17 10 2008
Thinking in Union Square

A man I am fairly certain is homeless. I photographed him in Union Square.

I’m not going to pretend to have any big ideas about how to solve homelessness. I really don’t have any. I mean, sure, let’s get more affordable housing out there, and how about we start to take more responsibility for people who are on the street with totally unmanageable addiction problems and mental illness.

But how that all gets done, I’m not sure. And I think it is simply the case that there will always be some people living on the streets. People are always going to fall through the cracks. It’s horribly sad how large the cracks are, though. I feel that way about Edmonton, but it seems even worse in San Francisco. The number of homeless is pretty staggering in SF.

I had two recent memorable encounters with homeless people recently. The first was outside a drug store in Edmonton where I stopped to mail some letters. There was a world-worn but generally well-kept guy standing out front. He asked for money. He didn’t give me a long story, though. No story at all, actually, apart from telling me that he wanted to get into the Salvation Army shelter that evening. He was polite. We chatted for a bit about the cost of stamps (his question; hadn’t sent a letter since they were 35 cents!) and what the shelters were like. In the end I gave him $5. It felt right.

The second encounter was in a BART station in SF, while waiting on the platform for my train to the airport. A really rough-looking guy came up to me and asked me if I could do him a favor. I think I bristled right then, as if it was a telemarketing pitch or something. He stank of booze. He needed $3.80 or some seemingly random amount. But anything would help, he said, because he needed medical attention for his leg, which was a bit scraped up. It was; he showed me. But I didn’t buy it, didn’t feel for him, somehow. I turned him down.

I don’t know what this says about me. I find it hard every time I’m confronted with this sort of situation. Do I help or do I ignore? Should I be judging each of these people? I only hear the story they give me; I don’t know how they got where they are. But how do I know if it really helps when I give them money? Isn’t that fair to ask?

What’s most unfair is that they are even in that situation in the first place.




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