For years, I have had a unique desire to know what it feels like to walk in the shoes of a person who has no place to rest his head at night.
I have a vivid memory from when I was 22 years old. I had just closed my first big sale as a retirement consultant; picture Jerry Maguire blasting music as he sped down the highway after landing his main client Kush. I pulled up to a stoplight and out of the corner of my eye, I saw a man sitting on the sidewalk. As I deliberately looked in the opposite direction, I noticed a bill sticking out of my wallet. For some reason, in that moment, I felt the seemingly strange urge to pass it on.
The elderly man nodded his head in gratitude. We didn’t exchange any words at first but as he sat back down I felt desperate for the light to turn green. We both sat in silence for what seemed like an eternity until his mouth opened.
“Can I ask you a favor?”
Hesitantly, I replied, “Sure.”
“Will you please put on your seatbelt.”
I clicked my belt on in compliance, nodded a thank you back in his direction, and then drove home.
Over these past 10 months our family has given out over 100 ‘goodie bags’ to people we’ve met on street corners, in city parks and seated outside of coffee shops. But how much insight have we really garnered into a single person’s life from brief momentary interactions?
Whatever preconceived notions I had about homelessness have been dramatically redefined while we were in Northern California earlier this month. On May 6th, I spent twelve hours alone on the streets of San Francisco. I had $4 in my pocket, a phone (only for emergencies), a granola bar, my diabetic pump and sugar tabs. In that short time, I felt curious, scared, confused, lonely, and exhausted. I am going to try to share with you the scope of my experience broken up over the next few blogs, so I don’t put anyone into a deep slumber all at once.
At 8:15am, I kissed Bex and the boys goodbye, as they dropped me off at the train station. I was dressed in my best ‘worst’ attire and while I found myself somewhat excited for the day that lie ahead, I was equally, if not more so, very nervous.
I arrived in downtown San Francisco about an hour later. While my mother will be horrified to read the remainder of this sentence, I deliberately hadn’t showered, put on any deodorant, eaten breakfast or brushed my teeth that morning.
I started walking towards the Giants baseball stadium, as I knew it was near the water and figured I could get my bearings down there. While I did have my cell phone on me, I had tucked it away deep inside my small backpack and decided that I wasn’t going to use it unless there was an actual emergency. That meant no GPS, no texting (except a quick SMS to Bex after lunch to let her know I was doing ok), no Google searches, and not even a check of the time.
The only pre-research I had done for the day was to figure out the cross streets of a soup kitchen which was near a “Homeless Church” that I had read about a while back. A pastor from LA had relocated to San Francisco a few years ago and felt called do life with those who were living on the streets.
So with that, I was off.
I found myself very quickly learning the “etiquette” of being homeless. Not a single person made eye contact with me over my morning walk through the financial district. Now that probably isn’t any different than what would occur in any major city, no matter what clothes I was wearing. But what I did find interesting was how people walking in my direction would very intently, and swiftly, move out of my path. In a black and white world, I found myself feeling very gray in the eyes of those around me.
For quite some time I stood in front of a glass covered subway map of the city. I searched for the cross streets where I hoped to receive my free lunch. While it only took me a few minutes to determine the best route to walk the 24 city blocks, I became fascinated watching the reactions on peoples’ faces to my presence in the glass reflection.
I walked by a place called Mercy House, which looked a little too nice to offer a night of shelter to a guy like me, but curiosity got the better of me. I caught the door before it closed from exiting patrons and made my way to an office with a title plate that read ‘Manager’. I tried my best not to startle the middle aged African American woman seated at her desk, as my words trickled out.
“Excuse me, Ma’am.”
She reluctantly glanced up from her computer.
“What do you all do here?” I asked.
Her stern response caught me a bit off guard, “The waiting list is very long, and full.”
“Is there a place around here that I could get some help?” I asked.
After a moment of thought, while staring at her screen, she replied “Housing Authority”.
I waited to see if she might elaborate any further but the sound of her fingers clicking on her keypad pushed me to ask another question.
“Could you point me in that general direction. I don’t really know my way around town.”
“You can just look it up on your phone.”
I paused now as the feeling of not belonging was starting to sink in. “And what if someone didn’t have a phone?”
“I’m sorry I can’t help you, the waiting list if very full.” she repeated.
As I continued on my 3+ mile walk in search of my lunch destination I found myself becoming increasingly more intimidated to even look up from the ground towards the eyes of other walker byers. I also felt a growing pain in my stomach as people cruised past me holding various delicious smelling sandwiches and other lunchtime treats. The idea of asking someone to tell me what time it was seemed like a mountain of a request but I was getting worried as the soup kitchen stopped serving at 2pm. I looked up and noticed a large stone clock on one of the enormous buildings in which both the little and big hands covered the Roman numeral 1. The realization set in that I needed to get moving.
I had more than a dozen city blocks to cover in less than an hour. As I trudged on, the streets became less filled with bustling business goers and increasing more populated with members who appeared to be outliers of the 96.1% national employment figure.
And then it happened as an Indian man limped towards me, staring directly into my eyes…to be continued.