Saturday, January 15, 2011

San Francisco Homeless: Danny L.

I walked up to Danny L. as he hunched over a newspaper dispenser reading the day’s headlines outside of Safeway. He wore a dirty red and white winter cap on his head that held a crinkled elfish shape and reminded me of Santa Claus. The rest of him was equally disheveled and grimy and he squeezed a filthy pillow and comforter tightly against his body. The nerve of asking a homeless person a list of questions I had conceived from a comfortable chair, behind a warm cup of coffee, was something that had been plaguing me for many nights but the idea, once it burrowed into my head, was a constant thorn. It still is. I want to know about that man sleeping on the sidewalk under a pile of blankets. I want to know about that woman with knotted hair and craze in her eyes. My self-righteous intentions were to shine a spotlight on some aspect of vagrancy and passively manipulate you all into feeling guilty for not even acknowledging the presence of extended hands. Ironically, my first attempt has fallen flat on its face, for I am so . . . dejected by our conversation that some defense mechanism in my mind is forcing Danny to the margins of thought where he’s not standing before me, shaking my hand; he’s far, far away. Perhaps I can’t even see him. Perhaps he’s even happy. I don’t even feel like thinking about it. I know that’s a cop out, but you all can bite me. At least I acknowledged another human being today.

Take Two:

Danny L. (that’s all the name he wanted to give) is 53 and has been homeless for three months. So he says. He wouldn’t let me take a picture of him but trust me when I say that he looked a little more homeless than just three months. I knew lies were going to be a problem in this endeavor, but something I had not considered were the reasons for deception: pride, embarrassment, shame. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe he just didn’t trust me. And really, why should he? Throughout our entire conversation, his eyes shifted with uncertainty to the notepad in which I was scribbling. The man was visibly ashamed of himself for being in need and I am entirely haunted by that.

I could go into the reasons why he was chronically homeless; he alluded to them if not specifically saying “this, this, and this dragged me to the streets,” but that wouldn’t be fair to Danny because it would satisfy the curiosity for a lot of people and make his homelessness falsely understandable. Any answer to that question shouldn’t make another human being’s destitution acceptable. Why should an individual’s actions be solely to blame when that person is only operating within the boundaries of his institution? Our institution. Is it not our moral duty to help someone up when he’s fallen in a society that we have indifferently allowed to be constructed around him? If not our moral duty then what about our sense of decency? And if not decency then what about our rules of faith? Isn’t there a clause in a holy book or scroll or whatever that demands attention to the less fortunate? How about this one:

“Then the King will say to those on the right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home. I was naked, and you gave me clothing. I was sick, and you cared for me. I was in prison, and you visited me.’ Then these righteous ones will reply, ‘Lord, when did we ever see you hungry and feed you? Or thirsty and give you something to drink? Or a stranger and show you hospitality? Or naked and give you clothing? When did we ever see you sick or in prison, and visit you?’ And the King will tell them, ‘I assure you, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!’” (Matthew 25:34-40).
Take Three:

Imagine life without all your securities and ask yourself what your plan would be to get out of homelessness. Could you sleep restfully when you’ve been continuously robbed in the night? Where would you drink water? In which part of a large city block would you feel most comfortable defecating? These are the most basic of human needs to which I’d wager not a single person reading this ever gives any serious thought.

To my knowledge, Danny’s not a menace to society. He’s not a rapist or a murderer. He didn’t even strike me as someone who would steal (something you can bet your ass I’d be aggressively doing if I were starving). He’s just a dirty homeless guy that nobody looks at, except when he’s having a thoughtful conversation with someone who’s lucky enough to still be able to wash his clothes with soap. A lot of passersby craned their heads as they scurried into Safeway. I found that to be insulting.

Hmmm, this post isn’t what I wanted it to be. I don’t really know what I was expecting. I’m surprised by my reaction. And that’s what this is, I guess: reflexive. I’ll do better next time, but for now, I’ll surrender to reflection. I have no call to action other than this: Being homeless is miserable. Fucking miserable, and in Danny’s own resigned words, “It’s never ending.” So the next time you’re irritated by someone’s begging for sustenance, try wondering about their humanity. When was the last time life became too overwhelming and they cried into their hands? That bothers me. I hadn't thought of it before.


Chindiana said...

Looks like Danny's skeletons and life reached gave you more than you expected.

Hope you exorcise these out of your system as I think you've captured the feeling of the utter desolation, hopelessness and loneliness a homeless person can feel.

Bash said...

An opposite read:

C. Andres Alderete said...

Are you trying to make me insane, Chris? Thanks for the link.

bow-bee said...

You would lose that wager, sir. You know damn well I think about pooping in the park on a fairly regular basis.

On a seperate, but related, note. A homeless man who distributes the Street Sheet in Oakland recited two poems for me and my co-work yesterday. He offered his poetry as a reward, explaining that people quite often choose to ignore him as they walk passed his post, but that my co-worker, Jessica, makes it a point to look him in the eyes and say hello at every crossing. He explained how much this meant to him and said that poetry offered the best distraction from a hard life spent on the streets.

The first poem was about smiles, and what life would be like if they were measured as miles. "How far would you travel?" The other was about the blanket of comfort that provides warmth to the fortunate, but that also functions as a blindfold to the injustice that surrounds us all.


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