Thursday, January 04, 2007

Bleeding hearts in San Francisco

There's a saying that goes something along the lines of not being able to visit San Francisco without leaving your heart behind. I (Natalie) get it, I really do, but that's not really want happened to my heart when I was there over Christmastime. Yea, a little of my heart got left behind but a whole chunk of it got smashed, broken and melted into a tearful and sobbing mess.


One of the first things you notice about spending time in San Francisco are the sheer number of homeless people living on the streets. With the easy climate, dearth of places to live and eclectic nature of the city, one can easily understand the reasons for this occurrence. I assume (possibly naively) that it would be easier to be homeless in San Francisco than in NYC.

In the past decade, I've been to quite a few big cities in several countries. I've seen homelessness before that has tugged at my heartstrings (there was an incident involving the Statten Island Ferry terminal that haunts me to this day) and I've even visited cities with horrendous child poverty problems but NOTHING prepared me for the homelessness in San Francisco. It is rampant, it is sad and it is everywhere.

Some of the homelessness in San Francisco is easier (for me) to take; the artist siting and sketching against a parking meter in Haight or the young dreadlocked couple playing instruments near one of the Piers. I'm not saying that any aspect of their respective lives is easy, I'm simply saying that I was less affected by the tragedy of their particular least what was perceptible to me. I ingorantly assumed (and may be totally wrong) that these kids probably have some kind of skill that will get them by and will probably find their way to a better life, eventually. There were however many others, including an aggressive man who approached me on Christmas Eve, for whom I don't hold this hope or belief.

As a small town Canadian, extreme poverty and homelessness isn't something I encounter (at least not to this extent) on a daily basis. I don't have a tough shell when it comes to dealing with the problems and personalities of people who are forced to live on the street. Yes, I do see people living on the streets. I try to buy samosas for the guy standing outside of the market on Saturdays and I try to remember to bring along extra coffee money for the guy that stands outside of the Tim Hortons each morning. However, that's about the extent of my day to day involvement with homelessness.

When it comes to homelessness, I don't understand, I can't relate. For this, I am eternally grateful. However for this I am also eternally guilt-ridden, upset and angry.

There is a part of me (which is not so small) that secretly wants to bring all homeless people home with me, feed them, clothe them and give them each a part of my life savings. I once almost naively invited a couple sitting on the curb, with their mangy dog, to sleep on our kitchen floor (it was all we had as we were living in a Bachelor apartment at the time). Believe it or not, I had to be convinced (in my slightly drunken state) that this was a colossally bad idea and was extremely unsafe and unwise. (duh!)

I naively think (and still do) that all people that I set out to help will be nice, kind and grateful..... I am a bleeding heart liberal. I can't help it, it's the way I am built. It probably comes as no surprise that I am woefully unprepared (emotionally) to deal with homelessness when we travel and often find this aspect of any trip to be particularly difficult.

There is another part of me however that takes a certain comfort in the fact that despite being exposed to so much homelessness and so many tragic situations that I haven't become hard. Sure, it would be easier, sure, it would make traveling a little less emotional at times. But the fact remains that I never want to become hardened to to the problems of humanity.

I guess I am doomed to more frustration, more anger and likely more tears. I can strengthen my resolve to take more action to help improve the lives of those around me and around the world.....but I won't strengthen my resolve to the point of judgment or ignorance.

I can't...I won't.