By the Way

What happened after I dismissed a homeless man asking for help

John Doyle, 53, sitting at Edgewater Village in Biloxi on Friday, Feb. 24, 2017, said he has been homeless for the last 20 years.
John Doyle, 53, sitting at Edgewater Village in Biloxi on Friday, Feb. 24, 2017, said he has been homeless for the last 20 years. File

Catholic guilt is a strong thing.

So is fear.

So is prejudice.

It all came together for me last night, though not in that order.

My children and I had to make a late-night trip to Wal-Mart to pick up some photos for a school project.

As I backed out of my driveway, I saw the figure of someone standing in the street. That’s not an unusual sight in my neighborhood as many of my neighbors like to walk their dogs in the street, not on the sidewalk (but that’s another issue).

After waiting for the figure to walk by, I continued to back up, and as I did the figure approached the car.

I was quickly able to identify that it was a tall black man, in disheveled dress. It was not a reach to assume he was homeless.

He was trying to talk to me, but I had the window up. I waved him off with my hand, assuming he was asking for money or food.

It was late. I needed to run this errand and get the kids to bed.

As I pulled away, I worried that I had now left my home clearly unoccupied and vulnerable.

I drove around the block, hoping to see that the man had moved on, but he was nowhere to be found.

I pulled into my driveway and one of my children said “Dad, he’s behind us.”

Having seemingly come from the shadows, he again tried to get my attention. Again I dismissed him.

My children had become unnerved, and I wasn’t feeling very comfortable myself.

The man walked down the street and I pulled out again, not feeling any better about the situation, so I called the police to report the “suspicious person,” in their vernacular.

Again I drove around the block just wanting to know what this guy was up to.

The cop arrived and he did a walk around my house. I felt slightly more relieved, but not completely settled.

As I pulled away again, I noticed by neighbor looking out, so I stopped to talk.

He said the man had knocked on his door, asking for an ambulance. He told my neighbor he was having a reaction to some medication. My neighbor said he didn’t know what to do. He turned the man away.

That’s when the guilt kicked in.

Had I cracked my car window enough to hear what he had to say, I could have made that call.

As we drove to the store, one of the kids said they saw the man at the convenience store nearby. I had wondered why he hadn’t sought help there in the first place.

As we returned home, we saw an ambulance and first responders caring for the man.

More guilt.

There’s a fine line between helping your fellow man and taking an unnecessary risk. There is also a difference between not caring and simply not being able to help. We all find ourselves on one side or another at different times.

Ocean Springs is wrestling with homelessness in their downtown area. Biloxi says they want to start a new program to help the homeless.

There are several well established programs to help feed, and in some cases house the homeless, but it is a problem that will never go away.

Earlier yesterday, I met two Gulfport High School students who were part of a project to design a solar-powered vending machine to provide free hygiene products to the homeless.

With more innovative thinking like that, and with more of us just doing a little, perhaps we can all help our fellow man without fear.

John Fitzhugh: 228-896-2193, @JFitzhughPhoto