National Muffin Day is coming up on January 31st! For those of you who are not familiar, NMD is a day where everybody is encouraged to bake muffins and distribute them to homeless people (or food banks or organizations that serve the homeless) in their cities. For every person who takes a picture of the muffins and puts it on social media with the hashtag #givemuffins, I will donate $10 to Project Homeless Connect, a San Francisco-based organization that provides a plethora of services to the homeless community, and my law firm, Smithline PC, will match. Please feel free to visit https://nationalmuffinday.splashthat.com for more information.
People ask me, “why National Muffin Day?”
I should begin by saying that National Muffin Day is meant to be fun. This is the easy answer. Baking muffins is fun. Muffins in and of themselves are quite a bit of fun: you can use any zany ingredients you want and you’ll almost always come up with something delicious and genuinely interesting if you use your imagination. Even the word “muffin” is kind of fun to say. And giving out muffins to those in need is fun and rewarding.
I, for one, love fun and everything it stands for. I also love feeling accomplished and making other people smile. This does not make me special; this makes me human. The happiest people in life are those who are able to devote their lives to making others happy, while still affording to pay the rent or mortgage and cover their other expenses. I am extremely jealous of these people.
I’ve been told that well-off folks like me who perform charitable acts are “selfish” and “only giving [muffins, money, etc.] because it makes you feel good about yourself.” There is some merit to this argument; I (and I assume, most others like me) do give in part because it makes me feel good. Other than work, that’s the reason I do most things, right?
So yes, giving muffins is fun and can make us feel good about ourselves. But on National Muffin Day, we are doing ourselves a huge disservice if we forget for one second that homelessness, poverty, and hunger are not remotely fun. In fact, they are incredibly abhorrent conditions that bring about a level of suffering that is extremely difficult to comprehend, let along relate to, for the average city dweller. Homelessness is the cumulative manifestation of all of our society’s deepest insecurities, darkest secrets, and paralyzing fears: inequality, mental illness, depression, filth, hunger, and violence.
In a city like San Francisco, where those who are not homeless are, by and large, disproportionately affluent (compared to people in most other cities throughout the country and world at large), the negativity encapsulated in homelessness is difficult to take. Thus, most people develop a two-pronged defense system in order to avoid acknowledging that the most dreaded aspects of humanity are occurring en masse everyday just a few blocks (or steps) away.
The first defense mechanism is denial, or selective sensory intake: seeing and hearing only what we want to see and hear. This is a skill that we have all been honing since we were children. You’ve witnessed this before: kids run around completely carefree, totally oblivious to the fact that there’s a whole world around them, filled with people and other dangerous obstacles. Awareness only comes when a little runt accidentally runs head first into an adult’s leg.
Nonetheless, selective sensory intake is something so innate that most of the time we are unaware of its existence. I first became conscious of the concept in my high school drama club (yes, I was a “drama geek”), when our teacher presented us with an exercise on “everyday walls.” “When you walk through the halls of this school,” she explained, “you don’t realize it, but you’re putting up walls all around you. You see your destination and your friends if they are in the area, but you don’t notice everybody else around you — all of their conversations and troubles. You wouldn’t want to notice them — if you tried to take in everything that happens around you all the time, you’d go crazy. But tomorrow, at some point during the day, try to let down your walls — try to take it all in.”
And so I did, just for one morning, walk through the crowded corridors of Redwood High School without any walls, trying to hear every tidbit of the teenage angst-laced din. The goth kids making snarky comments, the pimply-faced nerdy kid letting out a loud guffaw at something he saw in a comic book, the cute “popular” girls giggling at a sexual joke, the freshman dropping his books at his locker and looking around, embarrassed, praying that nobody had seen him. I distinctly remember seeing a girl crying, too — a chubby-but-otherwise nondescript girl that I had never seen before. It was an extremely intense journey through the halls — halls that before had felt so familiar, but that at that moment were barely recognizable. I never tore down my school walls again — at least not consciously — but from that day on I was constantly aware of their existence.
The walls don’t go away when you become an adult. In fact, they become stronger and thicker as you develop responsibilities with real consequences. If you live in an urban environment, there is far too much stimulation on every block for you to possibly aborb it all. You have to filter out 90% of the people around you out — and the first ones to go are often the homeless. The homeless are easy to not see because most people do not want to see them. Eyes naturally seek out the beautiful; if there is nothing beautiful around, you focus on your destination…or on your iPhone.
I used to put up walls to avoid seeing the homeless in San Francisco. The first time I tried to give out muffins walking down Market Street from Page to Front, I could barely find a dozen hungry people. As I did subsequent muffin runs, I would find more and more hungry recipients. Now I usually see at least 50 on that route, because I’ve reprogrammed myself to perceive them. Every now and then I’ll do a muffin run with a friend, and I always have to point out hungry people to her, because her eyes aren’t trained to see them — she’s put up her walls.
Of course, when you have as large of a concentration of homeless people as we do in San Francisco, walls aren’t necessarily enough. Even if you don’t see 90% of the homeless people around you, you’ll still see the woman in the wheelchair crossing your path, or the man on drugs who jumps two feet in front of you, or the mother and child sitting in front of the trashcan directly in front of your office building every single day. That is where the second defense mechanism activates itself to protect you.
