top of page
Search

A Traveler's Journal: Empathy, Compassion, and Homelessness


A photo of the man from the story below


During my daily morning walks in Puerto Vallarta, I often encounter the same man sleeping on a bench that appears too small for his frame and wearing the same clothes day in and day out. Despite rarely asking for money or making eye contact, I find myself compelled to give to him daily. The language barrier between us is significant, as he speaks no English and mumbles, making it very difficult for me to understand him even if I were fluent in Spanish. I haven't even been able to learn his name. However, a few days ago, a local resident approached me. He had observed my regular interactions with the man and shared his poignant story with me. Tragically, about ten years ago, the man's beloved wife passed away unexpectedly, which left him devastated. His overwhelming grief caused him to spiral into a deep depression, ultimately leading to the loss of his job and a withdrawal from society, which eventually resulted in his current situation of living on the streets. Despite our inability to communicate effectively, he radiates an inherent goodness and an energy that seems inconsistent with someone living in such challenging circumstances. I wish we could communicate better, as I would love to get to know him and learn more about his life.



Each person experiencing homelessness has a unique story, just like my friend here in Puerto Vallarta. Behind every homeless individual lies a complex background and a life filled with challenges and obstacles that have led them to their current situation. Rather than looking the other way or shunning these individuals, we must try to learn their stories, listen to their experiences, and open our hearts to understanding the circumstances that have shaped their lives.

 

The story I just shared, along with similar experiences, has shaped how Carla and I perceive our travels as we explore the world. Our perspective on travel has evolved and matured over time. Now we approach the places we visit not just as stops on a map but as relationships that require fairness, balance, and compassion - much like any meaningful human interaction.



Traveling to foreign countries has broadened our horizons by exposing us to diverse cultures, languages, and perspectives. As we travel, we find ourselves in a state of heightened receptivity as we are constantly absorbing the newness and richness around us. In this state, we are like sponges - soaking in every detail and nuance of our new and unfamiliar environment. While this heightened receptivity is what makes travel for us so exciting, it can also lead us to focus too much on what we can gain from our travels. In our enthusiasm to make the most of our experiences, we can overlook the equally important aspect of considering what we can offer back to the communities we visit.

 

We’re learning that while it is important to be open and receptive while traveling, we need to strike a balance between receiving and giving back. Every place we visit offers us invaluable experiences, and in return, it’s fair for us to consider how we can positively contribute to these communities that so enrich our lives. In this way we feel more balanced and more present in the places we visit.



There are countless ways to give back to the communities we visit. However, today I’d like to focus on an approach that nearly every traveler can engage in - acts of kindness to those who are often overlooked: the homeless. In every city or town, there are always people struggling to satisfy basic needs like food and shelter. As travelers, we can give back by offering some measure of relief to these individuals and hopefully make a small difference in their lives while also creating a more compassionate and connected travel experience for ourselves.

 

As we travel, we are frequently confronted with the harsh reality of homelessness. It can be difficult and uncomfortable to be approached by people on the streets asking for money, yet we understand the importance of responding with empathy and understanding. Instead of looking away and dismissing these individuals as someone else's concern, we recognize that homelessness is a widespread issue that affects everyone.



The United States, often seen as one of the wealthiest countries in the world, is certainly not immune to the harsh realities of poverty and homelessness. It's important that we challenge the flawed notion that people willingly choose a life of poverty out of laziness or irresponsibility. While personal choices like substance abuse and other addictions may contribute to homelessness, that does not justify leaving anyone to endure the hardships of living on the streets.

 

In truth, much of the homelessness that we see is a byproduct of our form of capitalism, which inevitably creates disparities between the haves and have-nots. While some enjoy immense success and wealth, others find themselves trapped in a cycle of poverty with no support or safety net to help them break free. They are left to fend for themselves in the face of overwhelming adversity in a system that often fails the most vulnerable among us.



Ultimately, the way we treat and support the least among us in our communities is a powerful reflection of our collective values and our ability to honor and see the fundamental humanity inherent in everyone. It is through our actions and priorities that we demonstrate our true character as a society, and by striving to lift up those who have been left behind, we can work towards creating a nation that truly embodies the ideals of compassion, justice, and shared prosperity for all.

 

When faced with the daunting challenge of addressing homelessness, the scale of the issue can make small efforts seem insignificant. However, as travelers in unfamiliar places, we have the power to make a tangible impact by focusing on the practical steps we can take on a personal level. By shifting our perspective and asking ourselves, "What can I do to make a difference?" we can identify meaningful ways to contribute where even seemingly small actions can collectively create positive change.



Extending a helping hand through donations, whether in the form of money, food, or clothing, can have a profound effect on the lives of those in need. Because Carla and I travel for months at a time, we take along clothing for different types of weather and when we are moving on and no longer need some of the clothes we’ve brought, we often will give them to someone who we know would benefit from them. Small acts of kindness not only help to fulfill their immediate needs but also convey messages of compassion, empathy and human connection.

