We are students of a university that, as the witty students in the “Sh*t USF Students Say” video have pointed out, favors a social justice perspective. It is hard to live in San Francisco and not be reminded that this city is home to thousands of homeless, mentally ill, and/or disabled peoples. Sometimes it is easy to forget when sitting on our mountain of expensive education that we share our home with these people. They are our neighbors.
I say this because I feel that, while many of us have the experiences of working in the community, we continue to separate ourselves both mentally and physically.
Every time I hear a student talk about going to the Tenderloin and how they “are very careful”, or how they walk fast, or how they “try to get through to them”, my fists clench a little bit.
Why do students feel that this is some kind of battle zone; that they must prepare themselves for entering a world unfamiliar?
I do not mean to sound ignorant or unaware of the problems in these areas of the city—I too have spent time volunteering in the Tenderloin, walking the so-called unsafe streets. I completely understand what problems these communities are facing, and I am not denying that they exist. But where they exist for the 60,000 residents of the Tenderloin, they exist for all of San Francisco. Their city street is our city street. If there are problems in these neighborhoods—crime, drug use, poverty, homelessness—then there are problems in our neighborhoods.
We must stop thinking of people living in desperate and dire situations as somehow being made up differently than ourselves. The unfortunate life circumstances that have put them in that position are things we may never know. What we do know is that they have no less interest, desire, need, or want for the joys that life brings. We need to inherently understand this if we wish to do any good.
I have been reading NPR’s This I Believe— a collection of dozens of people’s personal narratives ranging from the famous to the unknown—and struggled to think of what I would say if I were asked. Having to declare your own personal creed in a couple hundred words seems near impossible; I can hardly meet the word limit for this column!
Yet when I think about the marginalized in our community, and the outlook I feel many students have on them, my own understanding becomes clear. There is never any “other” in our world; everyone comes from the same mess of blood and cells of a beginning. It is easy to feel different or to be uncomfortable in a situation we do not know as our own. But what we must look beyond is the clearly visible, and search for the invisible: the compassion, the hope, the curiosity that is possible for each person.
Life may be different on the other side of the city, but it is only as different as we make it.