The second defense mechanism is judgment. Once a person’s walls are torn down and he is forced to confront the fact that thousands of people all around him are trapped in a living hell of cold, hunger, discomfort, boredom, and often literal madness, empathy may kick in and he may be tempted to empty his wallet on every walk home, passing out cash to the dozens of people on the street begging for money and the hundreds who are too ashamed, too angry, or not physically capable of asking for assistance. Such a task would be draining on one’s wallet, let alone one’s sanity.
You can’t donate to every single needy person you see, at least not in San Francisco. So when you see somebody sitting on the gritty sidewalk, cutting into you with painful eyes that convey the bleakest depths of despair, and you just can’t give him anything, you have two options: (1) get really bummed out, or (2) fabricate an internal justification for not giving. Some common justifications include:
a. He’s just gonna spend the money on drugs or booze.
b. He’s on drugs.
c. He’s dirty and he defecates in the street.
d. He should get a job.
e. He’s mentally ill — my money’s not going to help him.
f. The city already provides enough services for him.
g. He’s choosing to be homeless.
To address these arguments:
a. As if you’ve never spent money on drugs or booze. You can always give him food if this is a concern.
b. People on drugs need to eat too.
c. Sadly, showers and toilets are not readily available to those without a home.
d. I agree that he should get a job eventually, but it’s virtually impossible to apply for a job when you don’t have a food, clothing and shelter first.
e. Mentally ill people need to eat too, and if you hadn’t noticed, the mental health services he needs simply aren’t available.
f. In San Francisco, you can get one free meal every day. One meal is two meals fewer than most people eat in a twenty-four hour period.
g. No he’s not. Nobody “chooses” to be homeless. Being homeless totally sucks — talk to him and you’ll see. If he’s young, there’s a chance that he’s homeless because he ran away from home. Ask him about how his home life was, and you’ll see that the “choice” to be homeless was made for him. These are not “trust fund” homeless kids. Believe me — I went to high school with the trust fund kids. They are not living in tents in Golden Gate Park; they are living in the Marina and wearing a lot of J. Crew.
But truthfully, some of those rationalizations are not without merit. I’ve encountered plenty of homeless folks who are, frankly, repugnant. I’ve yelled at a dude taking a dump ten feet away from a children’s playground, been mocked by the homeless hippies in the Haight, had my arm grabbed by an angry short woman demanding I give her money in the TL, and been violently shoved off of MUNI by a guy most likely on crack. Everybody in San Francisco has, at one point, or more likely at many points, had an unpleasant experience with a homeless person. So why have any sympathy at all?
Because there before the grace of G-d go I. If you have any sort of support system in your life, it is very difficult to become homeless. Every person in this human’s life has turned on him, or more likely, hurt him. Every institution has failed him. Besides, I’ve also encountered many non-homeless people whom I find to be repugnant — I’m not going to write off the entire human race because of a few bad apples.
But if you don’t pass judgment (or try to limit the judgment passed), this will often force you to take the other option: getting really bummed out. And getting really bummed out sucks, and makes you wish there was a solution to the homeless problem.
What is the solution? After Salt Lake City came up with the simple-yet-brilliant idea of getting rid of homelessness by giving homeless people homes, a group of progressive-minded folks were inspired to hold a “Town Hall to End Homelessness” in San Francisco to discuss implementing a program similar to Salt Lake City’s in San Francisco. While the event was well-attended and some interesting ideas where exchanged, there was a collective reality check when everybody realized that (1) SF has far more homeless people than SLC and (2) housing in SF is exponentially more expensive than in SLC.
So there goes that idea.
Right now I’m less interested in coming up with a solution to the “homeless problem” and focusing on how I, or you, or all of us collectively can help just one person break the cycle of chronic homelessness. Here’s the challenge: this person has no material possessions, likely no education, is possibly mentally ill and/or addicted to drugs, doesn’t have a social security card or driver’s license or any of those other symbols required to navigate the American bureaucracy, doesn’t have any friends or family, and has already tried to take advantage of all of the available social safety nets (to no avail).
I recently tried to help somebody. And I failed. And it sucked. And it still sucks. I don’t like failing.
For now, I bake muffins and hand them out to hungry people on Market Street. It’s my way of letting them know that I see them, that I believe that they are human beings, no more or less flawed than I, and that I care about them. And, if I may say so, my muffins are damn tasty. I am well aware that it is not a “solution” to the homeless problem, but I can’t imagine establishing any system for helping homeless people until we can collectively treat them with dignity as human beings, and make them understand that we truly acknowledge their existences and troubles and want to help them. Home baked goods is a good first step for that.
I encourage you to join me for National Muffin Day, or for longer, in handing out muffins to those people whom have been dealt the crummiest hand life has to offer. And I encourage you to make your muffins good. If you’re not sure how to do the latter, that’s definitely something with which I can help. National Muffin Day may only come once a year, but if you’re open, it can have an impact on you that persists through the seasons.