On my way to and from my office in Seattle I pass a variety of homeless people and beggars. Some of them are regulars: I see them begging at the same spot nearly every day. But on Friday I saw a newcomer: a middle-aged black woman who was bent over a shopping cart that contained her belongings. While passing, I could hear that she was sobbing.

My conscience and curiosity tugged at me, so I stopped to ask her what was wrong. She seemed to be praying. She lifted her head and I could see tears streaming down her face. She said something about congestive heart problems, and she pointed to a scar on her chest. Then she mumbled something about a shelter. I distinctly heard her say that she was assaulted the previous night; she woke up to see a guy’s penis in her face and the guy was masturbating on her. The woman wailed and put her head down and prayed, “Oh, God….”

Not knowing what to do, I gave her some money. I noticed that she was clutching some bills in her hand.

Rather shaken, I went back to the office and told the story to the QA (Quality Assurance) people who work with my group of software developers. I knew that several of them were Mormons and other Christians and figured they’d be open to discussing the encounter. (I omitted the details about the sexual assault.)

One QA guy said that I probably was scammed. It was probably an act. I said, “Maybe so. But if so, she was a really good actress and deserves to be paid for her theatrical skills.” The guy said that being homeless is (generally) a choice. He said that for a college course he once played homeless for two weeks to see what it was like. He said that there was always food and shelter available. The problem, he said, is that a lot of homeless people don’t take advantage of services because they have to listen to preaching: many Christian missions and churches provide meals and other services, but to take advantage of them you have to be willing to listen to preaching.

Someone else disagreed with him and said that some of the homeless are not there by choice. Seems right. Some or most of them lost their jobs, got sick, and couldn’t afford rent. And yes, many have psychiatric and substance abuse issues.

When in downtown Seattle I also pass Real Change News vendors from whom I buy the newspaper once a week or so. The newspaper provides money and a sense of belonging to a large population of homeless people in Seattle. From what I hear, to become a Real Change News vendor you have to be a high-functioning homeless person. Some of the people I see on the streets are too down-and-out to qualify, I figure.

Why do the homeless tend to congregate in city centers? I would think that suburbs would be more pleasant. Perhaps they congregate in cities because the cities have more shelters, or because they feel more at home.