*This is the final entry in the First Impressions Overturned series.
Many of us carry in our heads an ingrained idea of what a homeless person looks like and how they present themself: dirty clothes. Rambling speech. Someone whose mind is not quite there, or who perhaps leads us to feeling both unsafe and even somewhat guilty at the same time.
Melissa* doesn’t fit this schema. With her long blond hair, tan skin, piercing blue eyes, and a trendy long black coat draped around her torso, she looks more like a woman from the pages of Vogue than someone who’d once lived on the streets.
The apartment complex I pick her up in front of is located across the street from the low-income housing site I used to work as a bilingual case manager at, which is nostalgic for me.
When I tell Melissa I once worked there, lights click on inside her blue eyes. She reveals to me that she too once alternated between low-income and homelessness on the streets of England as a child. She is grateful now that her mom, who dealt with severe mental illness when raising Melissa, is doing better (in the sense that she is both housed and provided for to some extent).
“The shelters in England take proper care of their homeless, so it was a shock to come to San Francisco where the homeless problem is handled so differently. It’s so under-funded. So different than what I was accustomed to back in my country.”
Indeed, according to a San Francisco Chronicle editorial, “California is home to 25 percent of the country’s total homeless population and 42 percent of those who are chronically homeless. From 2016 to 2017, the state also saw the largest increase in the number of residents who are homeless—more than 16,000 people.”
Melissa recalls how when she first arrived in San Francisco, it made her sad to see all the unhoused people. She found herself wanting to stop and help each one of them.
“I would pass by a bundle on the street and would want to make sure they were okay. I started realizing there wasn’t enough time in the day to do that for all of them though,” she laments.
As we drive through the Tenderloin past five teen boys gathered around a boom box, Melissa expresses excitement at having just quit her job. It hadn’t been totally horrible, but she’d still found it stifling.
We get caught in a steady line of cars– stop then go, stop then go. Pigeons dodge the wheels as they cross the street, while plastic bags lay smooshed against the pavement.
She isn’t sure what her next move will be, but she’s noticeably enlivened. As we turn the corner onto her block, Melissa (thinks aloud) about her future prospects now that she is no longer working: “I think I want to write a book.”
After dropping her off, I reflect on how common it us for many of us to assess strangers’ characters through their present actions and behavior, without taking into account the wider context. We may think we know someone or have them pinned, only to watch as little pieces of their past and personal history poke out, complicating and expanding our mental picture.
If there’s one group we’re especially prone to doing this with, I think the homeless population are it.
I think of how often we step over a sleeping bundle, not giving a though to the life they lived or the conditions that led them there.
I wonder what his name is, I’m curious about his past. Does he have family or friends? What’s his relationship with each of them like?
How about: What were his dreams? What did he want out of life? Who would he be or what would he be doing right now if the universe had dealt him a better hand?
How often do these questions cross our minds?
A substantial portion of us, even those who consider themselves socially conscious and progressive, still seem to tense up when confronted by their presence– even when all they’re doing is minding their own business. We do our best to keep reminders of their plight at bay, even—or especially— when they’re in plain sight.
Why is this? I wondered.
Truthfully, I think the evasion and dismissal are prompted by a much more complicated mix of emotions than mere apathy or indifference. Part of it might be the fact that we’re an individualist culture. In collectivist cultures, people take care of one another, but in the U.S., beggars in any form– from the outright homeless to the low-income receiving food stamps to the chronically ill or disabled requesting government aid– are frowned upon, threatening as they are to these individualist ideals.
As Isabel Wilkerson wrote in Caste: “The writer Joanathan Chait noted America’s singular indifference, unique among developed nations, toward helping all of its citizens. He connected this hard-heartedness to the hierarhcy that arose from slavery. He found that even conservatives in older wealthy nations are more compassionate than many Americans.”
Maybe it’s that if we’re having a bad day, or are unhappy with our lives for whatever reason, the homeless show us that things could be worse. To fight against the shame of acknowledging this, we might even quietly assign blame to the person for their own predicament.
Believing in simple cause and effect narratives to explain our world’s tragedies and hardships is easier on the psyche, even if the unfortunate truth about many of these narratives is that things are rarely this simple.
There is so much work to be done for homeless on a systemic level–specific policy we can vote on, for one. Policies that would require cities like Oroville to have a plan for reaching out to homeless people during disasters. Policies that provide temporary housing.
On an individual level though, beyond policies, I believe addressing the problem begins with something far more simple: human kindness and awareness.
In addition to the more obvious pains homeless people suffer, I can only imagine low-level, daily marginalization compounds it. Basic consistent acknowledgement of one’s humanity is a privilege that we sheltered folks take for granted.
Social pain may be a more subtle, less visible and obvious form of pain. I’d imagine that the daily acts of invisibilization build up though—small and seemingly inconsequential, but insidious over time.
When I walk by homeless people now, I think about the following quote:
“The willingness to come close to suffering opens us to compassionate action. The nightly news programs are catalogs of the world’s disasters. Are we open to it? Do we actually relate to what we see and hear, or has it all become too de-personalized?”
I think about it then try to hold a little space in my heart. Because before a problem can be tackled more substantially, people have to care. Empathy is the precursor to eventual change.
It doesn’t mean we have to stay stuck in that empathic pain. It just means not forbidding it access altogether. Staying present with it when it does make its way into your heart, rather than swatting it away.
My talk with Melissa that day reminded me that the homeless are members of our human family. It’s time they be recognized and treated as such—not as anything less.
**Thanks for reading the First Impressions Overturned series! Check back next week for an entry from driving Lyft in Reno, Nevada with a main passenger story centered on gambling addiction.