Homeless people make most of us uncomfortable. Living in the city with the highest per capita homeless population in the country, we are bound to run into people living on the streets nearly every day we venture out of the USF bubble. And yet, regardless of the frequency with which we encounter these people, we often avoid eye contact with them and simply pretend they do not exist. Occasionally we might toss our change into an outstretched empty coffee cup and consider it an act of generosity, but often we assume that that homeless man will spend our money on drugs or alcohol and do not give him a second thought, let alone a second glance. I have heard numerous times that we should not feel guilty about not giving change to begging street kids because they made the decision not to get a job; they chose this. These are only a few ways we deal with our standard response of discomfort.
From my own observation and after spending quite a bit of time with the homeless youth down on Haight Street, I’ve found that people living on the streets can generally be separated into two camps: those who are on the streets because of situations beyond their control, such as desperate economic times or mental illness; and those who simply choose to live an alternate lifestyle to that of mainstream America. Though the former is certainly an issue in San Francisco, I will focus on the latter.
I believe fear is a primary contributing element to our society’s indifference to homelessness, and it is completely normal as humans to fear what we do not understand. There is a likely reason why someone would choose to live a life on the fringes of traditional society. Domestic abuse and neglect are primary motives for someone to choose to trade in a warm and reasonably comfortable life for a tough, unpredictable one. When life is filled with the pain of sleeping on icy cement, losing friends to drug overdoses, and constant uncertainty, the need for belonging and acceptance leads to the creation of self-declared families.
Connection is a basic human desire, and so homeless people often build their own families after being rejected from or choosing to remove themselves from those into which they were born. The homeless as a collective are sometimes referred to as “The Family” by others living on the streets, a clear reflection of their sense of solidarity and protection. We are accustomed to family referring to those to whom we are related by blood and stuck with for life, but in this unconventional lifestyle street youth create their own families, bound by fierce loyalty. It is the kind of camaraderie found between people who have seen too much hard life together and who depend on each other for survival.
At the same time, there is a tragic irony present in this “new” society: although it is formed on the basis of rejecting society’s rules, this other society is full of rules of its own. Rules like whom to talk to, how to speak, whom to spend time with, and which drug paraphernalia are acceptable in which parks. Even the self-proclaimed anarchists display a subtle hierarchy within the ranks. All this plays out on sidewalks and in city parks right under our noses, and yet we are often oblivious.
I have spent many an afternoon on the sidewalk with my street friends, and because of my bare feet and dreadlocked hair people regularly assume that I, too, spend my nights fighting the cold in Buena Vista Park. I have temporarily felt that overwhelming sense of invisibility when not a single passerby acknowledges me for hours on end, though I am mere inches from their Nike sneakers and fashionably slouchy boots. So in the face of judgment and fear, let’s remember to spread a little compassion. To a person struggling to make it to tomorrow as the last bit of hope dwindles, a greeting and a genuine smile can go a long way. Simply recognizing someone’s existence can restore their dignity.