A few years ago, I took a trip to San Francisco that changed my life.
It wasn’t a cushy vacation with sightseeing and luxurious hotels and fancy restaurants. I rode for hours in a school bus with fifty middle school and high school students. We stayed in a hostel on a crowded urban street. We walked everywhere in the brisk January air. We did not go to a 49ers game. We did not see the row of homes from the TV show Full House or walk the Golden Gate Bridge.
We spent all our time in the Tenderloin District, which is known as “San Francisco’s worst neighborhood,” where drug deals and gang activity are frequent sidewalk interactions. Gangs, crime rings, and prostitution run rampant while law enforcement tactics adapt in attempts to decrease crime. Most of all, the Tenderloin is recognized as a hotbed of homelessness. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development included San Francisco in the top 10 cities with the most chronically homeless individuals. Homelessness is dubbed “the shame of the city” and such people are often dismissed as “riff raff.”
I must admit I equated the Tenderloin with hopelessness. How could a person be optimistic when he saw vice and instability so commonplace? It all seemed to depressing, cold, and dangerous. What good was there to be found in such a place? What did God want for a neighborhood like this?
And what were we doing there? A bus-full of teenagers and adult supervisors, from an Oregon church’s youth group—what could we offer people in such dire straits?
We went there to serve, but we really needed to listen and observe. We went to learn about the problem of homelessness, to see that those individuals were people who matter, people who had their own stories and relationships and passions. I thought I was there to chaperone the students, to ensure they were safe, to pray with people, and to help them learn these lessons. But I had lessons to learn, too.
We thought we could do something good for the city, but maybe it would do something better for us.
We thought we were bringing light to a dark place, but there was more light than we could see.
Looking for Humanity
If we were to temporarily put ourselves in the position of a homeless person, we would instantly recognize the pain of shame from crowds walking around us and avoiding eye contact. One California pastor did, and saw how damaging that treatment could be: “It starts getting to your head and makes you feel less valuable. That’s a lot of wear and tear on a person and people get to the degree of being paralyzed and unable to help themselves.”
In her book Rising Strong, Brené Brown quotes Father Murray Powell:
“When you look away from a homeless person, you diminish their humanity and your own.”
That’s an uncomfortable challenge to get over my social status, my privilege, and myself to recognize personhood that goes far deeper than the labels and stigma slapped on by society.
One morning, after walking a few miles uphill in the chilly Bay Area breeze, a group of us stopped to pick up snacks in a convenience store. I made my selections and emerged from the store. Before me stood a woman on the street corner, who looked around 50 years old with curly red hair hinting at gray. She held a cardboard sign that read, in bright marker colors:
“Homeless, not hopeless.”
I stared for a few seconds. It seemed like a contradiction. Weren’t homeless people always feeling sorry for themselves? Complaining about their circumstances and asking for handouts? Weren’t they always depressed, mentally unstable, and exactly that—hopeless?
The air hung tense, waiting for one of us to make a move.
Recovering from my stupor, I resolved to talk to the woman. She gladly introduced herself, proclaimed love for her San Francisco, and asked where I was from. We spoke for a few minutes until the rest of my group came out of the convenience store.
Before we parted ways, I wanted to do something for the woman. She was living proof that hopelessness wasn’t a direct result of homelessness. Her circumstances did not dictate her attitude. She had shattered my preconceived notion that all homeless people were angry at “The System” and blamed everyone else for their problems. She was different, and she single-handedly transformed my view of people on the streets.
I wanted to give her a token of my gratitude for what she had helped me discover. She smiled politely when I offered a few of the snacks I had just purchased, and she accepted them with dignity. I walked away pondering that woman and the more valuable gift she had given me by her mere presence.
After the trip concluded and we took the long bus ride home, I thought about the woman’s face, her sign, and what it all meant.
To be homeless wasn’t declaring she had given up on life. She was alive with the belief that one day, her circumstances would change. She believed things would get better for her, and her friends, and for San Francisco. The woman wasn’t afraid of how people viewed her, because she knew that hope is far more powerful than others’ judgment.
I could not save her, protect her, or change her life by that one brief interaction—but she changed mine.
Now when I see a homeless person, I try to remember that woman. I try to see, not a person without a stable home or typical American Dream lifestyle, but simply a person worthy of love, respect, and dignity. And regardless of their circumstances, most people I know need a little hope that their lives won’t be stuck in the same place forever. Sometimes, we need to learn a lesson from the people we least expect, like I did from the woman in San Francisco.
I’m not sure if I trivialized her life by taking a bite-sized lesson from our exchange. Would that make my treatment as damaging as those who never make eye contact with homeless people at all? Nothing I could offer would solve homelessness; I don’t even know if telling this story would be good or bad, if it would just relegate a human into a neat, tidy little anecdote about how I tried to do the right thing, naive and ill-equipped as I am.
Perhaps the deeper truth is that we need a new way to recognize the value of our fellow humans, admitting we don’t have all the solutions for each other’s problems, but making space for each other, despite labels and categories and stereotypes. That sounds like something to believe in. That rings of grace.
That’s something we can all hope for.
Get more stories about finding hope, clarity, and God in unlikely places. Get a free chapter and soundtrack from John’s new book, The Variable Life: Finding Clarity and Confidence in a World of Choices.