I’ve been up since 3:00 a.m. after going to bed around midnight. My son and I were in San Jose, attending F5 AppWorld. Our hotel was a half-mile from the conference center, so we’ve walked to the venue as much as the weather has allowed. San Jose has what feels like a large homeless population. It’s been varied as we walk the streets. Some clearly have substance abuse problems, but some seem to just have no place to go. I saw one woman with a small BBQ, cooking her meal. She had made a clear effort to keep herself clean and organized in the little piece of sidewalk she’d staked out for herself.
When we walked back from the conference last night, the enormity of the challenges the homeless face here really struck me. I understand how easy it is to feel overwhelmed when seeing so much pain around you. It made me reflect on how my daughter has felt in the past – feeling like there’s no hope. It made me think of what I’d tried to teach her when we picked up trash around our home in Mesa – do what you can, where you are. Even small efforts are worthwhile, better than doing nothing at all. To that end, at 10:00 p.m. or so, I ordered an Uber to go to Walmart. My driver was from China, and we talked about the homeless in the city, a problem she said was even worse the closer you get to San Francisco.
At Walmart, I bought the four adult sleeping bags they had. I also found four sets of triple-pair wool blend socks. My driver going back was named George. He worked in flooring restoration, but work has been slow. Uber was what was allowing him to pay his bills and keep his own family from being homeless. We talked about their plight and how it’s too easy to turn a blind eye to; seen too much it becomes familiar, and the shock of it fades. I tipped him the maximum Uber would allow, twice the fare. I received a “thank you” through the Uber app – the first one I’d ever seen; I didn’t know they could do that.
He dropped me by my hotel, and I only had to walk about 100 feet before I gave away the first two sleeping bags and socks. Walmart charges you for bags, but I’d bought four. Not expensive, but thicker than any bag I’ve seen at a store. It made me wonder if the thought was that in paying for a bag that was sturdier, they hoped you wouldn’t treat it as disposable. The first two people were by the 7/11, two men who had the hallmarks of drug use I’m too familiar with. Not much was said, but they mumbled a thank you and waved. I waited for the light and started walking across the street. A woman was walking up the street quickly, clearly hoping for a bag, so I walked towards her. She was more in the camp of the well-kept I’d seen on the streets. No place to go, but it didn’t appear to be from addiction. She expressed vehemently how grateful she was for the sleeping bag and socks.
The final person who I could help was just a few feet away, and it’s a sight I won’t soon forget. He was in jeans, a thin cotton hoodie, and was lying directly on the cement. He was further from the wall, and I wondered if he’d rolled there. He was asleep, or appeared to be, but was trembling. It was a cold night, and everything still had the wetness of recent rain about it. I tapped him gently. His hands had been over his face, and when he moved them away, I could see the ravages of whatever drug he was taking. I asked him if he’d like a sleeping bag and some socks. He nodded and started shaking all the more. I laid the bag and socks down and had to turn away because I was beginning to cry. I turned back, nodded, and walked away.
As I walked back to my hotel, I felt the unfairness and imbalance of our lives. I wasn’t able to write this down when I got back, but for the first time since coming to San Jose, I fell asleep immediately, emotionally drained. I wish I had the answers for homelessness. I know it’s not a simple fix, and it’s not fair to revile politicians who may be trying to help, but it doesn’t seem like enough is being done, especially in a tech city where money and affluence are on display.