Have you ever looked at yourself through the eyes of a homeless person?
On this dark grey morning at the bus stop, the typical southern Marin white-collar commuters sleepily waited for their bus to pick them up and deliver them safely and comfortably to the financial district of San Francisco.
While we were waiting, a homeless man shuffled up and quietly said “Excuse me may I sit down?” as he made his way through our small crowd to the covered bench.
He sat right next to where I was standing. He smelled like you might imagine a homeless man smells. He opened his can of iced tea and took a sip.
Nobody looked at him, nobody looked up from their phone. I looked at him. He didn’t look back, he just looked down and mumbled to himself. I wanted to say something to him but I didn’t. I wanted to treat him like a fellow human being and ask him if his tea tasted good, but I didn’t. I was scared. I wasn’t sure how he would react. I’ve had some very unpleasant experiences in the past when engaging in conversations with certain homeless people and this has left me with a wall around myself that I do not like but it is a wall of protection. I feel like a jerk but I don’t know how else to take care of myself.
I wonder why he decided to come sit there instead of other chairs nearby away from the crowd. Maybe he was lonely, maybe he wanted some human contact. We weren’t able to or we chose not to give it to him. We just looked down at our phones pretending not to notice him. For a moment I saw myself through his eyes, I put my phone in my pocket and just stood there next to him trying to be fully present and offer love instead of fear. I smiled at him as I walked passed him to get on the bus. He mumbled something.
I wonder where he is going to sleep during the storm tonight…
I am thankful my family of origin decided for Christmas instead of buying gifts for each other we will give the money we would have spent to charity.
Some resources in Marin for homeless people:
San Francisco and Marin Food Bank
- Taking Inventory of Our Stuff
- Everybody Loves Ricky
I often feel the same conflict and compassion. It’s hard to ignore the realities of the homeless like most everyone does when they’re right there, and it is so sad. The problem is bigger than any of us can solve alone and this makes me feel helpless and worthless. When I was unemployed and hungry and scared it was hard to ask for help and I can see how people who have no one can slip away into desperation. Funnily enough some of the homeless I saw on the streets they gave me encouragement and help. I think keeping compassion and real connection and offering respect is a good thing to do, even when it’s all you can offer.
I have a good friend – a man who would cut off his right hand before he would lie to you, one of the best organizers I know, who works tirelessly and whose “job” consists of repairing bikes at a community bike shop in West Oakland for $3/hour. He has slept on the streets from time to time. He is still homeless, but has enough willing friends with couches that he can stay off the pavement. He has told me that the absolute worst thing about being “out there” is being invisible.
You just never know who you are looking at. Thanks for looking Sally.
Sally, here’s an idea that I have decided to do as my personal way of helping the homeless in my town in a hands-on way – it would work for anywhere and anyone. Doing this sort of thing along with supporting local organizations that provided needed services.
Thank you for sharing. I wrote this comment on Facebook the day after I wrote this post and wanted to share here too what happened. I can’t stop thinking about the smile on Mary’s face.
It just stopped raining so I walked to a CVS drug store (in San Francisco)to pick something up for the office when a homeless woman approached me. I decided to stop and listen to her. She asked me if I would buy her a salad, she explained she wasn’t able to get to the soup kitchen today because she got stuck waiting for the storm to pass and this was the first time she came out today and she was very hungry. I told her I’d be happy to buy her a salad, we went and looked at all the choices together and I helped her pick the freshest one with the ingredients she liked. As I purchased the salad she quietly went and waited outside for me. I handed her the salad with a $20 bill, she tried to give me the money back but I told her it would really mean a lot to me if she kept it and I asked her what her name was. She said Mary and she started beaming, grabbed my hands and said Thank You and God Bless You. I told her Thank You.