You Have the Power to Change a Life
The sun was out, a rare moment in San Francisco that time of year, and I pretended to run an errand just to get a brief walk in the warmth.
We had a small office on Fillmore in the Marina neighborhood. The walks were short in this part of town since everything we could possibly need, from food to bars, was within a block in any direction, and the sidewalks were seldom crowded, but today the sun had everyone out who could escape work to enjoy a much-needed burst of light in a run of dark late winter days.
Waiting for a light, I noticed the endless hustle of people on the sidewalk all talking with friends, or face down staring at a small screen bumping their way down the street.
There were hundreds on the street this time of day, all passing one homeless guy sitting on the street, his back against a wall in the middle of the block. He must have been at least 50, scrawny thin, and the dirty that only happens after years of living without much hope.
There are so many homeless on the streets of San Francisco it is easy to let yourself become oblivious. You walk, face down on your phone, or chattering away with friends, and you pass a dozen of them leaning against a wall, asking for money; or just there, sitting on the street without hope, or even an effort to try and beg anymore.
There are the homeless who make you wonder if panhandling is easier than work. They are a little too clean, maybe too fat considering they are living hand to mouth, and just have the look of someone who has this routine of begging mastered.
Then there are the ones like this man, not old, but old before his time.
These are the older spirits, the ones who have not spent months, but years, struggling between a few days now and then in a shelter, to weeks living cold and hungry hoping to see the sun rise one more day.
This guy had the hard mileage defining him as one of those who had been there so long there wasn’t any hope left.
He sat, he stared, and he said nothing. He was just there, and he was invisible to the hundreds passing him a few feet away
Not a single person looked at him.
Not one stopped.
Even those who had to step over his legs ignored him.
He had been out there so long he seemed to beyond caring caring if he lived, or died, sitting on that sidewalk. He was a creature of the streets and had the years in his face to prove it.
I couldn’t turn away. Not a look, not an acknowledgment, not a dollar nor even a nod and smile. He was lost in the middle of a thousand people who could have made his day better with the simplest of the gestures of humanity, but he was as invisible as the morning breeze off the bay.
I went into the little corner shop, bought a couple of sandwiches, some drinks, chocolate bars, smokes and everything else I could cram into a bag.
I stood next to him on the street, but he just stared ahead. I slid down the wall and sat next to him, took my sandwich, and handed him the rest of the bag. He took it without looking at me, unwrapped his sandwich, and carefully, but so slowly, began to eat.
Once I sat on the street, I became him. I became invisible, and as obscure as he was, though I was dressed in decent business clothes
Few made eye contact, and if they did, they immediately turned away.
Several muttered under their breath someone really needs to do something about the street people problem.
There were even a few who swore at us as they had to step over our legs.
San Francisco has become a younger city. The people avoiding us were the ones who should have cared the most.
Techies, marketing specialists, office minions and thousands of others in the city there now to be part of the tech takeover of the world.
Not old, not jaded, and too young to be so insensitive…and with a few lose dollars in their pocket that could help a guy like this. The cost of one craft beer would have fed this guy for a day.
We sat for about a half an hour and he never said a word, but he was hungry and did the bag of food justice. I slipped all the money I had into his shirt pocket. The little store was a tourist heaven and even had a weird little travel blanket. I put it across his legs, tucked in the sides and left.
I asked his name as I got up to leave. It was the only time he looked at me.
He said nothing, but he smiled, and he was crying.
So was I.
Easy to live somewhere so long you forget your way.
In a city of thousands of people who need help, you can walk the streets and train ourselves to never see a single one of them.
I don’t know what the answer is to the problem of homelessness in a big city, but I do know I have the power to at least do something, even for just an hour, and just for one person…and so do you.