I’m an L.A. guy. L.A. is the homeless capital of the U.S., so I wasn’t surprised to see the large number of homeless people living in San Francisco. What surprised me was seeing how many of them have severe mental disorders.
At least once a week I walk by a homeless person having a conversation with himself. And I don’t mean a calm, mumbling to himself sort of conversation. I’m talking about a hands waving, bulging eyes, Gollum-style conversation, screaming at the other person—the person only he can see.Two days ago, I passed a man on the walk to the train station. He was holding the butt of his cigarette between his thumb and forefinger and having a shouting match with himself. “You fat idiot!” he yelled. Then he delivered a string of obscenities: f-bombs, s-bombs, b-bombs, and several other bombs I didn’t recognize. Even two blocks away, I could hear him shouting. Short, raspy screams.
Seeing people in such circumstances always challenges me. It challenges my convictions, my conscience, my worldview. I’m not sure it’s possible to pass a homeless man or woman on the street (especially one shouting to himself) and have a neutral reaction. So how do we deal with it?
Last Friday, a couple visited the Bible study I’ve been attending. The man and wife had just moved here from Houston. The woman made the comment that she was struggling with seeing so many homeless people. Intense was the word she used to describe it. She wants to love and serve the homeless. “But I’m a girl,” she said. “I’m worried about my safety.”
That’s an honest reaction. And there’s nothing wrong with it. It made me wonder: what are our different reactions to encountering people in such unfortunate circumstances?
Some simply choose to live in places where there are no homeless. If we never see it, we never have to think about it. Others adopt a worldview that says that life is all about choices. That person made his decisions and got what he deserved. He has to live with the consequences.
And perhaps there are some with the ability to pass a homeless person and remain reactionless. They never never stop to wonder about that man’s plight or struggle, or how he ended up sleeping on a sidewalk, or what his childhood was like. The reactionless person simply doesn’t notice the man. Or doesn’t consider him.
I’m not sure what my reaction is. It’s torn by what I think it should be. Lately, I’ve been convicted to serve more, and that means helping the homeless. I did it regularly in Los Angeles. When I moved here, I gave myself the license to not do anything. After all, I was busy with the move—getting settled and finding a routine. But that time has passed. There’s no excuse now. A woman from the Friday night group cooks and serves food to the homeless in the Mission district once a month, sometimes more frequently. I’ll be there the next time she goes.
As for my reaction, I usually pass the person slowly (occasionally, if my conscience is pricked, I’ll hand money to the person; it’s not often) and say, God, help that man.
Or God, help that woman.