If you missed Part 1 of the Homeless Dignity Project, please click here.
A man from India hobbled towards me and was staring directly into my eyes. It had been almost 4 hours since a person had proactively acknowledged my existence.
His words were fast and all seemed to blend together at first.
“So here’s what happened, I got this problem with my leg, I gotta use this cane but they let me out” he pulled at the white hospital bracelet, which dangled from his wrist.
“So how can you help me man?” he asked.
While I felt somewhat overwhelmed, it was actually quite refreshing to finally have a human being address me as fellow human being. I wryly responded “I’m sorry man, but I was gonna ask you for some help.”
“Whatchugot?” he shot back.
“I’m looking for a place called Martin’s. They give out lunch there. You know it?” I said.
“Ah man, that’s right around the corner.” He pointed just up ahead and to the left.
I thanked him and continued on. I turned down the final block and could see the colorful letters, which spelled out M-A-R-T-I-N ‘ S. As I arrived at the soup kitchen door I noticed a few younger guys standing there speaking Spanish, but strangely were not moving towards the entrance.
As I got close enough to push open the large wooden entry, the words on this piece of paper, stapled to the door, came into focus.
How could this be?
Is this for real?
Who can I talk to about this?
I tried to conjure up my best Spanglish to ask the guys if there was another place nearby that had food. They pointed me to a different piece of paper tapped on the wall about 20 feet away. This 11” x 8” detailed all the shelters and soup kitchens in the city of San Francisco, along with their address, phone number and the days/times they provided a free meal. In that moment, I realized that all the info in the world doesn’t help very much if you don’t have the luxury of a cell phone to get to your destination.
I started to panic. “Cerca de aqui? Sabes, comida gratis cerca de aqui?”
Unable to understand their response I raced back up the street to the closest bus stop. I had learned from my morning walk that most bus stops had a full map of the city. I started scouring for the street name of the only place listed on the paper that was open until 2pm. Without the use of a phone, I couldn’t simply take a picture of the paper, or even easier just ask Siri to look the place up for me. Without a pen, I wasn’t able to write down the street name, and in my state of dismay I found myself now second-guessing if the street name I saw was McKinnon (which was 15 blocks south) or McKinley (which was 20 blocks west).
I sat on a bench and noticed on the wristwatch of an elderly woman next to me, which read 2:06. It didn’t matter what the street name was – lunch was over.
I took out my granola bar and 2 sugar tabs as I sat there. I felt irritated, helpless, but most of all exhausted.
I decided to go back to my original plan and walk the additional 6 blocks to try to find the “Homeless Church”. Well, if you weren’t aware, there just so happen to be a few hills in San Francisco, and of course, these next 6 blocks were all straight up.
As I arrived at the cross streets of Rhode Island and 21st, which I had committed to memory the night before, I found myself in a wealthier neighborhood than near Martin’s. Unfortunately, there was clearly no church of any kind in that neck of the woods. Hesitantly, I stepped into a small store and asked the man behind the counter if he knew of any churches nearby that might be offering food. He said that there was nothing on the two cross streets I had mentioned, but there was a brown building 2 blocks away that might be able to help.
Physically and emotionally drained, I inched forward and knocked on the large door of what looked like some kind of community center. A petite Asian woman opened the door about 6 inches wide and asked who I was looking for. After a brief back and forth I discovered that they did offer a weekly food pantry at 3pm on Wednesdays. She kindly invited me to come in and take a number.
As I held my small slip of paper with the number 5 written on it, a stalky man wearing a Golden State Warriors hat walked over to me. He introduced himself as Carlos and said that this place had the best food he had tasted since he was a kid growing up in Mexico. He held up his paper slip with a #2 on it, and smiled broadly. While the community members continued to arrive and the paper numerals climbed towards 100, Carlos and I helped the staff unload the truck and get the various food donations organized in the main room.
As we stood together next to the empty truck, I noticed the same white bracelet on Carlos’s wrist that the Indian man who I had encountered earlier wearing.
“Everything ok Carlos?”, I gestured to the band.
Hesitantly he responded, “Yeah I’m fine. Got out yesterday.”
“It was nothing. They got me pretty good this time. But I’m fine.” He stated.
“Who got you?” I pondered.
“You aren’t allowed to report it to the police or nothing. That’s just the rules.” He explained.
After a few seconds of silence he continued, “I just don’t know why they keep doing this to me. I’ve been in this thing for a lot longer than some of these guys have been alive.”
He described how his gang would sometimes do internal “training” on certain members. It turns out that this was the 3rd time that Carlos had been dropped off at the hospital, unconscious.
“It’s just the rules you know,” he said as he looked up at me.
And then he said something that will stick with me for a long time.
With water filling his eyes, he stated “I just don’t know what to do man.”
Now, I wish I could tell you that my response brought Carlos some deep insight or inner peace – that I could do or say something that would really help him…
But I couldn’t find a single word.
How do you help someone who has been in a gang for more than half their life, and doesn’t know how to get out?
As Carlos and I moved towards the front of the line I whispered, “I’m sorry man.” Focused on the food in front of us he shook his head, “I don’t know why I told you that stuff man. I shouldn’t have said nothing.”
I skipped on most of the pantry items and ended up with 2 small apples, a large orange, and a jar of peanut butter. As I walked toward the door, Carlos approached me.
“Thank you, amigo,” came from his mouth as he wrapped his good arm around me.
As we walked out of the community center, in our separate directions, I found myself praying in a way that I never have before. I begged God to help Carlos – help him to know what to do and who to trust. Help him to have the courage that he needs.
I also found myself feeling more grateful to the Father for the amazing support system He has put around me in my life.
As I walked back down the hill, I noticed how slowly I was chewing my apple. What a gift a simple piece of fruit can be. From the top of the hill I could see the entire city below, filled with millions of people engaged in their own daily struggles. At 3:25pm, my fear of not eating lunch that day had come to an end. While my stress from the previous 480 minutes felt enormous, the reality was that I would, in a few short hours, be back with my family, have a roof over my head, and a seemingly unending cabinet of food before me. I tasted each portion of my apple in a new way that afternoon.
I descended into the city and retraced my steps through the same dirty, trash covered sidewalks where I had walked just hours before. For some reason, the bodies that were strewn out over the pavement next to steaming bongs, broken needles and grocery carts filled to the brim with packed trash bags of belongings, seemed to have taken on a different appearance. I felt like I was starting to see each human, not for what they lacked, but for who they may be, in the past, present and future.
My hope is that I’ll never have to fully experience the true emotional duress of a person who doesn’t know when their next meal may come, or where they will sleep tonight. Moving forward, I am going to try to do a better job to express my respect to each and every person I meet in this life. I am convinced that dignity is the single greatest item that people on the street are lacking.
While we all may have felt the need to ‘give’ to someone at some point in our lives, let’s remember that sometimes giving the thing that doesn’t cost us a dime may be the most valuable gift of all.