Seven or eight years ago, I was walking in the University District in Seattle, and there he was, huddled in the doorway, his hair matted, toenails black.
My brother Matt.
He squatted there, rocking back and forth, muttering, “Just sitting here all day, drinking coffee, drinking coffee all day, just sitting here. That’s all I do, just sit here all day, drinking coffee, drinking coffee all day.” Someone had thrown pennies at him. They lay scattered at his feet.
He looked up at me, squinting.
I couldn’t take my eyes off his toenails. They were long and curly, so jagged they looked like they could draw blood.
Well, that young man on the street, he wasn’t really my brother Matt. Thank God. But I’ll never forget that excruciating moment of recognition, of seeing his homeless twin on the streets of Seattle, realizing that I knew this person–even if I really didn’t.
Maybe that’s why I volunteer with homeless youth in San Francisco’s Haight District on Fridays. Each week, I walk away with another heartbreaking story.
This past Friday, a young woman told me her story: how she was raised by her stepbrother’s mom until she was ten years old, when her biological mom picked her up and took her back to Seattle. But her mom hadn’t told her that she lived in a studio apartment, where she wasn’t allowed to have kids, so she ended up sleeping on the streets of Seattle her very first night there. Voila, homeless! A tough kid who “took” to street life, she ended up a meth and heroin addict at 10 1/2 years old. By the time she was 15, she said, she had been in and out of drug rehabilitation treatment centers half a dozen times and had lived with over forty foster families. She finally landed in a somewhat stable foster home her last two years of high school, where she fooled around rather than learning what she needed to graduate and go on to college.
“I’m homeless now, but it’s my own fault,” she told me. “I don’t blame anybody for it.”
Her story may be heartbreaking from one perspective, but it was obvious she didn’t feel like a victim. In fact, she told a story about her childhood that suggested there were many times when she felt empowered by the relative freedom she had. When her mom picked her up to take her to Seattle, she had one prize possession–a guitar she had bought herself when she was 8 years old. Though her foster mom at the time literally had no money– “She got a monthly welfare check for $675, which paid for our rent; the $100 she got in food stamps didn’t go very far. We ate a lot of peanut butter and bread”–she decided to save up the money herself to buy a guitar. For weeks, she went around the neighborhood collecting cans and bottles for recycling, then cashing in the refund until she had saved enough to buy a 12-string guitar.
She was proud of the resourcefulness she showed as a kid. She knew, deep down inside of her, that if she had that much gumption when she was eight years old, she’d find that much gumption again to find a job, get off the streets and into a home. And if that’s what she knew deep down inside, she wasn’t mistaken: she told me her story and the next thing I knew, she was meeting with the social worker in the back office, getting into the system, finding emergency shelter.
I could tell, this girl, she was going to be all-right.
This morning, when I took Jamaica outside for her morning bathroom break, we ran into a homeless guy crouched on the ground behind a bush. He had the typical look we associate with alcoholics and the homeless–disheveled hair, grungy clothes, a red face with unfocused eyes. He was muttering to himself but when he saw my dog, he was taken with her–murmuring sweet nothings, petting her, kissing her fur. “She’s so sweet,” he said. To me: “You have a good day, little girl.” Whether he was mentally ill or not, it’s hard to say, but hard-core alcoholism of the sort that obviously afflicts this man resembles and masks mental illness.
I know there are people who are really scared of the homeless. Sure, sometimes the homeless are violent. I’ll never forget hearing about the homeless woman burned alive in downtown San Francisco because she “owned” a desirable piece of homeless real estate. But these incidents are rare. The truth is, most of the time, the homeless are victims of violence, not perpetrators.
I’m not scared. They’re people. And as such, they deserve to be treated with dignity and respect, no matter where they live. Maybe I’d feel differently if I was carting around a kid, but I sure as hell hope not. I’d like to think that my principles would stay intact. And that is a principle to me–to treat these men and women kindly. I always say hi, and if they want to pet my dog, that’s fine with me. As a result, I’m often recognized by the homeless here in San Bruno. They’ll wave hi at me. They’ll come over to chat for a few brief moments. Sometimes, they’ll show me the books they’re reading–Tom Clancy or John Grisham, those cheap paperbacks you can buy for 10 cents at the local Goodwill. I know my dog will protect me, and I can always tell if somebody makes her nervous. It’s only happened once. Most of the time, she’s fine with these folks, and that says something to me.
A year or two after finding my “brother” on the streets of Seattle, I was living in El Paso, working at Cinco Puntos Press, and walking through downtown El Paso every day on my way to work. I learned quickly that the homeless have a pattern and a rhythm to their days, just like those of us who go to work daily.
Every morning, a legless black man in a wheelchair sat in the same spot in an empty parking lot near Jacinto Plaza. If I came a few minutes early, he’d be perched on the ground, the stumps of his thighs acting as feet, hands gripping the arms of the wheelchair, lifting himself up from his night’s sleep. If I came a few minutes later, he’d already be wheeling down the street toward the central plaza. If I came at just the right time, though, he’d already be sitting in his wheelchair, and he’d smile at me, jovial and pleasant.
Another homeless man, probably mentally ill, had claimed the awning of the abandoned Holiday Inn as his “home.” He was a tall man, fat, balding with a matted blonde beard, clearly angry. In the morning, he’d walk around the plaza, coffee cup in hand, glaring at everyone with piercing blue eyes. His feet were swollen; they oozed pus and blood. In the afternoon, he reclined in the awning on the fake green grass, the plastic kind you see at miniature golf courses, one or two Styrofoam take-out plates scattered at his feet. Sometimes, he just stared at those of us who passed, sometimes he yelled. I tried to avoid the awning on my way home from work, because he was one of the few homeless folks that scared me.
But one day something occurred to me: this failed man who was a little too fat despite his homelessness, this man who struggled to communicate with those of us who passed him every day, this man who scared us with his passion and anger and insanity–this man is a little like Jesus. If Jesus came back, this is what he would look like. He wouldn’t be beautiful, dressed in a suit and tie and driving a flashy car. He wouldn’t hang out with lawyers or doctors or writers or self-obsessed artists. Hell, no. He wouldn’t live in Seattle or New York or Paris or London. I wouldn’t recognize him. None of us would. We’d hurry past him on our way home.
Yeah, if Jesus came back, he’d be a failure–a little crazy, living among the Styrofoam of his days and nights, yelling things we’re too scared to hear.
He’d probably live in downtown El Paso.