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In a meeting at the office, standing in line at the grocery store or having a conversation with a friend, we connect with people through eye contact without thinking about it every day.  Making eye contact is one of the first social rules we learn as children, and begin using right away. You show people you care about that you value and respect them as you make eye contact and you show respect to strangers by making eye contact.  

When you live on the streets and experiencing homelessness connection and eye contact are a rarity.  Living on the fringes of society means that people walk by and hope you don’t notice them averting their eyes, crossing the street, or generally ignoring you.  

You can silently connect with someone experiencing homelessness by making eye contact with them.  It is safe, costs nothing, and simple.  Throwing in a smile or nod can add compassion to the interaction.

Immediately, your first question may be why this matters, and the second is what if they ask me for something.

We all pass people not experiencing homelessness and ignore them, so why does it matter? It matters because those experiencing homelessness in Philadelphia often have hundreds of people walk by them each day without any acknowledgment of their existence.  

Imagine that for one day your family never looked you in the eye, your co-works walked by your desk without acknowledging you, or a group of your friends saw you from afar walk down the street and they crossed to the other side. As your day continued the hurt you feel would build until you felt isolated and totally alone.  

You can provide dignity, respect, and compassion by simply making eye contact.

Questions that Cause You to Look Away

What if your eye contact invites someone experiencing homelessness to speak to you?  What do you say? Don’t let these questions allow you to dehumanize and ignore people because you fear the unknown.

If your eye contact invites conversation, take a moment to pause and hear what they are saying. Be prepared for a few questions or interactions.

  1. You may hear a “thank you,” “have a nice day,” or “bless you.”  A simple smile in return is all that is needed.
  2. You may be asked a question, “Do you have money for food?” You can offer to buy them something, share food you may have with you (crackers, granola bar, fruit, etc), or if you are in Center City let them know they can get three meals a day at Sunday Breakfast Rescue Mission. The Mission is located at 13th and Vine Street.

Do not let fear prevent you from sharing a brief moment of humanity with someone experiencing homelessness.

The Power of Seeing and Being Seen

Eye contact connects two people, even for a brief moment.  This connection makes both people vulnerable as the barriers we construct to add order and value to our lives melt away.  What’s left is the most basic thing we have in common, our humanity. The great Creator made each of us in His image, and when we make eye contact we are looking at that image.

For a brief moment, you are not looking at a breakdown in our society or a failure to meet people’s most basic needs.  Instead, you are looking into the eyes of a person whose story you do not know, but a person who matters because they are a person like you.

As you see someone experiencing homelessness as a person and not as an invisible societal problem your heart may break as you empathize with their circumstances. You may feel like rescuing them.

Helping the Hungry, Homeless, and Hurting

Sunday Breakfast Rescue Mission is a resource. As you see people, make eye contact with them, and acknowledge their humanity let them know that they are welcome at Sunday Breakfast Rescue Mission.  At 13th and Vine Streets, Sunday Breakfast Rescue Mission provide 3 meals a day, 365 days of the year to anyone.  As they dine with us we make a point of looking them in the eye and speaking with them as we serve each meal. Shelter, legal services, health services, and case management are all available for those in need.  

Sunday Breakfast Rescue Mission is a place where you can take action. It is a place where you can volunteer and help meet the needs of people. You can help grow food in our urban farm, serve meals to our guests, or provide dignity by helping maintain our facilities. Email us to learn more about how you can get involved volunteer@sundaybreakfast.org

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