Eight Faithful Fools went out to spend a retreat week in April, living on the streets of San Francisco – sleeping on concrete and standing in food lines for our meals the way so many of our neighbors do. Over the next days, I will be reflecting on our days and nights in this space.
This was the fourth time I had spent a week living on the streets.
The last time was eight years ago, so I expected it to be different.
There are more people on the streets now. I don’t know if the “homeless count” verifies that, but I do know there is more competition for safe places to sleep. I do know that the food lines are longer.
The racial balance on the street seems to be changing, too. There seem to be more Black people on the streets, compared to other races. Eight or 10 years ago, I remember looking around St. Anthony’s Dining Hall and seeing majority white faces. Now I look around and see a strong Black majority. This is a bit puzzling, since the African-American population in San Francisco is 6 percent and dropping.
Civic Center Plaza: When did it get to be that almost the only people in a public park are people who are homeless / desititute / down and out (choose one)? Does anybody who has the money for it build their own private parks to sit in? What about all the people in between? Besides the tourists, I mean. There are lots of tourists, walking among Hung Yi’s whimsical and fantastical animal sculptures. But anybody who is sitting or lying down? They look homeless.
What makes a person look homeless? I’m quite sure JD and I look homeless, even though we’re not yet one night on the streets and we’re still pretty fresh-faced. We’re two women in our 60s, and we’re carrying sleeping bags and big backpacks (not backpacker big, but healthy and heavy). A young person with this much gear could be on an urban lark; women our age, not so much. We’d have to be homeless.
Same with nearly everyone I see sitting or lying in the park: they have sleeping bags or rucksacks, and they have a hand or foot stretched out touching all of it. Some of them have their shoes off. Bare feet in the sun – what a relief! Our shoes were on; we hadn’t been out long enough, yet, to need air on our toes.
But we would learn. Today’s nap was a luxury, occasioned by the lure of the sun and also the tiredness – already – from the unaccustomed carrying of everything we have for the week on our backs.
It was like being at the beach, almost. The sun was hot. My eyes were closed. Voices of people at play. Tourists, I suppose. The wind was sharp, so I huddled into my down jacket, squeezed closer to the ground. Slept. Until the dude woke us up: “I’ve got a bunch of kids coming in here to play soccer.” We moved to the side and fell asleep again … but it wasn’t quite as sweet a sleep, and the soccer game did not begin for another two hours. Still, when my eyes closed, there was the sun, and the sound of people having fun. Just like the beach.
Later in the week, Day 5, the sleep was more urgent. People who are homeless often can’t sleep on the streets. It’s noisy, dangerous. Sleep deprivation is real. It causes longterm illnesses like diabetes and psychosis, and short-term lapses in judgment. You are a human being reading this; you know what it means not to get enough sleep. If you have been homeless or caring for an infant or any of a number of other life situations, you know what it means.
On this day, the sound of people at play took on a menacing quality. A Frisbee, whizzing over our heads, and the heads of the two or three other people who were occupying the same stretch of grass. As I become aware of the Frisbee game, I also become aware that we were part of the fun. Not that they were trying to hit us; they were trying not to hit us (I believe), but the awareness that they might miss not hitting us added an extra frisson to their game.
And, sure enough, whack! – across my thighs. Hey! I shout, sitting up. I toss the guy his Frisbee. “Be careful!” “I’m sorry,” he says, laughing. JD yells, “Can’t you see there are four people sleeping here? Go play somewhere else!” “You can sleep anywhere,” he says. Huh? Now I’m mad. When the Frisbee comes near us again, JD runs for it saying, “I’m going to throw it away!” After this, they leave.
Awake now, bruised and charged with adrenalin, I pick up Bernie Glassman’s Bearing Witness, a book about street retreats he led in New York City. The very page I turn to is about how people who are homeless sleep all day because they can’t sleep at night – it’s cold, it’s not safe, the cops chase them away – and because they have to walk, a lot – from their sleeping place to stand in line to eat, then to somewhere they can rest, then to another food line, then back to a sleeping place … thousands of steps each day. I want to run after Frisbee man and shake the book in his face. “See? See?”