You think you’d know the homeless when you see them, right? You think they look and act a certain way. You think they look dirty or desperate. Or dangerous. Wrong. It might be that nice looking man all clean shaven near you in the public library. It might be your waitress at the restaurant. Or maybe it is the filthy man lying under the picnic table at the park.

Maybe this homeless person fits every stereotype you’ve ever heard. Maybe not. Maybe they’re mentally ill, maybe not. Maybe they’re on drugs or addicted to alcohol. They are sometimes. So are the non homeless.

Let’s not judge them. Let’s not judge anyone. Instead of judgment, why don’t we give homeless people compassion? We don’t know their story. We don’t know what made them homeless.

I spend a lot of time in nature. I use it as a coping tool when my personal struggles get to be too much. Recently I was bawling at Riverwalk. I no longer even remember what I was so upset about, but I remember sitting on the sandy beach of the river angrily throwing rocks in the water. Angrily muttering to myself, just generally making a scene.

There were other people at Riverwalk. But no one seemed to notice. Or maybe they didn’t want to notice. Maybe I looked crazy. After all, I hadn’t dressed nicely that day. I had sand all over me from sitting on the river’s beach. I was making a big ol scene.

Well, suddenly my angry rock tossing session was interrupted. A voice behind me spoke. It was a kind and gentle voice. A handsome man in crisply pressed khakis and a nice collared shirt was sitting on a bench under a shade tree behind me. He was clean shaven. Appeared to be in a better state than I was.

He said he’d been watching me for close to an hour. He wanted to know what I was so angry about. Perhaps I should have been scared. I was a woman alone with a stranger, a man I didn’t know. But I wasn’t scared.

I remember thinking that if this man was going to hurt me in some way, he probably would have already done it. Or he wouldn’t have sounded so kind. So, I started talking to the man on the bench. My anger blew away quickly.

This man was funny in a huge way. I went from anger and tears to cracking up with laughter. I was having a therapy session in the most unexpected of places. I was feeling better, and I’m a curious person, so I asked my new friend a few questions.

His name is Greg. He’d collected coins dropped in parking lots. He’d sold plasma and gotten a few odd construction jobs, but he didn’t have a home. He had gotten the nice outfit he was wearing at Goodwill. He had an interview for a job at Walmart that afternoon. He said it would be the answer to so many prayers. He was at Riverwalk to calm his nerves. He often came there, he said, when he was upset. Like me.

He is homeless. But he goes to Riverwalk when he’s upset. Just like me. He was clean and well dressed, just like I usually am. I was floored. He wasn’t what I thought the homeless looked like. I looked more like what I thought the homeless looked like, the way I was dressed that day.

I had been so judgemental. I was so ashamed. Greg wasn’t judging me, but I judged him. I’ve been back to Riverwalk several times since, looking for Greg, but I haven’t seen him. I pray that he got the job and he’s no longer homeless. I want to thank him for helping me feel better that day.

So, the next time you see what you think is a homeless person, don’t be so quick to judge. Maybe it’s someone just having a bad day, like I was. Or maybe it’s someone homeless. Don’t ask yourself what they’ve done to put themselves in that situation. Instead, ask yourself what our society has failed to do. Think about what you could do to help and do it. We should all be like Greg.

Ellie Jean

Ellie is a 44-year-old woman living in South Carolina. She works as a cashier, but is always dreaming of more — she’s just not always sure of what “more” is. Her favorite hobbies are reading and reading book reviews. Within the first few minutes of meeting her, you’ll realize her nephews, niece, books and cats are her favorite things.