Neighbors in need

Priya Gupta
Dec 7, 2016 · 4 min read

In recent weeks, I have been pre-occupied by an image in my head that, for me, perfectly encapsulates the empathy gap that has opened up in our society. So much so, that I got out a pair of scissors and a piece of paper, and brought the image to life, in accordion form:

The empathy gap (in accordion form)

That’s me on the far left. All the way at the other end is someone who thinks, feels and lives completely differently to me. They seem so far away. And no matter what I do, I just can’t seem to understand the other point of view. I lose their sense of individuality and instead get stuck in the stereotypes. That I have to use the word ‘they’ only reinforces these generalizations. I don’t even know their names.

I don’t think I’m alone in facing this challenge. Many of us have been suffering with the hangover associated with living in our own echo chambers, seeing our view of the world reinforced on social media and in conversation. Even for those of us who have written extensively about growing gaps, like in income, we have failed to connect our understanding of the numbers with an appreciation of what this means for the day to day lives of real people.

Some of us have tried to reach out, but what does that really mean if our circumstances don’t even begin to allow us to engage with folks who live completely different lives to us?

Or do they?

Take San Francisco, which has one of the highest rates of income inequality in the country. We don’t need to think about comparing faraway states. We can simply think about the reality of nearby neighborhoods. The gaps that are playing out across the country are equally visible on our doorsteps.

I recently partnered with the St Anthony Foundation, one of San Francisco’s oldest and largest non-profits, to use the Airbnb platform to encourage people to understand life in the Tenderloin for our poorest neighbors. Guests don’t have to be from out of town. They might just not have had the courage or opportunity to learn about this part of town.

Out in the Tenderloin with an Airbnb guest

I show them the little things that organizations are doing to dignify the experience of homelessness. A shower at Lava Mae, a warm place to sleep at the Gubbio Project, free Wifi to check email at St Anthony’s, even a place to collect mail if you are without a permanent address. I tell them about “Stories Behind the Fog”, a project and movement that is humanizing homelessness, one story at a time.

Walking through the neighborhood is always an eye-opener for me, but never more so than seeing it through the eyes of people who may have never been this close to poverty before.

When my guests come in to serve in the St Anthony’s Dining Room as part of their morning with me, they are ready to have conversations with people who may have felt all the way at the other end of their accordion.

Carl, whose story has been featured in “Stories Behind the Fog”. Shared weekly on Medium, and soon to be published in a book, “Stories Behind The Fog” is a compendium of 100 stories of people affected by homelessness in San Francisco. The project was triggered by one man’s story that will be released next year in the form of a feature-length documentary:

Opportunities like this will enable us to engage on a human level and reinforce how alike we all are. We all want a hot meal, a warm shower and to be surrounded by a community that makes us feel safe. As one of the subjects of “Stories Behind the Fog” — Carl — says, we all want to be seen and to feel like we’re a valuable member of society. We are all cut from the same cloth. Or, the same paper, if you will.

By closing the empathy gap, we will be better equipped to advocate loudly and consistently for our neighbors. In a recent San Francisco ballot, voters supported a proposition to provide services to the homeless but didn’t support the proposition that would pay for it. This confusing signal shows how much work there is still to be done in our own city, in truly understanding the challenges our neighbors face and the solutions.

Moreover, the reciprocity of the human condition reminds us that homelessness or hunger or joblessness or illness could happen to any of us. None of us is exempt from falling through the cracks of life. One of my Airbnb guests told me how she was shocked to see a medical professional having lunch in the Dining Room. With high housing costs, many of those served by St Anthony’s are ‘housed but hungry’, perhaps one paycheck away from being homeless. The person she was giving a tray to wasn’t all the way at the other end of the accordion. She was standing right next to her.

Thanks to Bobbie @ Medium for comments.

A version of this blog first appeared on Telling Times under the title “Neighbors in Need”

Thanks to stories behind the fog and Bobbie Johnson

Priya Gupta

Written by

Economist, writer, podcaster, mother @priyaalokgupta. Formerly Bank of England and Save the Children. Brit living in San Francisco (nee Kothari)

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