Sunday, August 16, 2020

Perceived As Homeless

I was walking down Broad St, going from work to yoga class, when a bicyclist rode up behind me and said "Excuse me. Are you okay?" I smiled and said, "Yes, I'm fine." We stopped and chatted a bit. He said he'd experienced challenges in the past, so wanted to see if there was any way he could help. It didn't take long for me to realize he thought I was homeless...and I knew why. 

I explained that I was barefoot by choice, and that my feet often caused people to conclude I'm homeless. He admitted that my bare feet were the exact reason he came to that conclusion. We chatted a little longer, I thanked him for his concern, and we both went on our way. When he left, he went back the way he had come. He had gone out of his way to come check on me.  

Now I have to admit a couple of things. I'm not the most fashionable dresser, sometimes referring to my style as upscale bag lady. My bags are knitted rather than plastic. And in this instance, I was talking to myself. I had recently listened to a podcast that recommended free form brainstorming and the advantages of doing it out loud. I'm not sure if the bicyclist saw me doing that, since he came up behind me, but it's a possibility. 

Even still, this is not the first time someone thought I was homeless because of my bare feet. It happens quite regularly...and began immediately after I kicked off my shoes eight years ago.

I've been regularly walking up, down, and across Broad St for decades. When I worked downtown, I walked the 1-1/2 mile commute once or twice a day. For a good number of my downtown working years, I was on a pretty regular walking schedule. To make my commute time more productive, I would often read, knit, or even spin while I walked. 

During my pre-barefoot years, it was not unusual for people I didn't know to stop and tell me how much my walking inspired them. These conversations happened in movie theaters, in line at various local businesses, and while I was walking...and they happened frequently. The conversation would typically start by them saying, "You don't know me, but I see you walking on Broad St every day." They would then share their desire to walk or bike, rather than drive. Some would follow that with the reason they can't, but others would say that I inspired them to pull out their bike or go for more regular walks. 

As soon as I took my shoes off and started walking barefoot, these conversations stopped. Now when people stop to talk to me, they want to make sure I know where the homeless shelter is. I've been told where I could get a meal. I've been asked if I had a place to sleep that night. And more than once, homeless people have offered me a pair of shoes. Nothing else about me had changed. I just took off my shoes. 

It baffles me that people associate bare feet with homelessness. I've encountered numerous homeless people over the past several decades, on my walks, working downtown, and on my current shorter walk to work, and they are all wearing shoes. I've been racking my brain to remember if I've ever seen a barefoot homeless person, and I may have seen one, once, from a distance, many years ago. That's it. 

I'm guessing this misguided perception comes from the phrase "they were so poor they couldn't afford shoes," because it seems pretty obvious to the majority of people that no one would be barefoot by choice. 

The other misconception people have about bare feet is that they're dirty and unsanitary. They believe that health and safety codes require customers to wear shoes when going into a business, especially a restaurant or grocery store. Actually, there are no health or safety codes requiring shoes in any business...for customers or their employees. The only time shoes are even referenced for employees are the requirement of steel-toed boots for construction and industrial workers. 

This perception that bare feet are a health or safety code violation is partly related to the "no shirt, no shoes, no service" era that started in the 1960s, when businesses wanted a way to refuse service to "long haired hippies." If people don't assume I'm homeless, they'll often conclude I'm a hippie. Sorry, I missed the hippie era by about 8 years. 

As far as bare feet being dirty goes, yes I do get dirt on my feet. It tends to be more noticeable against my skin color, than it was against the black soles of my shoes, but my feet are far cleaner than my shoes ever were. I wash my feet every night. I never washed the soles of my shoes.

The reactions I get from my bare feet continues to fascinate me. Many times when I've walked towards someone and smiled, they've smiled back. Then their gaze drops downward, they'll see my bare feet, and then they'll look at my face again. But this time their expression has completely changed to one of confusion and caution, while I'm still smiling just like I was before. 

I've learned to not assume a person's change of expression is a negative response to my bare feet. Many times people in that position have approached me after a few minutes and shared the joy that going barefoot brought them in years past. Rather than being confusion and caution, their expression change was actually reminiscence and longing. It's sometimes hard to tell the difference between the two until they start talking. 

People ask me if I'm bothered by glass and hot pavement. Glass is not a big problem and my tolerance for hot pavement has increased. I generally don't need footwear on concrete or asphalt unless the temperature is over 100° or under 35°, and even in those situations flip flops will suffice. As far as foot and ankle injuries go, I've had far fewer of them without shoes than I ever did with them.

Eight years in and living barefoot is totally working for me. My feet are happier and my spirit is lighter. My alignment and posture, the strength and flexibility of my feet, and my stability when walking have all improved tremendously. Back when I wore shoes, I was always afraid of falling when going up and down stairs, especially so after my back surgery. As soon as I took off my shoes, that fear went away, because I was now able to feel each step with my foot.

My bare feet have also helped me improve my overall health. In my early years of barefooting, I had regular problems with periodic foot sensitivity that would kick in a couple of hours after eating. With the diet changes I've made, that problem has now been resolved, along with several other symptoms. It was my bare feet that made me aware of the problem. If my feet had been in shoes, I doubt I would have noticed the sensitivity. 

People who know me are comfortable and accepting of my bare feet. In fact, many of them now expect it and will call me out if I happen to have flip flops on. On more than one occasion, I've had someone who knows me, or who knows of my barefooting, ask me why I'm wearing shoes. I'm okay with that. It's awesome to have people encouraging me to take off my shoes, even on those few occasions when I actually put some on. 

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