By Ernie McCray
When I heard that there would be a “San Diego Homeless Awareness Day” my first thought was “Hooray” and then I thought about how “awareness” isn’t the problem.
I mean we know that there are folks who have no home, no place to stay, penniless, practically completely down and out.
We’ve heard over and over on the news about “rock gardens” being constructed on some streets where the homeless like to sleep; about the police destroying their encampments, places where they feel relatively safe trying to get a good night’s sleep.
We see them as we walk downtown, trying to act as though they’re not there, every now and then giving them a buck or two or buying them a whopper.
We were very aware of the homeless just a few years ago when I was holding a sign in front of The Black in OB that read: “Children are Watching! Show Them OB’s Loving Heart” in reaction to an iconic store selling a sticker that said “Don’t Feed our Bums,” a sentiment that was shared by many San Diegans.
We’re aware of the homeless, in our midst, but we just don’t know what to do and it seems we think that if we abuse them they’ll get fed up and go away – and leave one of the few places they can survive, a place where it doesn’t snow? Hey, they are not going to go to Buffalo!
They are here to stay, the homeless. And we’ve got to start treating them like who they are: human beings.
Human beings. Like the rest of us. I’ve found that to be true over a lifetime. One of the most charismatic people I’ve ever known was a “hobo” who used to mesmerize me with his wild stories of riding the rails when I was growing up near the railroad tracks in north Tucson. Human beings all have stories.
I worked as a lifeguard with a homeless man who had me falling over myself, laughing, as he was as funny as Richard Pryor. Human beings thrive on humor.
My wife Nancy and I housed a homeless family, briefly, much to our chagrin. We were glad when that slightly scary situation came to an end and we vowed “Never again.”
But I’ll always remember an experience I had a few months ago with a homeless man who, if you saw him, you’d probably cross to the other side of the street.
He’s got a look that says “Don’t you even think of messing with me.” But that’s not him at all. I’ve watched him share his food, his brown-bagged wine, his bedding and his expertise in helping others fix broken down shopping carts.
I’ve run into him in Golden Hill for years, back to when I would be walking my dogs and he and his wife would come along, usually calmly arguing over something in that way that people who truly love each other pick at each other: “Woman, leave me alone about that mayonnaise. I axed you if I could finish it and you said “Go ahead.” “Yeah, because what else could I say with you and your greedy ass.” And they’d laugh that laugh that people who are hanging on laugh, that “alchy” laugh, scratchy and hoarse, but a laugh never-the-less. Hope can be fragile.
My relationship with this man has been on the go, one of “Hey, what’s happening brother?” with a comment or two about the world. And I’d bask in his woman’s warm smile and her “You be good now” as we all went on our way. What a beautiful human being she was.
We went months, maybe a year, without seeing each other and I ran into him one day, on my walk, when he was sitting, with his head heavily bowed, at one of the picnic tables next to the baseball field outside the Golden Hill Rec Center.
I began the conversation with “Hey, bro, I haven’t seen you for a while.” He straightened up and smiled with a “Hey, man, how you doing?” to which I said “I’m doing fine.” “Wish I could say the same” he replied. Then he told me that (from drinking and exposure to the elements) his wife had died.
And I sighed and told him that my wife (whom he knew) had died. And we both cried noisily for a while, a good ten minutes. I tear up every time I think of those moments we shared. Two human beings, grieving losing our soulmates. One a retired school principal. The other without a home.
So what do we do, not having a lack of awareness of the homeless problem as an excuse for doing nothing? That’s a hard question.
But part of the answer has to be: treating the homeless as human beings whenever we relate to them.
And finding and supporting politicians who understand and are willing to do something about their basic need, a place to live, would go a long way in addressing the problem.
Jeeni Criscenso, an energetic leader in our city when it comes to the homeless, says: “If you want to offer a plan for ending homelessness in the city of San Diego, it should start with a plan for adding 10,000 very-low-income affordable units to our housing stock.”
And that’s not going to happen if we don’t hold our officeholders accountable for bringing it about. Relentlessly.
That would be very human of us.