Growing up in, near, and around San Francisco, I’m used to being approached by homeless people. And I’m used to seeing homeless people, so you’d think I’ve grown callus to it, like many people have. Tonight I learned that I have not grown callus to it. Not at all.
Mark and I saw a great show in San Francisco tonight, then headed to The Mission to eat at Pica Pica. We parked in a lot on 16th Street and walked, hand in hand, in our nice, clean clothes, me with my scarf and jewelry. I was having a great time. Then we passed a man sleeping in a doorway of a closed store, and my heart ached. His back was turned to the sidewalk where people were walking, talking, laughing, pretending he didn’t exist. A coat was covering his head and upper body, and his shoes were next to his head, holding his only possessions.
I felt sick and tears came to my eyes, and like always, like everyone else, we kept walking. To our comfortable restaurant. To eat food that was featured on a television show. To play with our smart phones and drink coconut milk with lime. It felt wrong on so many levels, and I couldn’t eat. I just couldn’t. I couldn’t, in good conscience, eat this amazing food if that man sleeping on the sidewalk was going to go hungry another night. I mean, the earrings I was wearing could’ve fed him for a month. How was that right?
So I decided to help him.
After our meal I grabbed my wallet and went back to the counter to talk to the woman who’d helped us earlier. “This is going to sound like a weird question,” I said, “But do you donate the food at the end of the night? Like the food that’s going to go bad?”
“Yeah, at the end of the night we bag it up and people take it.”
“Oh good,” I said, and I took a breath. “I feel better about eating here.” I know she meant that mostly the employees take it home, but they do give some of it out to strangers, and at least they didn’t throw it away. I couldn’t handle the thought that they’d throw away good food when there are people a block away cold and starving. I said, “On our way here we passed a man sleeping on the street. I’d like to get him a side of beans. And a cup of water with a lid and a straw.”
She paused, then said, “Well we do that at the end of the night…”
“I know, I can pay for it.” $2.50. That’s nothing to me. That’s a fashion magazine, or two songs on iTunes, or an ice cream cone, or a bag of cat treats. God, even my cat has a better life than this man. My cat has a warm house and food and clean water and people who love him. This man has nothing.
I went back to our table to wait for my order and Mark said, “What are you doing?”
“Buying beans for the homeless guy who was sleeping on the sidewalk.”
He nodded, not one bit surprised.
“I just couldn’t,” I said. “I couldn’t eat and let him go hungry.”
When my order was ready, I went to the counter to pick it up and the girl said, “I put some meat and beans in there.”
I smiled and said, “Thank you,” and we headed out the door. I looked in every doorway as we walked, and we came to the sleeping man half a block from the parking lot. He was huddled with the coat over his head, and I told Mark he should be the one to wake him, just for safety, but he told me to leave it next to him and not wake him. I put my hand on the man’s arm and gently shook him. “Sir,” I said. “Sir?”
“What?!” he said, defensive, and he pulled his coat off his head. His face softened when he saw me.
“We bought you some food,” I said, and handed him the bag. “And water.”
No one has ever looked at me like he did, this lost, poor, colored man of The Mission. So grateful. “Thank you thank you! God bless you both! Thank you! God bless you!”
I nodded and said, “Find somewhere warm.”
“Thank you! God bless you! God bless you!”
I smiled as we walked away because I knew if I talked I would cry. The man kept saying “God bless you” over and over as we walked away.
I know there are homeless people everywhere, and I know I can’t change that, and I can’t change the world. I know all of those things. But I also know what it feels like to not have money for food. It’s a horrible, desperate feeling. But at least I had a roof over my head. This man doesn’t. He has a couple of coats, a hat, gloves, and tennis shoes. His bed is a cardboard box he took apart to lay on. And even though I can’t change the world, I changed this man’s night. This one night, I know for sure, he did not go hungry.
So look for ways to help others. Keep your eyes open. Practice kindness. Love each other.