I like to spend time with the homeless and struggling in my neighborhood. They are appreciative and interesting, and often teetering on the sharp edge of reality. I’ll make some peanut butter and banana sandwiches and go out to the park. I find out a bit more of what they need and try to round it up for the next time. It doesn’t do much, but for a minute it helps them stay aloft on the edge a bit better.
The more I get to know some of these folks, the more two things become unmistakable:
- They are fully human with deep feelings, conflicted thoughts and even some faint mixture of hope amid the sorrow and regret. In other words, just like us. The titles they wear–homeless, crazy, bums, nuisances, etc.–don’t help. They share the one that is important to all of us: Human.
- They are fully traumatized. They suffer a lack of nutrition, sleep, security, comfort and any measure of peace. They are on their last nerve, or more accurately, far beyond it. I heard a homeless advocate once asked why the homeless seem so, well, crazy. She responded that crazy is the most normal state in those conditions. If you were kicked awake any number of times a night, if you were frigid cold and hungry and scared without respite, how long would you hold onto your sanity? Ever snapped at someone because you didn’t sleep well the night before? Imagine that times 100. Those that aren’t crazy are the miracle. I’ve met these miracles. Happily so.
Disclaimer time: I have no interest in the political scrum. I’m not one any side. I’ve walked down Market Street and see the deterioration. I know the city suffers and residents have grown weary of trash, urine, panhandling and misery at their doorstep. I get it. I take no sides. I just want to know my neighbors.
One of my favorite folks to run into is named Papa Smurf. He’s sort of the leader of the band in our neighborhood. He says he has a spiritual intuition and could tell the moment I first walked up that we shared a spiritual bond. Over lunch in a park with about five others, I overheard him call me a guardian angel. I felt like I won an Oscar, well aware I couldn’t live up that in a million years or with a million peanut butter and banana sandwiches.
I’ve been asked a lot about “what can be done” about “the homeless.” I’ve never once ventured an answer. There is no membership club. “The homeless” is not a thing. It’s a condition with a wide revolving door, a complex group of people suffering from any number of causes: financial calamity, addiction, past mistakes, mental illness and trauma to name a few. I don’t spend lunch with my neighbors because I have any answers; I spend lunch with them because they are my neighbors. When my family walks through these places, I want the residents to know us and for us to know them. I want to feel safe, and I want to contribute to their feeling of safety in some small measure. If they know one neighbor, they are likely to feel a bit more like the belong.
The sad part is, they won’t belong for very long. San Francisco is the host for this year’s Super Bowl 50. Even though the game itself will be played in the 49ers billion-dollar albatross of a stadium far south of here, the village for the eight days preceding will be at Justin Herman Plaza and Market Street, which is where these people I share my lunch with now live.
Mayor Ed Lee has not been shy about displacing those who make their home in the plaza or along one of the city’s signature streets.
“We are always going to be supportive,” Lee told the San Francisco Chronicle. “But you are going to have to leave the street. Not just because it’s illegal, but because it is dangerous.”
Well, the reason my neighbors live here is because it’s less dangerous. I’ve gone out at night in the city’s notorious Tenderloin district, home to all the vices in the world and a vast number of the city’s more than 6,000 homeless residents. For homeless folks trying to sleep there, well that’s dangerous. As Papa Smurf explained, the folks who come down to Justin Herman Plaza are seeking the outskirts. They want away from homeless politics and fear. They want to rest. On Sunday afternoons, there is even a church service, for the homeless, by the homeless. It’s their community church. It’s part of the neighborhood.
But the mayor is clear. The Super Bowl is coming. They got to go. Lee made that clear: “They are going to have to leave,” he said after the city announced its Super Bowl Village plans.
There goes the neighborhood.