While eating breakfast in a quaint French café in San Francisco with all the clichés of lace curtains, marble top tables, and chocolate croissants, I watched a homeless woman rummage through the trash outside. She had plastic bags stuffed in the holes in her shoes, and she didn’t appear much older than me.
I grabbed my son’s half-eaten breakfast sandwich off his plate wrapped it in a napkin and ran outside. The homeless woman was walking briskly down the sidewalk, and I had to run to catch up. The travel books never mention what to do when you encounter homeless people in other cities, but it’s probably poor manners to chase them.
When I caught up with her, I offered her my son’s breakfast. Tersely she said, “Actually, get away from me, or I will call the American police on you.” For a half-second, I wondered if I was in France. Her words stung me. There was no joie de vivre, just dejection.
I walked uphill to the restaurant with the warmth of the sandwich in my hand feeling sad and recalling bitterly the popular song, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.” I thought defensively that woman left her heart somewhere else.
Being homeless seems like such an urgent, desperate situation that ignoring them feels counterintuitive. Yet I know that the complexity of the situation is as hazy as the foggy veil of mist that blurs the sky and earth in this city. The problem of homelessness is obscured by a convoluted mixture of mental illness, drug addiction, affordable housing, choice, poverty, and unemployment.
The issue is murky and desperate for mercy.
After we left the restaurant, we tried to find our tour bus stop. While my husband and friends were studying the map, I was looking in another direction toward the homeless person nearby. I wasn’t sure I wanted to navigate the situation again. The humiliation of getting yelled at by a stranger I was trying to help reminded me that solutions are never as clear as lines on a map.
I walked up to the man laying at the edge of a park and offered him my coffee. He was surrounded by a few half-eaten food items, a blanket, a bag full of aluminum cans, and some half-empty bottles of alcohol. He asked me if the coffee had sugar in it, and I apologized that it did not. He took it anyway, and I watched his gnarled hands wrap around the cup.
We had a few things in common. We both grew up in Florida and both spent time in Florida State Prison. He seemed surprised, so I admitted that I went for prison ministry, not as a guest. Stumbling with my explanation, I clarified that maybe I was a guest since I didn’t have to be there. I felt as smooth as I did running down the street with a half-eaten breakfast sandwich.
He told me with a hint of bravado that he had survived ten of the most dangerous prisons in Florida. He named them off like titles in a book series I would never get to read. Each one a story of a life that brought us to this moment, him slouched sideways on the ground propped on an elbow, coffee in hand, and belongings strewed beside him and me a tourist who momentarily separated from family and friends, because my compass pointed in another direction.
He said he “had followed the wrong people, got lied on by a woman, and eventually learned to keep his nose clean.” He had lived on the streets for 35 years. He talked about his estranged family with surprising warmth and detail. But when I mentioned getting in touch with them, he dismissed it with a sideways shake of the head. Another story left untold.
These were just two of the homeless people that settled like fog over the city. There appeared to be patches of them everywhere, the density so thick in places it obscured the cityscape. I didn’t do anything to alleviate the problem but reaching out to them made me feel better despite my hesitation, rejection, and awkwardness. I knew I couldn’t help, and that’s not what I had come to do. Perhaps my interactions were motivated by discomfort with a part of humanity that seems shrouded like the fog.
My people had settled on a direction, and I told the man I enjoyed speaking to him. “God bless you,” I said in farewell. “God bless you, too,” he responded.
Maybe it was just me, but for a moment the fog seemed to lift and the sun shone through.
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