Reflections From the Streets: Experiencing Homelessness in San Francisco

16 Jun

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Personal Journal Entry: February 28, 2017

This is the morning of Day Two of “First Hand Experience,” a three-day trial in homelessness that is part of the 20-year tradition of InnerCHANGE’s “San Francisco Outer Circle” Team. The idea is simple: you can better serve the homeless community if you have some idea of what it’s like to be homeless. It should be noted that a three-day trial of sleeping on the street is different than living on the street. That said, three days, even a day and a half of being homeless does quickly change one’s perspective of the lives of our friends here, and some of the practical daily challenges that they have to live with.

Early morning yesterday, after a cozy, restful sleep in my own bed, I was reading scripture and praying, with a hot breakfast and a steaming cup of tea beside me. The passage of scripture I was reflecting on was Luke 9–10. It was a relevant passage as it tells the story of Jesus sending out the “Twelve” in chapter 9, followed by Jesus sending out the “Seventy-two” again in chapter 10. Reading these passages in the past, I had never really realized the boldness and significance of what it must have been like for these disciples to be sent by Jesus throughout their land, with very few provisions, and with the commission to preach the Kingdom of God and to heal the sick. Jesus says to the Seventy-two, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field. Go! I am sending you out like lambs among wolves.”

While this passage may have missed capturing my attention in the past, it didn’t this day. For this would be a day of going out among our street friends and living like them…going out with few provisions: no money, no food, no tent, no sleeping bag…and going out into a physically beautiful, but spiritually dark part of San Francisco: Haight-Ashbury District and Golden Gate Park. 

While we have many friends on the street and in the park, many don’t know their Maker. And for those of you who are more familiar with San Francisco and Golden Gate Park, this particular space is one where paganism and dark spiritual forces have long had a strong hold. This passage seemed very relevant for the experience at hand. Furthermore, during the time of prayer that our team had during the launch of “First Hand Experience” later than morning, we prayed that as we went into the park and onto the streets, we would be carrying the Kingdom of God with us, and when people interacted with us, they would be encountering Jesus.

Therefore, immediately following our “Monday Morning Pancake Picnic,” which the team has hosted nearly every Monday for the past 11 years, and a “Narcan Training” to help equip us and our street friends to be first responders to drug overdoses, our official time of homelessness began. My first task was to join a couple street friends to learn the art of “spanging” (a.k.a. panhandling). This was a very interesting experience. Those who know me well know that I have a hard time asking others for help, especially when it relates to money. For example, I have found it very difficult to ask for money to cover my salary for the full-time work among the poor I am doing in San Francisco with InnerCHANGE. 

Considering my hesitation to raise funds through InnerCHANGE, which is a culturally appropriate thing to do, you can imagine what it must have felt like to be in a position of having to ask for money in a non-culturally appropriate way, i.e. begging on the streets in San Francisco. As you can imagine, I was hesitant…but I was hungry. Therefore, out of hunger, and as an act of solidarity for my homeless friends, I pulled out some cardboard and a permanent marker, made a sign, and stood in front of a nearby grocery store “to fly it.” As a compromise, I decided that I wouldn’t technically ask people for anything. Rather I would smile and greet those that passed, while holding a sign reading “THANK YOU! (You’re Great ;-).”

My experience spanging was a mixed one. I felt pretty awkward to begin with, and the awkwardness only increased as many people walked and drove by. These people fell into three categories. The first did their best to ignore that I existed. I felt for them. I believe that they had to dehumanize me in order to actively ignore a fellow person in need. Fortunately, I hadn’t been on the street long enough to have to dehumanize them in return, in order to get past my shame of rejection. 

The second group were the folks that would return my smile and greeting as they walked briskly by, with the slight awkwardness that we have all experienced when we see a homeless person begging but genuinely don’t know what is an appropriate way to respond. We have all been there. I believe that something small within us still dies every time we do that; although it is a compromise…at least we are acknowledging that these people exist. Trust me, I felt it. 

The third group were the people that still give me hope in society, the people that inspire me to become more generous. These are the people that shared with me a bit of what they had. Sometimes it was their name, a bit of their story, and a couple bucks. Other times it was leftover dim sum that I imagine, if they were like me, they would have loved to eat later at home. Still other times it was a Tupperware bowl full of coins, accompanied with a heart-felt, “I know it’s just coins, but I hope it can help.”

I know I’m only getting a glimpse into the lives of our street friends, but already in the past 24 hours I have had the worst night of trying to sleep in my life, I have been humbled in ways that I didn’t think I would ever have to experience, I have experienced a wider range of emotions than most other times in life, and I have had to wrestle with both the beauty and the beast of myself and of the society that I have inherited. It has already been an “experience” indeed. And having just come from early morning mass at a church adjacent to the park, I am aware, for probably the first time, of what it may have been like for Jesus to leave his position of honor and take a position of dishonor, born into a poor family in a distant outpost of an empire, a refugee at birth, and without a home during his adult ministry: “Foxes have holes. Birds have nests. But the Son of Man has no place to lay His head” (Matthew 8:20). In fact, this brief “First Hand Experience” is beginning to shine a new light on the words of the Apostle Paul in Philippians 2:5-8:

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: John Stiefel is an intern with CRM’s InnerCHANGE “Outer Circle” Team in San Francisco, which works with traveling street youth, building relationships and offering hope and transformation through Jesus.


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