My foot catches on an uneven bit of sidewalk, and I fly head-first towards the pavement. I hang flailing in the air for what seems like an eternity – then land hard on my hands and elbows and knees. Before I can even brush myself off, strangers appear out of nowhere, sincerely concerned, asking if I am ok, offering help and advice.

 

Empathy and helping are part of being human

It seems that my fall triggers an empathy instinct, and a helping reflex. I am pretty clumsy, and once a year or so I unintentionally test the empathy and helping reflex of those around me with a spectacular public fall. Every time it’s the same: no sooner do I hit the ground than people appear, offering help and kind words.

I’ve felt this reflexive empathy, too – I think many of us do – it’s part of what makes us human. My stomach lurches when I see someone start to step out into traffic. I feel sad when I see people crying, even if I don’t know them. Strangers smiling and laughing often make me smile.

And seeing people living homeless, in tents lining the freeway, huddled under blankets in a doorway, or just out in the open – this brings up a whole host of feelings. I feel sadness for their suffering, shame and disbelief that we allow this to happen, and of course, a strong desire for change. Here in Seattle/King County, where more than 12,000 of my neighbors are experiencing homelessness, I see scores of people living in miserable conditions outdoors on a daily basis. For years I have struggled to find an appropriate response to deal both with the injustice and cruelty of a system that discards vulnerable people, and with my own feelings of sadness and helplessness to effect change. As one ordinary person, the size and depth of the crisis and the needs of my neighbors were overwhelming. What could I contribute?

And yet walking by and doing nothing was not a good option. I felt myself losing a part of my own humanity when I turned away from suffering, or began to accept homelessness as normal.

Enter The BLOCK Project

Against this backdrop of an exploding homelessness crisis and my daily questioning of how to maintain my sanity and humanity in our increasingly Dickensian city, my partner Dan and I learned about The BLOCK Project

Read more in ILFI’s Trim Tab

Originally published in the International Living Futures Institute’s Trim Tab, Issue 36, Community & Equity