I’m in San Francisco walking across Market from the Lookout down Noe to where I am parked. See that grey lump in the doorway of the rainbow flagged shop? That is a man, whose name I do not know. He was sleeping and in the 40F weather I did not bother him.
In the dark corner to the right, in the sheltering House of Chen doorway is another man. Younger, so very young and shivering without enough clothes, but with cancer, whose name is Michael. He once worked in tech downtown here but was laid off.
The cancer ate up his savings, and now he sleeps on Noe.
Michael was defensive and kept saying how cold he was and wanted a blanket, but accepted my beef stew leftovers. Later when I realized I had blankets of an unconventional kind in the car, I finally got him to accept them. He claimed proudly not to want it, but I also left him the coat, blessing bag and sweat pants I’d bought for the guy who cleans my windshield, but has left the area.
I asked permission, then eased the blanket around Michael, tucking him gently into his stone bed, wedging the coat over the top and, holding my breath lest I hurt him, rolling the sweat pants into a pillow, placing the roll behind his head. Every touch was met with a gasp of pain. He should be in the warm, but has no place to go. I found myself speaking the words a mother might to a child she was tucking in, soft murmurs. He asked me to sing a song, so I sang a Welsh wassail very slow and soft until his eyes fluttered.
I dared a gentle hug when he was nearly asleep and left his blanket littered with protein bars where others wouldn’t steal them.
To the left, under the neon X, is a third blessing, a gentle street philosopher named Louis who accepted a hoodie, leg warmers, thermal underwear, hiking socks, a blessing bag, plus a jolly red knit stocking cap and its grey muffler. He was tall and dignified, with all the aplomb of an Ethiopian magi, whom he resembled. We spoke of many things including his favorite bible verses, how misguided people excerpt the Bible and cherry pick verses to suit them while ignoring others that are hard or inconvenient, and how the mission of Jesus was uplifting the poor. He feels blessed in his life.
He loves his grandkids but is glad they can’t see him like this. They call him on his ancient cellphone which he takes in a Starbucks so as to sound normal.
Louis told me the good I was doing would come back to me from a place I least expected it, and gave me valuable advice about how to live on the street if I ever needed it. He said he felt safer in his doorway than in a bed in a house because he trusted in the Lord and people were fundamentally kind. Also that madmen are everywhere but love conquers all.
Then he launched into a very Wayne Dyer type tutorial on gratitude and living in the Now and said to go back to Michael (who’d refused all my offerings initially) as the cold was a powerful convincer.
Louis thanked me for being “Santa’s Helper” (which made me laugh) and said the best present I gave him was my smile and the simple dignity of being treated like a human being that mattered. Choked me up.
The temperature had dropped several chilly degrees as we talked, and Louis began to get ready for bed so I left him to his sleep. Before I did though, he gave me a Bible blessing so powerful I felt like I’d been in the presence of an angel.
Angels unaware these men, bringing blessings through to us, to me. It was hard to turn away, but I wished him Merry Christmas and went off to tuck Michael in and drive home.
I was ready to pull out when I remembered the silver emergency blanket and heavy beach towel in the trunk. Took them back to Michael who was sleeping hard underneath the packing blanket I’d first found and given him. He only woke when I unfurled the crackling plastic of the silver blanket. He cried out, frightened, and I shushed him by singing the Welsh song again, reminding him who I was, that I had been here earlier, calling his name, “relax Michael it’s just me, it’s okay, Michael”. Layered the heavy towel atop the silver blanket. Tucked the edges down tight against the wind.
As I left, my heart broke. In the small voice of a sleepy little boy Michael murmured “Thanks, Mom.” He didn’t just want a blanket, he wanted his blankie, and his mama to soothe him.
I could barely mutter “That’s alright sweetie, you sleep tight now.” around the lump in my throat before tiptoeing away.
I had been driving around with the clothing in the car for weeks – it just felt like the right thing to do. You can do this. Anyone can do this. The homeless particularly need warm blankets, coats, warm socks and sleeping bags right now. But they most need your smile, friendly chat, and to be treated like human beings.
I try my best to let love guide all my actions. Love is my religion and though I hadn’t formally channelled in years, it was the Lady herself who tucked Michael in and sang to him. I couldn’t have managed it by myself, I was too close to tears. At Christmas in particular, it is possible for all people to channel Mary, and a mother’s compassionate love.
In all honesty though, I’d let fear stay my hand for those weeks the clothing sat in my car. I knew the guy who washed my windshields when I fueled up in Berkeley and felt safe dealing with him. He moved on before I could get the things to him and I was afraid to approach people I didn’t know.
But then…I saw that grey, silent lump in the doorway there, and just couldn’t pass by. I screwed up my courage and none of the scary homeless people encounters I’d imagined even happened. Instead, blessings.
I think nothing bad happened because I went in with a tentative and respectful attitude asking “Hey brother, do you need some warm clothes? Food? How are you doing, brother?” listened, and respected what I was told
I didn’t ask them why they were on the street or if they were aware of local services, or if they even wanted to get off the street – not my business and would have shut down the conversation. Minding what I’ve learned about how to be a good ally, respecting what the men themselves said they needed. That’s the best advice I have if you’re doing this work. Respect and love. ❤
I hope I see them again.