The Man in Chinatown: What You Can Do to Help

No. We’re not all social workers.

We’re not all extroverts, we don’t always feel safe, and we don’t always know what to do. However, I would wager that when most of us see someone in need, we want to help.

I work on homelessness issues, and the numbers I see in my research are disheartening. In Washington, D.C. alone, the Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness reported 6,865 people homeless this past January during its annual Point in Time (PIT) Homeless Census. Of those reported, 512 were unsheltered persons (i.e. “living on the street”). Although these numbers tell part of the story, it can be hard to understand them until you’re looking them in the face, until you see the human suffering they represent.

A couple Sundays back, it was a hot day in our nation’s capital. Unfortunately for D.C. residents in Chinatown, it was also the concert date of tween heartthrob-boy-band, One Direction. As my friend and I weaved through the hustle and bustle of eager concertgoers, we were sweaty and thirsty and desperate for air-conditioning. But as focused as we were on exiting the concert chaos and reaching our destination, we both experienced a moment of empathy, a uniquely human emotion.

homeless 3
Photo by: Kate Brown

Curled up in fetal position, shaking on a doorstep along H Street NW was a shirtless man underweight enough to display his ribcage to the world. He faced the wall, his skin weathered, his body overheated. An anxious lump formed in my throat. I looked back at my friend with worry in my eyes as we were swept up in the current of the crowd. Here was an individual who clearly needed urgent help. I felt sick and sad. Something had to be done; I couldn’t just walk away.

“That man needed help,” I said to my friend. There was no need to clarify to whom I was referring. We shared a moment of human compassion where we felt the aching desire, the restless need, to alleviate suffering.

Sometimes that desire makes us uncomfortable because empathy requires that we acknowledge deplorable realities we can’t immediately or single-handedly remedy. We’re not always sure how to respond, but often a simple gesture is sufficient. So, as D.C.’s summer heat waves approach, what can we do when we see someone on the streets who is homeless, dehydrated, exhausted, and needing care? We may not all be social workers, but there is always something we can do to help. It is in our nature. Don’t ignore that instinct.

If you feel safe and are moved to approach a person in need, do so. Bring them water, ask if they are OK. Human connection and contact are healing forces. However, if the circumstances don’t allow you to approach them, you can still make a note of the person and their location and call D.C.’s 24-hour, toll-free Emergency Shelter Hotline at 1-800-535-7252. We want to help, and there is always something we can do.

Click here to view more of Kate Brown’s photography and work.


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