The reality of homelessness landed squarely in my lap one dark December day 10 years ago. Despite all our efforts to prevent it, after three previous attempts, my much-loved 19-year-old son had committed suicide three months before, after suffering from bipolar disease all his life. My husband left me shortly after, and despite the enormous blessing of eight wonderful surviving children, I was devastated. I went to church, trying to pray about who I could help who was more miserable than I. The message came to help the homeless. I didn't want to hear it. Homeless people had always scared me. My son Nick was never homeless, but had great compassion for them. Finally, grudgingly and nervously, I embarked on what I hoped would be a one-time mission. Instead, it became a labor of love that changed my life.
I've never spoken publicly about my activities on the streets, and have maintained my anonymity. But as funds for the homeless are cut in many states and cities, their situation is dire, and I want to help them by drawing attention to their plight.
I formed an outreach team, called Yo! Angel!, bringing direly needed supplies and hope to homeless people in San Francisco. In the decade since, our 11-member team has served more than 30,000 people, 300 per night. Our mission has been to keep them alive until someone else could help them get off the streets. We provide new warm clothing (down jackets, long johns, sweat suits, hats, gloves, socks, scarves, sandals, hand warmers), sleeping bags, bedding, tarps, waterproof ponchos, umbrellas, useful tools (eating utensils, water bottle, can opener, etc.), personal-hygiene supplies and food that doesn't need to be cooked or refrigerated. We also give them hope: the realization that someone cares about them and good things can happen even at the worst of times. We drive around late into the night, with four vanloads of supplies, looking for "clients." Recently our costs have become prohibitive, and we are seeking new sources for our supplies.
The most functional homeless people find their way to programs and shelters. But it is those at the bottom of that spectrum who worry me the most, those who are too desperate and disoriented, or too ill physically and emotionally to come in for help. So we go to them. We find them in doorways, cardboard boxes, dumpsters, and along the railroad tracks where they sleep. There are absurd dichotomies in the homeless world—you have to arrive promptly at a homeless shelter to get in, and people who exhibit "bizarre behavior" are not allowed. Once in the shelter, someone who stays there runs the risk of being mugged, robbed, raped and exposed to rampant contagious diseases. Many homeless people are afraid of the very real dangers in the shelters, and prefer to take their chances on the streets. These are the clients my group has served.
People living on the streets are vulnerable to predators and are often the victims of crimes. They are easy prey to a multitude of diseases. Wounds are frequent, infections acute and often untreated, and many people lose limbs. The ratio on the streets seems to be about 10 men to one woman. The incidence of mental illness is extremely high, believed to affect 85 percent of the homeless population. Self-medication in the form of alcohol and street drugs is common. Programs that offer assistance are understaffed and underfunded. And for people already mentally disordered, filling out forms and wading through miles of red tape for benefits is not only daunting, but impossible. The wait for detox is long. Many of those people will be dead before they get in. It's a tragic reality on the streets.
There are no easy solutions to this catastrophic national problem. We need more facilities, workers, programs, funding, perhaps some different laws. Budgets to assist these people are constantly being slashed. In some cities, local governments lie about the number of homeless on their streets, and lull their citizens into believing more is being done about it than really is. And clearly, whatever we are doing is not working.
It's easy to say "they should clean up and get a job." When was the last time you hired a homeless person, or even stopped to help one? Homelessness is primarily a mental-health issue, of mentally ill people not receiving adequate treatment, and there are not enough in-patient facilities to house and treat them.
I carry the people I met on the streets in my memory forever. I never ask how they got there; it's none of my business. They're already in distress and pain; they don't need to be humiliated, too. I remember the 21-year-old girl I met on my first night. She was sleeping on a piece of cardboard, under a thin tattered blanket, on a freezing cold night. She was undergoing chemotherapy for a brain tumor, and died a year later. I remember the woman who began life on the streets in a flowered silk dress and a string of fake pearls; she eventually lost all her teeth, one leg, and is now unrecognizable, but always kind and polite when I see her. There was the man in the pin-striped suit with shined shoes, who looked like your banker and was living in a sleeping bag on the library steps, while interviewing for jobs in Silicon Valley; he had lost his job as CFO, his marriage and his money. I remember the barefoot people on freezing nights, the ones in T shirts plastered to their bodies in the pouring rain, the pregnant girls suffering from malnutrition and the teenage boy I saw just before Christmas, sitting in a doorway in the driving rain. He was delirious from fever, with scabs all over his face, and had recently lost a leg. How can we turn away?
Dealing with homelessness feels like emptying the ocean with a thimble. But sometimes making a difference in the world, a big difference, happens one person at a time.