I was in San Francisco last week for work. Long time readers know how much I freaking love that city. The weather (fyi – It’s cold there in the summer – go figure), the people, the sights/sounds…just everything. What I don’t really love is the homeless. The homeless here are an entity unto themselves. San Francisco seems to have an unusually large portion of homeless who have mental health issues. I guess it’s the weather that brings them and has them stay. They mumble to themselves and each other and anyone else who they think is listening. They walk naked down the street. They smoke crack in the doorways and alleys. They are everywhere.
And they make me uncomfortable.
Every city has its homeless population. I grew up in and around Washington, D.C. which has a large homeless population. They live on the streets and sleep on the grates in the sidewalks and roads and, in the winter, the city scrambles to keep them from freezing to death. It doesn’t always work but at least they try. The population of homeless here in Charlotte is a lot smaller than that of D.C. or San Francisco. They are also not as aggressive as those in larger cities. Maybe it’s because the city is so much smaller or maybe it’s southern manners. Whatever it is, it’s a little less uncomfortable here.
But it’s still uncomfortable.
Over the years, I, like a lot of others I know, appear to have become desensitized to them. I know not to give them money but, if they’ll let me, I’ve been known to buy them food. I ignore them if they shout obscenities at me when I walk by. I’ll step over them or detour around them but seldom do I make eye contact, smile or even nod. Mostly I just cast my eyes downward and keep walking, seemingly oblivious to their situation. I assure you that could not be farther from what’s actually going on inside of me.
This post isn’t meant to debate what’s going on in our cities and why these people are subsisting on the streets. That’s an entire dissertation and a simple post would not begin to scratch the surface of this issue. The only thing it was meant to do was to say to that population…
…I see you.
Even when I walk down the street and fail to make eye contact…I see you. When you yell at me or try to engage me in conversation and I keep walking…I see you. When you ask for money and I say no…I see you. When you ask for food and I offer to buy you some and you say never mind and curse me…I see you. When you stand with your children and beg and I DO give you money…I see you.
I see you but I don’t engage you. I don’t engage you not because I think I’m better than you because, let’s face it, we’re probably all just a paycheck away from being right where you are; I don’t engage you or make eye contact or even acknowledge you because it’s painful.
It’s painful for me to see you struggle with your reality. It reminds me of my grandfather who was locked away for being senile and brings to mind the fact that my own mental health can be tenuous at times. It’s painful for me to see you succumb to your addictions because I know how difficult it can be to battle those particular demons. It’s painful for me to see your poverty because I know, in a country this rich, there should not be poverty on this level. At the same time it’s painful for me to know and understand that you may have chosen this life and not want to lead a conventional existence because I know how beautiful life can be under the right circumstances.
So I cast my eyes away.
But I see you.