For as long as I can remember, I have believed in the processes of disturbing the comfortable and comforting the disturbed. I personally was born into an extremely comfortable life, so I find myself intentionally seeking out disturbing situations. The seeking is usually on my time and my terms, which itself is privileged. I never quite imagined that taking a vacation to San Francisco would be disturbing.
But there, on vacation, I found myself face to face with the most abrasive homeless men I have ever met. Now, in St. Paul, people experiencing homelessness stay fairly pocketed. It is easy to go about my day and not have to think about people in my community who are struggling financially. Yet the man on the street corner with a sign has always haunted me. There he is, looking me in the eye, a fellow human, and I am forced to face my wealth on his terms and his timing. And what is the answer? Give him an apple, or a twenty or a business card? Sit with him and ask to hear his story? Volunteer at a shelter and hope to build relationship with him? Go home and give half my clothes to Goodwill? Work for policy change while his is sitting there?
The difference is, the homeless man in St. Paul sits at the intersection calmly. The homeless man is San Francisco is not quite that passive. Dan and I found ourselves being followed by a man for blocks, screaming at us on a busy street. He was older, carrying a bottle of vodka, and he was relentless. Instead of these haunting questions bubbling up as I drive through an intersection, they were forced into our ears as a tactic of public humiliation. When it became clear that we were not going to give this man cash, he followed us for a few blocks screaming, “Do the right thing! I am a veteran! This is so fucked up! Come on! I am a marine! Do the right thing! That is so fucked up!”
He disturbed me. I have thought about that man ever since. The battle wages in my head. I do not live or pay taxes in San Francisco. I am not relevant there. It is better to do work at home. What do I owe him? He’s drunk. Giving him money will lead to more dependency and learned helplessness. He needs professional help that I cannot give him. Yet his words won’t leave me. I don’t want to be a teacher who thinks that teaching about justice is enough, a teacher who expects her students to do all the hard work. And he is right, the fact that a marine who is drunk at noon on the street has to beg for money in an undignified way is fucked up.
Do the right thing. He made sure that I know that he exists. What, then, must we do?