help but don’t know how to go about it safely.


  5. In the relatively brief span of my lifetime, the world has gone from a place where your first impulse would be to stop and try to help someone like that to a place where it would be taking a foolish chance, not worth taking the risk and more than likely, not even appreciated by the person being helped. Sad commentary … :-(


  6. To me the “If not me then who” vs the “And so what would you do” conundrum is one I’ve never been able to resolve. And so often, the time to make the choice is so fleeting. I can’t say I’ve wrapped myself in glory or wisdom in this regard.


  7. I have more or less given up on the local homeless crowd – they are there by choice, work the system, usually get a bed in a hostel for the night and still get their drink and drugs. Last time I gave someone something, the very next day I saw the same guy telling a friend how good the crack had been last night. Yes, my money had helped to pay for that…

    The one I don’t regret giving to was a girl in her early 20s that I saw late one night. I did not recognise her and it looked like life had just taken a bad turn for her. She immediately went into a nearby fast food place and bought some dinner. I never saw her again and hope that she got sorted out.


  8. Ah, Terri, you have such a tender heart! I, too, have seen what appear to be homeless people in my small town, and I, too, have wondered — How did they get that way? How do they survive? What can I do to help? I’ve decided it’s a way bigger problem than I can manage, so I place them in God’s Hands and ask that He protect and care for them, leading them to the agencies that can help. We each can do our part by contributing funds where we can, by acknowledging and seeing the problem, by offering our prayers. Good for you, for noticing!


  9. I remember as a nineteen year old visiting Nashville on early on a Sunday morning, seeing people sleeping outside for the first time ever. It was a little scary. In the country world I live in the only people who sleep outside are campers. I will never forget that sight.


  10. Your caring and nurturing nature is showing… again! I know what you mean. It’s so hard to know what to do when you see things like that. Especially when it comes to kids. It’s sad that we can’t be sure of their true intentions. Are they truly in need or playing on people’s sympathies?


  11. Terri, you are such a loving individual, it makes my own heart sing.

    And I agree with Shadow 100%. “Donating to the homeless shelter or a food pantry or something along those lines, and know that in some sense you ARE helping him.”

    That’s a wonderful idea.


  12. It’s tough when you live a relatively privileged life. You can’t help EVERYONE, but that doesn’t mean you can’t help SOMEONE. What could you do for that particular kid? If you had a bottle of water, he may have appreciated it, but other than that, money is about it. Often the homeless have a tough time sleeping at night (in a shelter or wherever), for fear of getting rolled for their meager possessions. So sleeping during the day is their only option and it conserves their energy when it’s hot.


  13. Bless your heart, Terri. I can only imagine how this must have felt. God bless the many homeless in our nation on this 4th of July.

    (Sorry to have been away all week. Tomorrow’s post should explain my absence from the blogosphere. I’ve missed reading you.)



  14. I’ve seen the same scenario down here. People living off the streets, with no home, no family, no job. Someone down on their luck. You want to help, but you’re not sure if it will be put to good use or if you will be safe. There have been several instances where people were attacked or the money was spent on other things. I’ve been panhandled by a few in the past and in lieu of handing over money, I have bought food or paid for gas, but like RC, I’ve been burned.

    I agree with SR300, donating to a shelter would seem to be the best alternative.


  15. It is a dilemma that many of us face. I hate it when people dismiss then offhand with comments like “it’s their choice,” and “they work the system.” Someone in my family was homeless for a while. Yes, it was his choice but his situation and mental state made him think it was his ONLY choice and we didn’t know where he was. When it’s touched you personally, it softens the heart. There used to be a woman in her sixties that stood at the gas station I frequented hoping for handouts. I’d give her a few dollars or an old sweatshirt. She told me that she’d heard two women that walked by say that she lived in a mansion. “Do you think I could live in a mansion on what I get here?” she said. I can understand why someone would not want to have contact with an unknown person but it’s a shame to justify not helping by minimizing their plight. Keep your heart open,Terri. It’s a good one.


  16. I see your dilemma too. I experience that too to an extent with driving in and out of downtown every day and having homeless people come into the hotel occasionally. I used to say that sometimes I would rather hire a homeless person at the front desk instead of some drama person who doesn’t care about their job, but you just never know a person’s situation…even if they tell it to you who’s to say it’s the real one? I’m such a skeptic of people now; I just wish I could know who the good-hearted ones really are so I could help the right people.


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