A Personal Story of 'Brotherly Love' : Tell Me More I felt both annoyed and frustrated that there were people lying on the street ...
NPR logo A Personal Story of 'Brotherly Love'

A Personal Story of 'Brotherly Love'

Hope you were able to draw meaning from today's program. There were only three segments, but for a show that's only an hour long, sometimes it helps to give conversations room to breathe. We don't always have that option, depending on the events of the day. Miraculously, we've been able to find a place for as many as seven conversations in an hour, and sometimes as few as two.

At any rate, the reflections of nine-time Olympic Gold medalist Carl Lewis were priceless, as was the roundtable of journalists discussing sometimes feeling conflicted when reporting on race and politics.

But there was also the story out of Philadelphia about tensions brewing between some of the more affluent residents and those with no place to call home in the City of Brotherly Love. TMM Director/Producer Rob Sachs is a Philly native, and pointed our team's attention to the situation in a morning meeting.

As it turns out, Rob has his own story to share ...

A group of men sit in the Philadelphia park known as Rittenhouse Square highstrungloner hide caption

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Thanks, Lee. Rob Sachs, here.

Today's topic struck home for me in more ways than one. I'm a Philly-area native and have lots of memories walking through Rittenhouse Square, which really is the main hub of the city. It's a beautiful place to hang out and people watch, read a book, or just relax with some friends. ... So I can definitely relate to our guest Christine's aggravation over seeing the place overrun by homeless people.

Growing up in the suburbs, I was somewhat isolated from homelessness. But when I switched to a high school in the Germantown section of the city, I began to see it all around me. I felt both annoyed and frustrated that there were people lying on the street and nothing was being done about it. I guess I could have just given them the spare change (and followed the credo of Arrested Development song), but handing out spare change just didn't seem right. They were all just going to use it to spend on alcohol or drugs, right?

I tried a different approach.

I talked to my school and administrators, and with their backing started a homeless committee. As a new school "club," I was asked to speak a few words about it during a school assembly which promoted all the student groups. It was my first time speaking in public. I remember looking out at my classmates, asking them if they too felt that mixture of shame and frustration when a homeless person asked for money. My pitch was simple: "here's an opportunity to do something, to make a real difference." The message got through pretty well and that first year we had about 15 dedicated members.

One of the first things we did with the help of the school was to help organize a "food run." One night, a bunch of students got together and made hundreds of tuna and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. We then drove down to Love Park, which at the time was as known homeless hangout, practically adjacent to City Hall. We had barely even opened the doors to the van and people started lining up. I remember there being literally hundreds of people waiting for a sandwich.

It was surreal, I had never done anything like that before and it felt so amazing to be helping out so many. The only hard part came when we ran out of food and had to send people away. It was strange and disturbing being a teenager and having to tell a grown man, "I'm sorry we're out."

We would do these runs a few times over the next couple of months, until at one point we were told to stop. Our school advisor who helped with the logistic of running the homeless committee was informed that our food runs were actually detrimental to the shelters who were trying to get people off the street. They said it created an incentive to stay outside.

We then changed our strategy and started working directly with food banks and shelters which took a bit more effort to coordinate but our help was always appreciated. I have a vivid memory of driving to the Kensington secion of the city to work as a "waiter" at a soup kitchen. In between serving the meals I would take time to listen to people's stories and try to connect with them as best I could. I knew that my presence there was only having a minimal impact on the homeless problem in Philadelphia, but I felt like for me at least I could say to myself, "look, this is what I'm doing instead of handing out spare change."

Since high school, I haven't worked directly with the homeless, though I have helped prepare foods that were later donated. But even now, I still grapple with the idea of what I should do when I see a homeless person in need, and I force myself to answer that same question: am I really doing enough to help?

Sometimes, I feel like the answer is no.

This year I became a father, and as my wife and I raise our daughter, I hope that I can teach her some of those lessons that I learned back in high school — that sometimes the easiest solution isn't always the right one, and that problems don't go away just because you look the other way.

Rob Sachs