It was the photo that went viral within hours of being posted on Facebook March 8: former Vice President Joe Biden’s well-known face captured on a bystander’s cell phone camera as he shared an exchange with a man experiencing homelessness on the steps of the Georgetown AMC movie theater on K Street. Within days, the image was shared by media outlets across the globe and the social media sphere went into a frenzy as the picture racked up hundreds of thousands of reactions online.
The stark juxtaposition displayed in the photo — a man, who for eight years called Number One Observatory Circle home, showing compassion toward a man who has no home — tugged at the heartstrings of many. And while it is a powerful thing for Americans to see elected leaders exhibit traits like kindness, decency and compassion, there is another, perhaps even greater takeaway to the story, if we’ll pause long enough to receive it.
Who is the other man in the photo, the one sitting on the stone steps of the theater that chilly evening whose face is almost completely shielded by the hood pulled over his head?
His name is Rashid and he is sometimes a guest at Georgetown Ministry Center, frequenting GMC for services like showers and laundry. Like Biden, he has also served his country. Rashid, an Air Force veteran, traveled the globe during the Vietnam War, drawing maps and bomb plots to support U.S. troops in the heat of battle. “I was honored and proud to serve,” he says of his time in service.
Rashid has experienced homelessness for some time now and when he saw Biden exiting the movie theater last Thursday evening, he asked him for some money so he could buy a sandwich.
Biden obliged — and then he stayed to talk.
“He didn’t think I recognized him,” Rashid said of the former dignitary. As they spoke, Rashid shared of the struggles he has been experiencing in receiving assistance from the Department of Veterans Affairs, specifically with procuring a housing voucher that would enable him to receive decent, safe and sanitary housing — leaving behind a life on the streets.
It was then that Biden went back into the theater for a pen and paper and jotted down a phone number. It was a personal contact who could assist in helping Rashid. As Biden handed him the slip of paper, a bystander snapped a photo on his phone’s camera — and the rest, as they say in our digital age, is recent history.
It’s wonderful that a person — whether they be Joe Biden or Joe Schmoe — would take the time to help another in need; we all need to do more of that. And it’s inspiring to see a public figure displaying compassion and generosity; we also need to see more of that. But what if we forced ourselves to sit with this story a little longer? What if we looked past the famous face and the warm-and-fuzzy feeling we get from seeing the good deed captured on camera and asked ourselves: what happened after the marquee lights went out?
Chronic homelessness is a plague on our modern-day society. In the city of Washington, D.C., alone, there are more than 7,000 people experiencing homelessness on any given day. Every person has their own story and reason for experiencing homelessness, and no matter what the stories or reasons may be, every person deserves the dignity of a home — especially those, like Rashid, who have served valiantly to allow the rest of us to enjoy the safety and security of our own homes each day and night.
What will it take for our communities and our governments to stand up and fight valiantly for the most vulnerable among us? What will it take for the rest of us to serve those like Rashid?
If a picture is worth 1,000 words, then this viral photo is an opportunity for a 1,000-word conversation-starter. It’s now up to all of us to lean in and join the discussion.