Robbing the Nameless – A Story of Homelessness

September 9, 2009

I was sound asleep. By that point I had gotten used to the thin layer of cardboard serving as a mattress in between my sore body and the cold concrete. My closed sleeping eyes had grown accustomed to the street lights that never go out, illuminating us street dwellers as we slept. My response to the rats crawling all over me in my sleep, inspecting, sniffing, burrowing in my pants, had become more subconscious, as I had learned to kick them off without fully waking. The sounds of the city played as a lullaby, gently serenading me deeper into wonderful REM sleep, instead of keeping me awake. At that point, there was very little that could wake me.

I felt my back pack, doubling as my pillow, shift beneath my head. It moved out from under my head, simultaneously to the sound of the front zipper of the bag screaming a warning that the bag is being invaded. That was enough to drag me out of La La Land. I quickly popped my head out from under the blanket. A large, dark silhouette of a person stood over me, holding my bag. My eyes began to adjust to the bright street light.

“Wat maak jy?!” my raspy voice pierced the night air.

Pila stood over me in shock; embarrassed, confused, exposed, and remorseful. He quickly pushed the bag back beside my head. The tone of his voice showed bewilderment and repentance,

“Ryan?! I didn’t know it was you!”

You see, Pila had just gotten out of jail that afternoon. He was not aware that I was spending the 16 Days of Activism sleeping on the streets, and even less aware that I was spending it in the area where he sleeps, and apparently steals from other sleeping street people. As a matter of fact, I was probably the last person he expected to see under that blanket. But that brief, late night interaction with Pila taught me quite a number of lessons; and more deep and impacting lessons, than the obvious one that there is not this magical camaraderie which stops people living on the streets from stealing from each other, therefore forcing them to turn all their attention to the general public.

I learned a lesson about humanity. I realized the dark evil and injustice we allow ourselves to get up to when we see others as nameless, anonymous figures, rather than personal, individual people with names, characteristics, and qualities we grow to know and love. When Pila first approached me that night, he merely saw my blanket covered figure, namelessly lying on a bag, the bag being his next means to his next end. It was easy for him to violate and steal from the unidentified shape. But as soon as my face was exposed, and the anonymous form was given a name, it made the sinister act Pila was committing much more difficult for him.

I had known Pila for the past nine years. He had gotten to know me, appreciate me, respect me, and even a like me; a like possibly bordering a love that a brother would have for another brother. And I for him. Pila knew the dark, blanket covered figures were his friends, comrades, family, and brothers, but seeing them only as dark, blanket covered figures made it easier to take from them. Once the figure is given a name, the task becomes difficult, if not impossible.

Most crimes committed are those of the anonymous nature. And as I sit here at my computer and type, and you sit at yours and read, we may sit with a certain self righteousness, thinking we are somehow better than “those” that go out and steal from others, and even steal from us. Meanwhile, though we may have never robbed someone of their cell phone, gold chain, car or other belongings, we are also perpetrators of crimes against a nameless humanity.

Because, like Pila did with my blanket covered figure, we also allow others  to remain nameless shapes, so our shady acts towards them do not sting so much; sting, not to them, but to us. Keeping people in anonymity is self protection. We do it with whole groupings of people; people we feel are “beneath us” for whatever reason. We pass them up, glare at them, speak down at them, hold back our humanness, and don’t allow ourselves to see theirs. We keep them anonymous because it is easier to treat a nameless person that way.

We may not steal their stuff, but we rob them. We rob them of dignity, basic human interaction, kindness, love, respect, and contact. We treat them bad, and they may treat us bad in return, which we feel then further justifies our treatment of them. And we can continue on, robbing the nameless figures of our lives, like Pila did, or we can uncover their blanket covered heads, get to know them, and they us, leading to a better quality of interaction for both parties. I know how I want to live, and I am thankful to Pila for the lesson and reminder.

originally posted on Moral Fibre