 

Another simple but meaningful thing I do when we travel is to always carry plenty of coins and small bills to give to those I encounter on my daily morning walks. By sharing what I have, I try to provide a small measure of support and, just as importantly, acknowledge their struggle. I hope that even these small contributions can make a meaningful difference in their lives.



While I realize that giving money to a few people each day won’t solve homelessness, I still believe that I can make a meaningful difference by offering something equally as valuable - recognizing and affirming their inherent dignity as human beings. I cannot begin to understand the harsh reality faced by those who must ask strangers for help, and who so often in turn receive demeaning or dismissive responses. In addition to not having enough money to meet their basic needs, these individuals are repeatedly stripped of their sense of self-worth and dignity in their attempts to reach out for assistance. This heartbreaking reality highlights the urgent need for us to approach those experiencing homelessness with greater compassion, empathy, and respect.

 

How I wish we would change our approach to the issue of homelessness by honoring the humanity of those who are experiencing it and by listening to their stories, really working to understand the many challenges they face, and collaborating with them on solutions. With empathy, open and honest dialogue, and a commitment to equity, we could work to build communities where everyone has a safe place to call home.



So yes, please donate money or spare some clothing whenever possible, as these simple acts can provide immediate relief to those in need. Instead of averting your gaze or dismissing their presence as annoying, try to empathize with their situation. Imagine how difficult it must be to watch people with plenty of money pass you by without even a glance in your direction, while you struggle to meet your basic needs. By offering something, regardless of how small it may seem, you are having a positive impact in someone's life, even if only for a day or a morning. These acts of kindness and acknowledgment genuinely matter and can have a profound impact on those who are often overlooked by society. 



For those who are homeless, just acknowledging their humanity can have a profound impact. Instead of avoiding eye contact, make a conscious effort to look them in the eye, offer a warm smile, and place a hand over your heart as a gesture of love and respect. Individuals experiencing homelessness often feel invisible and disconnected from society. Our interactions, no matter how brief, can help them feel recognized and valued again, and remind them of their intrinsic worth as human beings.

 

At the heart of travel lies the opportunity to gain wisdom and understanding from the world around us. It also involves the responsibility to recognize and engage in the give-and-take dynamic of these interactions. By actively seeking ways to give back to the communities we visit, we can enrich our own experiences while hopefully creating a positive impact on the lives of others, especially those facing adversity. This conscious effort to contribute to the well-being of the people in the places we visit ensures that each journey is not only a quest for personal growth, but also a way to participate by making a meaningful difference in the world - no matter how small.



129 views6 comments

6 opmerkingen


Gast
25 mei

Beautifully written and visually compelling. Thank you. Bob Melville.

Like
Simcha
Simcha
25 mei
Reageren op

Thank you, Bob.

Like

In 2012 and 2013+ I was homeless for 2 1/2 years, something that someone like myself would never ever have expected to have happen.

Especially after growing up in a middle-class family with all my needs and as an adult owning three different homes.


But a certain set of unforeseen circumstances left me with no money, no work and eating from food stamps.


I was fortunate that I present as a educated, , professional person and was able to house and pet sit for that whole entire time.


But I never knew sometimes from one day to the next if I had a place to stay the next night. I never had to sleep on the street or go to…


Like
Simcha
Simcha
24 mei
Reageren op

Hi Valentina, thank you for sharing your story. I'm sorry to hear about the challenging two and a half years you experienced. It's a relief to hear that you weren't living on the streets, which is a different story and fortunately one that you do not have to tell. I appreciate your insights at the end and the lessons you've learned - homelessness can indeed happen to anyone.

Like

Gast
24 mei

I agree that homelessness is a horrendous product of emotional, financial and physical inequality. Drugs and mental illness play a huge part, IMO, and society must do more in the way of accessible and affordable mental and physical health care.

I do not agree with the notion that small tokens will make a difference. Large changes need to happen here in the states, and obviously in other areas. Homeless camps are notorious for leaving used syringes, beer and alcohol bottles in their path. I do not want to contribute to someone's drug use.

One of the things we learned in our recent travel is that almost no one is pleased with their politics but living as an Xpat enables us…

Like
Simcha
Simcha
24 mei
Reageren op

Thank you for sharing, and you're right, this is indeed a complex and horrendous issue. We both agree that significant changes are necessary, though unfortunately, I'm not optimistic about seeing changes anytime soon. As a nation, we appear to lack both the empathy and the will. In our travels, I am often met with outstretched hands, and it's impossible for me to know the full extent of each person's circumstances. While I may inadvertently give money to drug addicts, the broader issue isn't addressed at a systemic level, forcing us to make individual choices. I acknowledge that my help is imperfect. However, I hope that, like with the man from Puerto Vallarta in my story, my actions do help some…

Like
bottom of page