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Treading Water

Homeless empathy

We wake each day to a panorama. It’s a panorama continually moving before us made up of people going about their daily lives. In our face is the elastic activity of our home, the buzz and intentionality of our work, meandering roads that we travel, nature permeating our view with beauty, and the verve of the rest of our world. It’s raw life bounding towards us in real-time.

What if you peered upon those streaming into your view with an intention to feel their life? It doesn’t matter if you actually see them in person, or on the news or other media. I found myself contemplating this as I observed the early morning crowds while walking to the train station from work. I thought how I desired to look upon others as more than just a mere shadow that catches the corner of my eye in a passing glance. I realized that I wanted to look deeper and longer at each person and try to understand just a moment of their story, and view them with the same lens of mercy that Jesus demonstrated. 

Isn’t it interesting how your eyes can make a fast track past those who look and smell like they are living on the street? As I was meditating on this, a young man in his early twenties passed in front of me. He was carrying all his belongings in a ripped up backpack, accompanied by shoulder bags stained with thick black smudge. His pants were hanging completely below his dark-stained blue underwear. Abruptly detaching from my holy intentions, I found myself scrambling to cover my face to escape the overpowering smell of marijuana and urine that flowed in his wake. His hair and beard looked like they hadn’t been washed in months.

I tried to get out from behind him, but the teeming river of commuters charging down the stairs beneath the street to the train station kept him directly in front of me, at the center of his acrid essence. Like the desperate lack of oxygen from swimming underwater too long, I was gasping for air from not trying to inhale for what seemed like a least a minute or so. He then forced himself into the turnstile of the person in front of me and got into to the train station without a ticket.

My indignation turned from disgust to injustice. This freeloader was cheating his way into the train station entrance where law-abiding people were following the rules and paying their way, I thought to myself.

I finally escaped from this quandary and got a seat on the train. Then I contemplated my reaction. Wow, what happened to wanting to “feel their life?” I was suddenly looking through the cold lens of the outward. I had snapped into disdain of the external versus looking inward to this young man’s heart. It felt ugly.


Who was I to judge this person? He obviously is destitute. Maybe he’s an addict that can’t retreat from his dependence. He could be in so much despair that he can’t function. Maybe he’s ill and isn’t getting medical attention. Perhaps he has been cast out by his family and has just given up. Conceivably, being ashamed of his situation he decided to live on the street rather than asking for help. Maybe he is more compassionate than I am. Perhaps he has sacrificed all he owned, and now has nothing left. The reality is that a story is being woven for this young man’s life and God is not done with him yet. Both he and I are creatures cherished by God more than anyone can comprehend.

I often walk past homeless people lying and shuffling about the streets of San Francisco. Some are sleeping on the sidewalk; others may be pushing a cart full of their sole belongings. Others are pulling food or cans from garbage bins. There may be a mother sitting on the ground with her young children in her lap and a sign asking for money to buy food. 

Now if I were to imagine what the world looks like through the eyes of the young man I was following earlier, I think it would feel like I was treading water in the middle of an ocean. The shore would be so far away that I couldn’t see it. The strange thing is that I would not be alone, because there would be crowds of people in boats sailing by, even bumping against me, but none of them would throw me a life preserver. No one cares.

Not only that, I don’t know where to go. I’m so hungry it hurts. The stores and hotels won’t let me use their bathrooms. The world is so unfair. I’ve been waiting forever but I’m not sure for what anymore. I dread shivering on the cement. Everything smells like piss. How has it come down to this? I’m just trying to survive..

Betsy & Phil

Years ago when I was attending U.C. Berkeley I would walk up Telegraph Avenue to get from my apartment to campus. Telegraph Avenue has been a kind of a Mecca for hippies who still identify with the glory days of the sixties. Homeless people lived on the streets and in “Peoples Park” near my apartment. Some had nicknames. One guy was known as the “Hate Man” because he would spend most days walking up and down the street yelling (very loudly) “I hate you!” to each person he looked at. Also a regular on Telegraph Ave. was the “Bubbles Man” who walked around waving bubbles and gazed toward you with kind of smile that reminded you of a painted on face in the circus. In the mornings there would always be people lying in almost every storefront doorway, and then shuffle to the curbs or street corners after being chased away by store owners. 

