This summer, 8 classmates and I traveled to the Tenderloin District in San Francisco, California to work side-by-side with the homeless population for two weeks. We challenged ourselves to fully appreciate every human being that we encountered, no matter how much dirt covered their face. Working to encompass Jesuit values of “men and women with and for others”, we strived to instill a sense of compassion and solidarity into everyone we met.
Our main goal was to get as close as we can to experiencing a day in the life of a homeless person, or someone living in a marginalized community. We lived on $30 a day, around $3 per person. We achieved this by walking, taking the MUNI bus, and eating at the soup kitchens and farmer’s markets. However, it was harder than we originally thought. Having to pass by a McDonald’s on an empty stomach and smelling warm French Fries almost drove me crazy. However, it really opened my mind to the ordeal that the homeless face everyday. We soon learned to embrace our hunger, even giving away our some of our fruit on our way back from the farmer’s market.
Staying for $20 a night in Hostelling International on Mason Street, we woke up at 8:30 every morning to serve brunch at St. Anthony’s, a dining room for the homeless. I helped serve food, bussed tables, and ate lunch next to the homeless. I was surprised by the deep levels of conversation I had each day. One man told me that on New Year’s, he and a couple of friends walk across the Golden Gate Bridge to symbolize a year finished and a new one approaching. This positive mentality kept him alive year after year, providing him with the strength to remain hopeful in times of trouble.
After serving an average of 2,000 meals each day, we would visit homeless shelters scattered throughout the city. Often, we brought a baked dessert and sat with the tenants, discussing life in general. I met one man named Jonathan, who promptly quoted a line from the movie Rocky, “It doesn’t matter how many punches you give. It’s all about how you deal with the punches you receive.” He told me to live my life filled with my passions, for passions will get me through. Jonathan admitted that if it wasn’t for his love of painting, he would probably be dead by now due to the harsh conditions of the streets.
On one particular afternoon, we all attended a private seminar by the Care Through Touch Institute (CTTI). While there, we learned the value of human touch in a nurturing way. Forced to travel for hours upon hours, many of the homeless experience back, foot, and hand pain. Unable to rest on a doorstep in fear of being yelled at for loitering, the homeless wander endlessly. Thus, members of the CTTI go out into the streets offering free massages for the homeless. A caring touch to a homeless man helps to remind him that not everyone in society hates him; there are people out there who actually care.
The homeless have dealt with experiences that I cannot even begin to imagine, and trying to compare my life to theirs doesn’t do it justice. However, most of the people I have met on this trip possess an optimistic quality that I will forever envy. They live one day at a time, receiving punches from society, but they still press on, waiting for their second chance at life.
“Heart of the City” Farmer’s Market: http://www.yelp.com/biz/heart-of-the-city-farmers-market-san-francisco
Hostelling International: http://www.sfhostels.com/downtown/features/
St. Anthony’s Dining Room: http://www.stanthonysf.org/home.html
Care Through Touch Institute: http://www.carethroughtouch.org/
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