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Commentary: A Need For Socks

Most of us put on a pair of socks every day and don't think much of it. That's changed for WFAE commentator Sally Phillips. About a year ago, my office moved from south Charlotte to South Park. The new location brings new rituals. There are new commutes to figure out and new baristas to train. It is pretty much the same routine. Except for one thing: Ben. Each morning, as I head into the coffee shop, I am greeted by Ben. Friendly and chipper, Ben sits on the bench outside and welcomes each coffee patron with a hearty, "Good morning! How are you today?" At first, I just smiled. But gradually, over the days, weeks and months that passed, I became accustomed to seeing him. Now I stop to chat with him, ask how he is feeling and if he has had anything to eat. You see, Ben is homeless. I don't know where he sleeps, but every morning he sits on the bench, our official greeter. I watch who talks to him and who ignores him; who gives him money and who buys him food. Ben always bubbles with gratitude. Despite the individual good deeds, the do gooders never talk to one another about Ben. On one hand it's clear that they want to help; I saw a guy slip Ben a $10 and then walk away embarrassed. On the other hand is the nagging question, "are we doing the right thing?" I once gave him a $5 only to see him smoking the next day. Is he using the money to support other bad habits? Over the last several months, I've learned little about Ben. He has dental problems and doesn't like sweets. He likes my pasta salad and prefers bagels over muffins. He has a doctor and a heavyweight sleeping bag that he carries with him. He never asks anyone for anything. Some mornings he looks well. At other times he looks tired and worn. But regardless of how he feels, he always greets everyone cheerfully. Now, I'm ready to ask him the really hard questions. I've actually been rehearsing them, trying to find that delicate balance between not prying too much while learning how he became homeless and better yet, how all of us could best help him. But lately, he is nowhere to be found. I've asked the baristas if they have seen Ben and they haven't. It's rumored that the property managers have asked him not to come back. Each day as I walk by the empty bench, I wonder: is he homeless by choice, as a few are, or does he just need someone to give him a chance? Are fear and stereotypes preventing me from really helping? I can't help but think that those small donations of food and cash are doing more for the donors than for Ben. For a moment, we get to feel good about ourselves. For me that feeling is short lived, as I doubt my true intentions. Perhaps I am simply motivated by guilt, unable to justify $3.50 for a cup of coffee when others have so little. I finally saw Ben last week. He was not at his usual bench, but at one a few feet down, in the shadows of the trees. He confirmed that the manager had banned him from the bench, citing complaints from female patrons who said that Ben frightens them. I finally got to ask him a few of those tough questions. He's been homeless for 7 years, resulting from a condemned apartment and relationship. I asked him what he really needed, he simply said, "Socks."