There is a man, a seemingly homeless man (quite likely a drug user, but not a junkie), who sits out on the corner of where we live out here in the middle of San Francisco and who, without fail, almost always (no joke, I’m talkin’ pretty much every afternoon for the past four years) asks passersby to spare a little change.
I don’t tend to give money to the homeless, so, at first, I bought him food. Twice I did that, but I stopped because twice he left a mess behind. Out there he still sits, though, in plain view of police; of any city leader, official, or outreach worker, who might walk past him on their way down Van Ness Avenue toward City Hall or…wherever. Another presence to sidestep for every other denizen of the City of St. Francis (the pic above says it all, no?). His baritone never changes its tune, and he never wavers from his ask: The guy wants you, me, anyone to spare a little change.
After almost half a decade of hearing him, and seeing him; and attempting to help him, and trying to ignore him; and feeling for him, and getting angry at all of us who continue to fail him (he’s still out there on the street, isn’t he), I gotta echo him: I, too, would like us to spare a little change.
I get that he might not want to be helped, that he might be interested only in getting by his day and in scoring a little money for who knows what. I get that. I also know that it is possible to help the unhoused by checking in on them and nudging – or being a pain in the ass of – just the right outreach worker, who, then, will connect someone in need with the official someones who can help them. I know it can be done because I’ve done it. I have cared for someone who was almost completely down on his luck (an evictee) and who used to sit in his own filth outside a local grocery store, his health deteriorating after each cold, wet night he spent outside. He smelled. He looked defeated, but, in the end, he triumphed over his adversity with a little help from a friend he doesn’t know.
I made some calls. More importantly, I made some follow-up calls after he returned from a trip to the hospital that landed him back where he was, on some street corner, in this rich city, where he might have died a slow and inhumane death in front of all us. That man is George, and, as of last week when I last saw him at the same grocery store, he is in better health and he is sheltered. End of humblebrag. I spared a little change, alright, by challenging myself and the folks who look after our public health to do something and effect real, tangible change in someone else’s life before they lost it.
I have asked that we #SpareaLittleChange before, with a different degree of success, and, now, I want to make it official.
This #SpareaLittleChange campaign I dreamt up in rebellion – I know, I know – to the tune that the man down on my corner never tires to sing, it has a simple goal: transcendence.
We all recognize, at the national-conversation level, the values we need/want to protect; what’s cool, what’s not; what’s American, what’s not. What/who we wanna be, and who we’ve been, and who we know we can be.
At the local level, I know that you will march and protest, San Francisco, but I also know that you have certain priorities that don’t always scream charity, that don’t always show you’re putting your best foot forward and thinking of others, because we all see it on the streets, and we all complain on Nextdoor or whatever, and the situation doesn’t improve. The bitchin’, however, does get louder. And we get frustrated. And we stop acting like we care. Or we stop caring.
The homeless issue is but one of our many problematics. Our streets are littered with cigarette butts and common plastics that some of us oh-so-carelessly discard, because common courtesies are the first to go when you stop giving a shit. San Francisco is unconscionably (and inequitably) filled with humans – our brothers and sisters, hello! – who are in dire straits, man, and what are we doing? What are you doing?
Change comes when you remind the leadership of any beautiful, complex city of what we need to do. Now that we can do this in somewhat-public fashion, they, too, can see it, what you see, and they can change it. They have so many months, years, in office, at a job, during which they actually can effect change. It is our responsibility to make that happen, while we are here, alive…enjoying life, when countless others – too many – are out in the cold, hungry, hurting, desperate.
No better way for us to die than knowing that we helped change what we saw every day.
George deserved that. The man out on the street who inspired me to write this, he deserves it, too.
Spare a little change, San Francisco.