Jan 10 12

Reflection: Streets of Paradise

by Emily Benjamin

I remember when we arrived in San Francisco last year, more than a few people mentioned to us the strange mix between wealth and poverty here in one of the biggest cities in the world. San Francisco is the home to some of the wealthiest people and companies on the planet, and it is also one of the most expensive places to live. But it is also ‘home’ to hundreds, perhaps thousands, of homeless people.

One such homeless person is Jasper. Jasper is an African American homeless man that sits outside my local Walgreens, and he is an absolute gentleman. What I like about Jasper is exactly what I like about most people – he has a positive attitude, he’s nice to people, and generally he is inoffensive. That might sound like a strange list, but in context of the documentary ‘Streets of Paradise’, it makes more sense. In the documentary, a number of people in Santa Barbara were interviewed for their opinions and thoughts on the homeless people living in the city. I recall one man said that he doesn’t like standing near homeless people that smell – he finds it offensive, and would prefer it if people that smelled weren’t near him, his home and his shopping centers. Now, I can understand that initial feeling or reaction to a bad smell – but for me, the understanding that many people can’t change the way they smell quickly counteracts that initial reaction. If I was living on the streets, I doubt that my body odor would be the first thing on my mind each day. So while someone smelling less than favorable is, well, less than favorable, it’s not a big deal to me.

Another man in Santa Barbara said he was annoyed when people begged for money. Money is a funny thing, though. People can ask me for my time, my thoughts, and my company… but the moment someone asks for my money, I’m defensive. I’m not really sure why. I have been asked for money by homeless people hundreds of times – sometimes I’ve given it, other times I haven’t, and only once did I offer to get them some food instead. On this occasion, the man replied ‘I don’t want the food, I need the money for weed’ – so I have never offered food again. I understand that he was perhaps an anomaly, but I wouldn’t give my best friend money for drugs, so I won’t give money to a homeless person for drugs. So I can see the man’s point. But I can also see why homeless people have to try it. If you don’t have something, and someone else has what you need, you should ask. And if you ask enough people, without any success, you will inevitably end up feeling tired, defeated, and desperate. But, homeless people have to keep trying, so I can’t blame them for that.

One of the homeless men interviewed in the documentary captured the other side of the argument – that homeless people are people, too; they just want to be treated like anyone else. I agree with him, and if someone – anyone – says hello to me on the street (whether they smell or not!) I will say hello back, and ask them how they are. If their next question is to ask for money, I will probably shake my head and walk away. But Jasper is different. Jasper sits there during the day, calling out to people walking past. However, he’s not asking for money; he just calls out ‘Hello’ and offers compliments, jokes, or generally tries to make people smile. Jasper doesn’t know my name – he calls me ‘Red’. A few weeks ago, when I was walking out of Walgreens after being at the gym, Jasper yelled out ‘Looking good, Red! You’re as thin as a stick!’ I was so taken aback by his spontaneous compliment that I spun on my heel, turned around and chatted to him for a few minutes. He was selling newspapers for a $1 each, but I gave him $5 instead, claiming I had nothing smaller. What is different about Jasper is that he doesn’t demand money, doesn’t get in people’s faces, and he tries to add something light and cheerful to the day of every person that walks past. Yet he still makes money from people, without ‘begging’. I know this might sound like his ‘good behavior’ is being ‘rewarded’ – and who are we, to pick and choose who to be nice to – but in life, good behavior is rewarded, and people are generally going to respond better to niceties rather than the opposite. As my aunt once said to me – “you catch more flies with honey!”

After watching the documentary, I spoke to my husband about it, to better understand both my opinions on homelessness and to see how they compared to someone else’s. The more I think about it, the more guilty I feel for having so much, even though I genuinely try not to take anything for granted. I have a roof over my head, plenty of food in the fridge, and a support network of friends and family around me. I wish that everyone in the world could have that. I don’t know if money is the answer to homelessness, but I think compassion is a step in the right direction.

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