I recently read a Medium post about gentrification in downtown San Francisco, which really touched me. It made me reconsider my own feelings about the homeless. It is a gamut of emotions. Incongruence is one of them. Since, in my own city, I have a piece of that urban renewal.
It was not until I started to work in our downtown core that I realized how many people live on our streets. I remember jumping back startled when the pieces of cardboard shifted from behind a bush outside a new condominium development near my office. The sheer horror I felt when a random man yelled obscenities at me on street and continued waving his arms and screaming as he walked by. “What?” “How could he do this to me?” “I am a good person,” I thought. I choked back tears the day I saw the young boy, with the soft peach-fuzzed face, not much older than my teenage daughter, curled up in a ball under a filthy blanket in the alley.
Pity, horror, fear, compassion, sadness, incredulousness, and anger are all part of the sensations that I experience every day. Ok, I pride myself that I am not like those that walk by, turn up their noses, and fail to drop a few coins in the outreached cup. I do at least that — don’t I? I pick up the bag of socks for the clothing drive. I donate some money. I support shelters and the building of more subsidized housing. I voted for it. If asked, I am sure I would donate my time to cook meals in shelter on a holiday. See, I am not that bad. Our nature is to reassure ourselves of our good intentions.
At some point in these peoples’ lives, the people they knew, loved and/or respected closed the door on them or the reverse happened. And, it breaks my heart.
I spent a few moments trying to figure out why I cannot go any further in reaching out. What holds me back? Why does my assistance have to be arms-length? It isn’t repulsion. I am not offended by the appearance, the soiled hands, or even the smell — although admittedly not pleasant sometimes. I can look past the incoherence and the intoxication. It is not class or stigma — I am not too proud. In the end, it comes down to two reasons, which I find difficult to admit, but need to share because I think many of us may feel the same way.
(1) I am afraid of physical violence. Although, I am sure studies and anecdotal evidence will show that a vast majority of homeless people are harmless, part of me is afraid that something broken inside them will lash out at me unexpectedly — that I will be hit or kicked or worse. I fear for my personal safety.
(2) I am afraid of disappointment. While I know people are homeless for various reasons, I can’t bring myself to invest personal emotion in a project with such a high risk of failure. I can’t bear the idea of developing a personal relationship with one of the individuals described above only to find out they are back on the street or worse dead of an overdose or exposure.
My failure and, I guess the shame I feel, is that I am not able to get past number 1 and number 2. Is it enough that I am contributing at ten (10%) instead of fifty (50%) per cent?
When I meet with health care professionals in the social services field, they always tell me that it takes a certain kind of person to do their work. And, it definitely does. It is with regret that I recognize that I am not that person. They have my heartfelt esteem and respect. We have to be thankful that there are people with the courage and vocation to assist the most helpless and vulnerable among us.
Personally, I am still only able to help from a distance but, with a couple of resolutions in this time of making them. I want to increase my contribution to the extent that I am able. And, I want to work at understanding these fears, myths and prejudices and attempt to reduce them.
Join me. Next year this time, we will write here about what we actually did.