Because I grew up in the detachment of the suburbs, coming face to face with the stench and poverty of urban street life was not part of my daily panorama. It bothered me. Perhaps I was starting to feel the quiet desperation of the street people. 

I found myself getting to know many of the regulars on my travels to and from the campus. I would stop and talk when it seemed appropriate. My favorite person was an old woman named Betsy. Betsy’s leathery face looked like she had spent her life wandering through Death Valley where the sun had etched in creases of swarthy toughness as a kind of branding to the harsh elements of nature. Teeth were also scarce in her wide grins.

She wore this large bulky green army surplus coat year round. Like a baby bird in its nest, Paco her Chihuahua would peek out his head and then disappear again while talking to Betsy. She loved that dog like it was her child. 

We would talk most days. She told me that she had children, but they didn’t care about her and she didn’t know where they lived. I’m not sure if she really had children or not. Because she rarely finished a thought before ping-ponging to another one, I didn’t fully comprehend all of our conversations. Betsy never asked for money. Many conversations were about her desire to take a bus to Portland, Oregon, where everything was going to be “better.” Betsy never got to Portland as long as I knew her.

My roommates and I would sometimes go over to People’s Park to play football. The park had a substantial lawn area that was big enough to have a decent game. Under a mini forest of trees at one end of the park was where a commune of homeless people. In Berkeley style, there was also a community garden where vegetables and fruit were grown to share. When we showed up to start tossing the football around, some of the local guys would emerge on the field wanting to join in. Before long we were playing a real pickup football game that would last for as long as everyone wanted to keep going. It was cool because we got to know more of our street neighbors.

One day one of my roommates talked to the rest of us about a proposal he had to let one of the guys from People’s Park stay with us. The guy’s name was Phil, and the proposal was to offer to have him live in our apartment with us for one month, under the condition that he would need to spend that time looking for a job. We would commit to helping him find a job to the extent of our resources. He would also have to take part in the apartment chores that we had spread out amongst us.

We unanimously agreed to do it, and the next day Phil was living with us. Phil was about 20 years old, and the story that he told us was that he came from a well-off family in Chicago, but his parents kicked him out and disowned him. He had been involved in a “series of incidents that we not his fault” that got him into trouble. In the end, Phil hitchhiked as far away from Chicago as he could, and ended up in Berkeley. 

Phil may have been a drug user, but I really don’t know for sure. Listening to him talk was like being around an auctioneer, where your brain was always about 10 words behind what was being said. Like characters in a spy movie, his uneasy eyes would glance around to check if someone was watching him from the shadows. Soon you would find yourself glancing around as well, if only to see what he was looking at.

It was obvious Phil was intelligent. He would discuss history and politics at length with a bent towards conspiracy theories. He wasn’t interested in continuing his education, but was open to looking for a job. We helped him write down pertinent information to put on a job application, and coached him on how and where to do his job search. Despite this coaching and even providing job leads and contacts, Phil pretty much hung out at the apartment or on the street most of the time. We were surprised that he made very little effort to seek a job. As it got closer to a month passing by, we had a talk with Phil and reminded him of the agreement. He responded saying that he would focus more on the search. But after a month there was still little activity and no leads. We decided to give it another 2 weeks, and after that time had passed by, there was still no progress. We stretched it to a total of 7 weeks before having a difficult and sad conversation with Phil. We told him that he did not fulfill his commitment of spending the majority of his time looking for a job, and he just did not seem motivated or was a priority. I think he filled out one application during his time with us. We gave him some money and he moved out, and went back to living in the encampment at Peoples Park. 

