After twelve years in San Francisco, I can make a visual list of the homeless people I recognize but have never come to know. I’ve made a silent pact with myself that if I see a certain homeless person regularly, it is a sign that everything is okay. If I was still riding my bike to work while living in the Mission, and they were still alive on our neighborhood’s streets, then our lives were quite possibly right on track. It was my way of feeling less guilty for never asking them their names.
In my early years in the city, there was a man I named “Streamers guy.” With light socket hair, he had colorful streamers that blew in the wind off the arms of his glasses. He would walk in the street against traffic during rush hour, and during the holidays, wore a suit that he had lit up and lined with white Christmas lights. He became such an icon that a guy had dressed up as Streamers guy for Halloween and was thrilled when I was the one person who guessed his costume.
Another guy I saw was an Indian man that looked like a character from Oliver Twist with his polluted face, five-o’clock shadow, and fingerless gloves. He sat on the corner of 18th and Guerrero Street, where his skin contrasted beautifully against the cerulean apartment building. When he wasn’t reading a trade paperback novel across from the classy French bakery with the line out the front, he was staring off into space talking to himself. I always wanted to squat down and tell him that I loved his country and ask him what he was reading, but I’ve always just noted his presence and kept walking.
It took my boyfriend, Bryce, who lived in a small town in Idaho where there were no homeless, to move in with me in San Francisco to teach me a few things. While I walked by the homeless with my head down (a tactic I had learned traveling alone as a woman in India), Bryce put our leftover Styrofoam containers on the tops of garbage cans when we couldn’t eat one more bite. Bryce always gave a dollar or a dime, and when he couldn’t, he’d stop for a chat.
This is how we came to know Rich, a freckled guy with an honest smile who pulled his sleeves down over his hands and sat outside our favorite Mexican spot for Sunday morning huevos rancheros over the Times. On the weekends we walked that stretch of city block, Bryce would give Rich the rest of his beans and tortillas, or his half a sandwich, or he would stop, shake Rich’s hand, and hear what incident from the streets had pushed Rich further down that week. Over time Bryce stopped for longer, and would tell me he’d catch up and then come home to tell me, “Rich said that I have a really great wife,” which immediately made me think that I should stop to chat the next time.
Bryce gave Rich a few minor loans, got him a cell phone with an initial contract, and when Rich was trying to get off the junk, offered him a shower in our apartment and a phone number as a job contact to some brothers we knew who renovated Victorians. As the realist in situations such as these, I sat in my room while Rich spent an hour fogging up the bathroom mirror, and then felt guilty when we sent him back on the streets armed with some of our blankets and a pillow.
We eventually lost touch with Rich, and when Bryce died earlier this year, Bryce’s mom chose The Coalition on Homelessness as a place for friends to donate money in his name. After those initial months of shock, I told my two best friends that I wanted to make healthy brown bag lunches, include a poem I had written about Bryce’s passing, and hand them out to homeless people on the street as a way of honoring Bryce. I wanted to create my own volunteer program, a way of giving back to a cause that Bryce made a point to be involved in, but visions of Health Department inspectors and police officers entered my mind. My friends researched and found a place in the city that served the kind of food that Bryce loved to cook, and that was mostly vegetarian. It was important to us that we could prepare and serve the healthy food that we would eat ourselves.
When we crossed through the wooden door with the hand painted sign welcoming us into the gardens of St. Martin’s House of Hospitality, a calmness swept over me. An oasis reminiscent of the gardens behind the doors of Spanish colonial homes in San Miguel de Allende had roses and bougainvillea as homeless men (and some women) sat in their shade. We introduced ourselves to the volunteer coordinator, put on our rubber gloves, and chose our individual tasks of washing lettuce and peeling carrots.
Martin’s, as the volunteers called it, had a mission to serve anyone who needed a hot and healthy lunch. The volunteers’ instructions were clear, they delegated effectively, and every person I came into contact with, from middle school boy volunteers to men in their fifties, I encountered Martin’s promise of “gentle personalism” that they spoke to on their Web site, saying, “Gentle personalism says that all persons have dignity; all persons have the right to be respected. It says that each person who comes to Martin’s is a guest and is to be treated as such. It says that eating is a right, not a privilege, and that feeding the hungry is a matter of justice, not of charity.”
After we had dressed the mammoth bowls of lettuce in teams of two and stirred the four vats of soup, we rang the bell to invite those waiting in the garden to come share our meal. I stood at the front of the line as if I were a gracious waiter, making sure that I gifted each person a smile before I handed them a bowl of soup. When they asked for a heartier scoop, I gave it to them. When a blind man asked me to help him to his seat, I made sure to pull out his chair. Though I had given service before, it was at Martin’s where I felt my shoulders fall into their proper place. This was the type of place where when a man asked for me to boil hot water for his thermos; I didn’t hesitate to take the time to give him what he needed. It wasn’t that I needed to be a super volunteer, I just moved from the positivism that flowed from the spirits who ran this place.
As we spooned each bowl of soup, every man and woman that came through the line said a gentle and heartfelt thank you and looked me in the eye, which made me think of Rich, and then of Bryce, and I made a mental note to say hello the next time I saw them on the street.