Billy Ray Harris – Just Another Invisible Someone Until Now.
“Do not waste your time on Social Questions. What is the matter with the poor is Poverty; what is the matter with the rich is Uselessness.”
– George Bernard Shaw
His name is Billy Ray Harris and he lives under a bridge. He makes his living panhandling for the spare change most of us forget we have until we throw it in a jar at home. Nickels and dimes are wealth to him and he is all but invisible to most.
Not everyone passes by Billy Ray without notice.
Sarah Darling saw him sitting on the street begging for change and she went over and put her spare change into his cup. She gave Billy Ray far more than she originally intended.
Some might have hotfooted it down to the local pawn shop to cash the ring in but Billy Ray didn’t do that. He kept it and waited and sure enough, the next day Ms Darling returned and asked if she had dropped her ring into his cup by mistake. With a smile, Billy Ray reached into his pocket, pulled out the ring and gave it back to a frantic Ms Darling.
That story brought Billy Ray Harris to national attention in the United States and a reunion with a sister he hadn’t seen in two decades. Ms Darling started a campaign to raise donations for Billy Ray that has already raised more than $86,000 and all of this will change Billy Ray’s life. In fact, many lives have been changed.
When asked by a news reporter how he felt about it all, Billy Ray replied:
“What I actually feel like is – what has the world come to when a person who returns something that doesn’t belong to him and all this happens?”
Billy Ray is homeless but that doesn’t mean he’s stupid, shiftless or lazy. Nobody knows his circumstances or how he ended up living under a bridge but many who walked passed him every day assumed they did. He was just one more of the Army of the Road who should get a job and some self-respect.
Right? – Wrong!
He’s a human being that too many didn’t see as human until all of this attention. He’s a human being with values and significantly more integrity than many in our society with fancy cars, high paying jobs and positions of authority.
Poverty is not the measure of a person nor is it an indicator of their values. It is simply too easy for us to embrace that stereotype because it allows us the luxury of not having to actually confront the disgrace of poverty in a realistic way. Who wants to admit that poverty can strike decent people? If that were true – it could strike anyone of us and not too many of us are willing to consider that reality.
It’s easier to dismiss the poor, the homeless and those struggling to get by as simply being shiftless, do nothings who will rip you off at the drop of a hat and who do nothing but act as a drain on our society. A significant number of those living in poverty actually do hold jobs, sometimes more than one but that doesn’t change the stereotype.
Instead we voice reasons why raising the minimum wage is a bad idea for the economy. Who’s economy? Theirs or ours?
Many state emphatically that giving money to the poor solves nothing and they may well be right but what alternative do they offer? Typically they offer nothing because their opinion has less to do with eradicating poverty than it does with justifying doing nothing to combat it.
It’s simply easier to blame the poor for their circumstance and to pontificate as to why our tax dollars shouldn’t be wasted on those too lazy to provide for themselves. I often wonder how people rationalize that opinion with a child living in poverty going to bed hungry at night.
We live in countries of great wealth but increasingly we are societies that are becoming bankrupt in terms of our values. We would rather argue about gun control than work together to find solutions for child poverty and hunger – not just “over there” in some third world country but right here, down the street from where we’re sipping our double mocha chocolate lattes.
We demand free birth control, more money for education including free tuition by some. We demand our governments borrow money to feed our insatiable appetite for entitlements so that we can continue to fuel a lifestyle we can’t afford and all the while, there are people living under our bridges and sleeping over grates to find a little warmth.
We’re oh so clever we are. Just spend a few minutes on social media and watch the opinions on how to save the world flow by in endless tweets and posts like paper boats being chased by children down a stream. Almost none of those paper boats go beyond a particular political ideology or an opinion about whatever is currently trending.
But people like Billy Ray Harris don’t belong to a political ideology. They belong to us because they are part of us and to our shame; some of them are better people than we, despite our degrees and our smart phones, can ever hope to be.
Sure, there are many living below the poverty line who are less than honest, do illegal drugs, steal and who game the system. But you can take out the phrase “below the poverty line” and insert “wealthy”, “middle class”, “conservative”, “liberal” or any other descriptor you like because values are a human trait and the lack of them can and does apply to all of us.
In Canada, a church closed its food bank because it was drawing too many homeless people which made the congregation feel ‘uncomfortable’. I don’t know how a Christian church reconciles that attitude with what it professes to be its Christian faith.
Christ didn’t say, “Help the poor until you feel uncomfortable.” He said, “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”
We don’t think that anyone who lives beneath a bridge, wears dirty clothes and begs to survive has any value or values. But is there really any difference between Billy Ray’s begging and that of some politician in his or her fancy clothes begging for your financial support so they can get elected to a job?
The truth is that poverty isn’t a disease nor is it the measure of the value of a life. It is a circumstance that can be overcome but which is far down on our list of priorities. Gandhi called poverty, “the worst form of violence.” It is a constant struggle to survive filled with anxiety, fear and loneliness surrounded by a society of plenty.
There are more than a few good and talented people being lost to poverty and conversely more than a few who need a values check being propped up by our willingness to base our own values on stereotypical concepts about others.
Because he is homeless, Billy Ray’s life is dismissed by most to the point that it is all but invisible to many who walk by. Billy Ray thinks he is blessed because he still holds onto the self-respect and character taught him by his grandfather.
Billy Ray Harris isn’t a stereotype – he only looks like one. In a society with so few values that it considers a simple act of honesty to be extraordinary, it took his integrity to get us to see him as a human being.
The tragedy is we still don’t see the humanity in all the other Bill Ray Harris’.
© 2013 Maggie’s Bear
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