I had an experience today that reminds me of why I support the social safety net and why I wish we were doing better at creating and maintaining those systems.
I biked to a doctor’s appointment this morning. When I pulled my bike in under the shade of a tree to lock it up, I noticed a young woman sitting there, somewhere in the 19-25 year old range. She was looking more than a little ragged around the edges, and tired, and she was on her phone.
I nodded at her, but I was very careful not to pay too much attention to her. As a burly white guy I know that it is incredibly easy and not unreasonable for women to see me as a potentially serious danger. I figure I pretty much register as the threat equivalent of a puma entering your space. As I was locking my bike up I couldn’t help overhearing her making an effort to access local social services in hopes of finding a safe place to sleep.
Once I was completely locked up and ready to go in, I pulled out a $20 and offered it to her, saying I’d been in rough places too, and I hoped she found what she needed. Then, as soon as she took it, I immediately went in to my appointment. Again, I wanted to be as minimally threatening as possible.
When I got done with my appointment I came back out to my bike. The woman was still there, but no longer on her phone. She didn’t make eye contact, and I made sure to do no more than nod in her direction and then ignore her as I got my bike loose and put my gear back on. Just as I was about to start pedaling and after it was obvious I wasn’t going to bother her more she called out, “I wish you safe travels.” So I wished her luck and went on my way. I don’t know if she found what she needed, but I hope she did.
I would have liked to have done more for her, but it was clear from her body language that she was very wary of me, and I feel it’s important to respect that because I’m quite aware that while personally I am not a threat to her, for her demographic she has every reason to be super cautious around folks like me. So, all that I can hope is that through my taxes and my efforts at supporting good social services as a local elected official that the resources are there for her to access.
As far as I’m concerned, being there for people like her who are in obvious need is one of the important reasons for government to exist, and it’s why I would cheerfully pay more in taxes to make those resources available. I’m glad I was able to help a little, and I would happily have helped more, but I think that it would be better for community and general well being if there were stronger systems in place to make sure that help is available on an institutional rather than a personal level. It’s a hugely important investment in people and the community we are all collectively a part of. I don’t want people like that young woman to have to be afraid of those who are offering help.