Arriving into a new town, you often just go with the flow. So after a week in San Francisco, some friends suggested we join ‘SantaCon’. Dressed up in our best Santa gear, we hit the bars.

Briefly, it was pretty amusing, watching 100s of santas parading up and down the street.

Not much of a drinker these days, after a few hours of alcohol consumption and squished ‘dancing’, the novelty had worn off… and I went out to get some air.

At the same time, a homeless guy was walking along the street, prodding and inspecting the parking meters as he went by.

I introduced myself to him, and asked him if he’d tell me what his life was like.

He looked at me like I was wasting his time, and asked what I wanted. Explaining he was busy.

Not keen to be rejected by a homeless guy, I earnestly conveyed my interest in seeing what his life was life.

Internally, I was slightly put out by the way all these “rich kids” were dancing and singing without a care in the world (for SantaCon), whilst simultaneously homeless people like this guy were out on the streets scraping by. So it seemed immediately important to understand homeless life a little better.

Homeless guy seemed to buy my story, and explained that if I came with him, he’d introduce me to his friends.

So with little to lose, except perhaps getting robbed or worse (yep, my mind was jumping to worst case scenarios)… I decided to follow him.

We hopped on a tram towards the tenderloin. I paid like a “good citizen” whilst he entered via the exit (so streetwise).

Making small talk on the journey, I enquire about the parking meter “thing” that was going on earlier. He explains that every now and again, the machines jam when people are putting quarters in. Using the long metal pin tied around his neck, he pokes the machines and loosens up any stuck change. So he will spend hours doing the parking meter rounds in order to rustle up enough money for food and drugs.

In some ways it seems like incredible efficiency… without him poking the parking meters… the council would presumably lose out on income from people who can’t pay for their space. Reminiscent of how in nature nothing goes to waste.

Arriving into the Tenderloin, we were greeted by another homeless guy in a wheelchair. My guy seems to know him, and they embark on brief chit chat. It culminates in him making out how broke he is, and can’t afford a hit today. Feeling somewhat guilty I pass him $5, and inadvertently facilitate my first heroin deal.

Looking back, that transaction will stay deeply engrained in memory for time to come. Essentially because it involved a homeless, disabled guy, hustling hard. Its bad enough being homeless and having full mobility, its another thing to be confined to a chair, battling against the elements.

If he can can do it, anyone can. Granted he did pick a good niche…

There can’t be a ton of competition for heroin dealers… and most the key customers are probably homeless people. So he ticks the box for knowing his customer demographic.

So we proceed to the spot where my guy apparently hangs out. I’m introduced to his homies, who are all very friendly, and I sit down and get comfortable.

My heart is kind of beating fast, and I’m kind of nervous about the whole situation. But at the same time it feels incredibly lucid, and certainly far more interesting than drunk SantaCon a few blocks over.

I strike up conversation with one of his friends, and relatively quickly, I cut straight to the question I want know about… how did he become homeless?

Without any real emotion, he reels off how he used to live in Texas, with a wife and house. And bit by bit, he lost it all. First he lost his job, and he couldn’t find a replacement that paid similarly. Then his wife got uneasy about the financial situation, frustrated he couldn’t just find another similar job. Between that and some relationship complications, they then divorced. And then lastly, he couldn’t keep up repayments on the house, so lost that too.

One, two, three… the pillars fell. And he became homeless, in Texas. Eventually migrating over to San Francisco for the milder weather and larger homeless community.

Then, and only then, did he pick up the heroin addiction.

He lights up a joint, and I share it with him, mulling over the story he had just shared.

It occurred to me, that the chain of causation between homeless people and drugs could easily run contrary to my former world view.

Until this point I’d associated drugs with homeless people, believing that their drug addictions preceded their lack of shelter. And potentially the addictions themselves had caused their societal downfall.

So it took a bit of work, to re-orientate my world view to incorporate the possibility that homeless people could indeed become homeless first, then pick up their substance addictions.

A few days later I’d speak to a friend, Christine Chiang, about the experience, and she would explain an idea I hadn’t come across before.

She said to imagine ones environment, like a pickle jar. Before the cucumber goes into the jar, its fresh and healthy. Inside the jar, it mixes with the vinegar, and bit by bit it morphs into the pickle. Similarly, the harsh environment of being homeless “pickles” people.

Whilst we continue to puff on his medical grade weed, I learn more about the nature of being homeless. He explains how difficult it is to hold on to stuff when you’re living on the street. Without walls to lock personal goods behind, each time you leave your bag unattended (such as going to sleep) its liable to be stolen. He explained how recently he lost his bag… and everything he owned was in it.

That has to be rough. Losing your bag, when that’s all you have in the world. But it makes sense practically speaking…  without a home there really is no easy way to secure personal belongings.

After the joint is finished, he excuses himself, walks a few feet down the road, sits down and starts preparing a hit of heroin. I’m pleasantly relieved by his manners. The past few hours are toughening me up, but having always been squeamish of needles, I’m glad not to sit with him while the heroin creeps its way into the bloodstream.

There’s a bunch of them now, all hunched over their needles, preparing the experience.

I don’t know whether to judge them or not. My hands and feet are starting to get numb from the winter cold. I still have a warm bed to get back to, and money in my pocket to pick up a burrito on the way back. Maybe they need something to help them through the days.

Feeling like that’s enough for one day, I say goodbye and head home.

Thoughts cloud my head on the route back…

  • Why have I never done that before?
  • What did I think would happen?
  • Was my fear rational?

I realise that part of the fear that gripped me about hanging out with homeless people was baseless. Part of me worried that by hanging out with them, their “homelessness” might in some way be infectious. That I might also become homeless.

Where did I get that thought? My parents? Society? I’m not sure.

Perhaps I thought they might attack me, steal my money, or treat me badly.

Sure, there will be homeless nutters out there. Those who’ve had one too many hits of methamphetamines, and end up conversing with thin air.

But today I got lucky. I really couldn’t have expected to be treated any better. They conversed with me like friends would do. Shared their stories and asked nothing in return except an ear to listen.

I wonder if life could have taken very different turns for them if they just had someone there to support them when the blows came. Whether it was the relationship troubles or the financial troubles, when things got back, and they teetered on the brink, could the right person at the right time made all the difference?

We’re living in an individualist society. Where once there was the family unit to fall back on, there’s no guarantee of that for everyone anymore.

This day certainly left me with food for thought…

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Posted by John Alexander

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