It is overwhelming the number of people who are in need. I want to help them all and fix their situation and tell them exactly what they need to do and everything will be all right. But just like Phil, you can’t induce change if it is not stirred from within. 

When our kids were younger, Lauren and I decided that we wanted out children to understand the way some people lived outside of our area and develop a heart for people in need. At dinner one night we talked about people without homes and food living on the streets of San Francisco, and that we were going to help provide a meal to some of them. We all went shopping at the grocery store and picked out food to make a lot of sack lunches.

When we got home we all made sandwiches, and packed fruit and water bottles. Each of us had a backpack and some bags, and we loaded up the lunches and headed for San Francisco on the train. After arriving we quietly walked the streets, and when we saw someone in need, one of the kids or us would give them a sack lunch. Some were surprised, and some expressed their gratitude. I recall one man was sleeping under a bench, and one of our kids laid a lunch next to him and just stood there staring for a while, realizing how much in need this man was. 

Aching Heart

You can feel Jesus’ heart for humanity when reading how he engaged with crowds of people as he traveled:

When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.  (Matthew 9:36)

The numerous examples and penetrating instructions of Jesus in the book of Matthew and other parts of scripture remind me that we are all just beggars with nothing to give. We do need a shepherd. But we fight against that sometimes. It’s so easy to get ourselves pumped up about our position, or knowledge, or what we have. But undeniably everything we have comes from God. We need Him. We are cherished by Him. Jesus is the one who risks his life to go find the one sheep that strays off. Jesus is indeed our King and Messiah. We are his precious children and heirs in the abundance of His kingdom. He cares so deeply for every single human being, including the guy who I followed into the train station, Betsy, the Hate Man, Phil, and all of us. He loves us so much that he died for us.

When Jesus was on earth as a man, his heart broke for those who were destitute spiritually, emotionally, and physically. If He wanted to, He could have been like a super hero that raises His staff high above His head and conjures up a power blast to cascade over everyone, causing them to be completely healed and spiritually whole. But being a super hero was not His intent. He did not want to force us to just follow instructions, or be impressed with his power, or be coerced to love him. 

His heart ached for the ocean of turmoil before him. He was patient with their desperate pleas for help. Because they believed, he healed them from their hopeless conditions. He was overcome with tears and brought his friend Lazarus back to life after he had died. He watched His child the corrupt tax collector give up his lifestyle to abandon all for Jesus. He healed a woman who had been hemorrhaging for years. He talked to prostitutes and showed them how to start a new life with a clean slate of forgiven sins. He brought food to people who were hungry. He cast out demons that had wreaked havoc and annihilated lives for decades. He brought a military commander’s soldier and friend back to life without even seeing him. He invited outcasts of society to grand parties that no one else would have ever welcomed them to. He physically grasped the infected, scaled hands of lepers who were labeled as untouchable. Then he healed them of an incurable disease and freed them from the scourge of isolation and loneliness.

Jesus took away the guilt and reproach of all of us by sacrificing his own life as a payment for our sins. He allowed evil men to brutally beat, whip, cut, mutilate, and finally murder him so that we could be forgiven the sin in our lives and become sons and daughters of God in perfect relationship with him. This is what Jesus does because of his compassion.

But his kindness and mercy had an even larger scope. Jesus walked among his hand picked group of ordinary men not only to teach them with his words, but most importantly to allow them to observe God working through Him. Incomprehensible to them at the time, Jesus told his disciples that they would do greater things than Him after he was gone. They would come to learn that these greater things were not spectacular physical miracles, but rather miracles of the heart. By the resurrection power of His Holy Spirit working through them and others who followed Jesus, broken lives would be made whole. A new life with a perfect relationship with God The Father and heirs to His Kingdom would be gifted to them.

In our daily journeys humanity will continue to stream into our view. Some are like damaged ships being pushed around by the waves and churning currents around them. And if we look into the eyes of those before us, do we contemplate that there is a deeper story, or stop to help with a need, or just to say a kind word? Or do we just keep our head down and move on?


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