09/09/2014 03:37 pm ET Updated Nov 09, 2014

Can I Put My Nose in Your Cup?

At Bethesda Cares' Drop-In center the other day, it was a warm, late afternoon and I was silently musing about the wisdom of an evening cocktail. Apparently the folks in our center were thinking about the same subject, but with a very different twist:

"Yeah, it's fine for all those folks to sit at those outdoor cafes, drinking beer and whatnot. Outside. But me? I sit on a bench right next to that restaurant with a container in my hand, doesn't matter what it is, I get a cop in my face asking, 'Can I put my nose in your cup?'" One man snorted in derision.

"I know! I know! I walk across a parking lot, maybe stop for a minute, and someone comes to tell me I'm trespassing. That didn't happen to me before I lost my home. It's like I got a sign over my head now, asking people to treat me like dirt," another man said.

Heads nodded in agreement.

"Happens all the time," the first man said. "People walk by me like I'm nothing. Like, I'm invisible. Well, I'm invisible unless I'm trying to sleep and someone pokes me in the ribs to tell me to 'move along.' 'Move along!' Like, where exactly am I supposed to go?"

"I know!" one woman said. "I get so tired. I am so tired. It's impossible to sleep. I am too hot, too cold or too scared." Everyone nodded again and the room was quiet for a moment.

"I know one guy," the first man said, "He's homeless but he gotta job, he's a janitor. Don't make enough for an apartment but he's working. He says he comes in to pick up the garbage, no one sees him, black or white. It's like he's nothing."

The conversation went on, but you get the gist. Each of them so often felt judged and dismissed at a glance.

Men and women who end up living on the streets, even temporarily, lose a lot. They lose the physical safety of shelter, the emotional stability of a place to which they can always return, connections with friends and family and space in which to store their belongings when not in use.

They also seem to lose the right to be treated with dignity and respect by many of their fellow men. It got me wondering why some of them feel that people often turn away from their suffering. Here's what I think:

I think that many of us get uncomfortable when we cross paths with people who appear in desperate need of help. Witnessing raw need can make us feel a range of conflicting emotions: anxious, uncertain, compassion and maybe even slightly guilty. We want to help but may not know whether or how to do so. Those are difficult feelings.

And so we turn our heads away and walk past.

But that man on that park bench? He sees us doing just that. I bet that is a much more difficult thing to feel.

I desperately hope that each of our clients will get into housing; our team is working feverishly toward that end. And the fact is that homelessness is a miserable time in their lives that can end. But in the meantime?

"I am an invisible man. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids, and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me." --Ralph Ellison