From the January-February 2020 issue of News & Letters
I have been on parole in San Francisco for the past nine months after 40 years in prison, of which 20 were in solitary confinement. While in prison I figured out how to become truly myself, what it might mean to become a human being. Before, I didn’t think much about being human. It was in prison that the desire to think about it arose in me. Above all, I had time to think. I want the adjustment to life outside to be a continuation of this process.
COLOR OF SAN FRANCISCO’S HOMELESS
For me the beauty of San Francisco does not come through its many tourist attractions, like the Golden Gate Bridge, Fisherman’s Wharf or the new arena for the Warriors of basketball fame. Its beauty has a rather personal aspect to me. I have been able to utilize resources for the formerly incarcerated. In reality San Francisco is not different from many cities in the U.S. It is a dirty place to live. Upon release from prison, I could not miss the homeless and the general lack of concern for them.
Pervasive homelessness, whether because of alcohol or drug addiction, mental illness or just because of a recent job loss, constitutes a population not wanted but clearly visible. It is a population that has taken residence in many of the city’s parks. Homelessness in San Francisco also has a color. While New Afrikans are only 5% of the city’s population, the latest study found they constitute 37% of the homeless.
My first job was as a park bathroom monitor through an agency, Urban Alchemy, run and staffed by former long-term prisoners. There are about 40 to 50 of us working this minimum wage job using it as a stepping stone to something better. The objective of Urban Alchemy’s park monitoring is to “bring a sense of peace and respect to America’s most chaotic urban areas,” including returning the park to its original function, where children can play and people can enjoy a bit of nature on a walk, etc.
I clearly saw the tension between the local residents and the less fortunate who have no residence. A part of my responsibilities was to mediate that tension by not allowing anyone to stay in one of the stalls for a long time and to remind people that the restrooms are for public use. This is difficult for the homeless, who have no other place to go, no refuge, nowhere to clean up. I’ve had to negotiate with them as to what is a reasonable amount of time to use the facilities. Sometimes the bathrooms are used by people with mental illness or drug issues.
This monitoring does not take much effort. I ask the person politely if they wouldn’t mind taking their inappropriate activity somewhere else, out of the view of children playing in the park. What gets to me is the local residents, who often thank me for being there.
Each time I hear a “thank you,” it creates an ambivalence in me. It feels good that I can improve someone’s sense of being relatively safe. I feel I am doing the right thing. Yet because of my history, I understand the social ills visited on the homeless.
STORIES TOLD IN THE PARK
The diversity of people in the park makes each encounter interesting. Everyone has a story to tell, and some of them inspire respect and admiration for the teller. For example, a homeless person dealing with severe health issues is not overwhelmed by her present situation. She is always in good spirits and willing to share whatever she has. What is constant in the stories is people’s ability to develop various coping skills, other than just self-medicating.
A very personable mechanic comes with containers to get water. He loves Rasta and sings with his recordings of it. Even though he got bumped from getting a place to stay, he is not bitter. I learned how people take these indignities in stride and keep their humanity.
This year, while working I got to attend some happenings in the park: a man who had been critically injured had his life saved by a homeless person who called 911. He holds an annual barbecue and feeds the homeless for free. Every year the mother of Mario Woods, who was killed by San Francisco police, throws an event in remembrance of her son. The park as a public gathering space has multiple meanings in the community. It is also the place “to be” for early morning tranquility. As an open and compassionate listener, each encounter leaves me with a richer content of what it means to be human, to act as a human being toward the supposed “other.”