Don’t walk left – A perspective on homelessness

I could see her from a distance. 

For that matter, I wasn’t sure that it was a woman until she briefly lifted her head to tuck her straggly hair back behind her ear. She didn’t look a lot older than my daughter.

She was bent over the garbage bin by the roadside. Looking for food, I presumed.

We were walking around in an up and coming neighbourhood in San Francisco.

As we walked past the girl and her dog, I tried to ignore the fact that she was still rummaging through the trash – picking stuff up, inspecting it and discarding it. The dog sat patiently watching her – clearly used to the routine.

“Should we give her our left over food from the restaurant?” It was Alex, my son-in-law, always the compassionate one.

We had just had brunch at August 1 Five, a trendy Indian restaurant near the San Francisco City Hall. As usual, we had over ordered.

I hesitated.

I wasn’t sure of the rules of engagement on this one. What if she was offended?

“What if she is an art student, doing a project?” That came from my daughter. I could sense that she almost wanted it to be true.

While we debated the potential outcomes, Alex decided to go ahead and ask the girl if she would care for some food that we were taking home from a restaurant.

She appeared surprised, but grateful. We handed the food over and piled into our car.

She waved.

I could see her take a quick bite of the – unfamiliar – stuffed Indian pastry and tear off a piece for her dog. As we drove off, I felt that she actually liked it. The dog seemed less excited about the spicy treat.

I remembered the first time that we had visited San Francisco, a few years ago. We had stayed at one of the nicer hotels not far from Union Square.

“Don’t walk left,” the concierge had said matter-of-factly as he drew us a suggested walking route of downtown San Francisco. Seeing the surprised looks on our faces he added, “It can get sketchy.”

It didn’t take us long to figure out what he meant.

Nice clean streets suddenly turned into ones that had sidewalks monopolized by groups of homeless people who begged for money. People in San Francisco will remind you that the high cost of housing and government policies have played a large part in the sad situation. Throw in good weather, drug addiction, mental health issues, and a liberal society, the picture is complete.

Not unlike Vancouver Downtown Eastside and other big cities in North America.

Big city. Big city problems.

When it comes to homelessness in the US and Canada, I have mixed emotions.

On the one hand, I feel that people who live in North America have not seen real poverty – the kind where there are no homelessness services, shelters, soup kitchens, social assistance, needle exchange programs, and the like. On the other, I do understand that it’s unlikely that anyone would live on the streets, if they had the choice to live elsewhere.

I struggle with the recognized causes that contribute to homelessness in countries like Canada and the US – financial, societal, psychological, health, addiction among others. We can’t seem to find solutions to help homeless people get off the streets, or prevent others from becoming homeless.

We are talking about two of the richest, culturally advanced countries in the world!

If Norway can do it, why can’t we?

On a personal level, I wish homelessness didn’t exist. But that is wishful.

Until now, my interactions with homeless people have been minimal and not supportive of their plight.

Generally, I try and avoid eye contact, pretend it is normal for someone to be sleeping on a subway vent in the middle of winter, say no to the squeegee kids, and keep walking when the guy with the beer and the dog on King Street & Spadina shouts out, “You got a buck bud?”

Perhaps, it is time for me to think like Alex, and spare some change for the less fortunate.

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Dax Nair

Dax is a marketer of cloud and security solutions with varied interests in technology, travel, food, racquet sports, and blogging.

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