SOBERING, TROUBLING, and LASTING IMPRESSIONS

Aboard BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) to San Francisco from the East Bay city of Fremont, a 20 mile drive north of my home in San José, I thoroughly enjoyed the ride on the rails. While driving to the station, I have to admit that even the usual aggravating sloth-paced Friday afternoon commuter lane crawl was enjoyable, all because my upbeat, recent college-grad niece accompanied me. I hugged my niece goodbye at the station, and we headed for separate trains. I was excited to hop on anything that would move gloriously faster than what we had just endured. If that thought wasn’t enough to keep my mood elevated, I was thrilled knowing that my vehicle was parked in a well-lit and patrolled lot in front of the station and, as I had timed my trip purposefully for a post-3:00 p.m. Friday afternoon departure, parking overnight for 24 hours into Saturday would be free. So not only was I spared the painfully slow freeway commute to the City, I also would not have to fork over big bucks to park there. BART would bring me very close to the Moscone Convention Center, so things were working out perfectly. Well, I believed that until I walked through the Powell Street Station in San Francisco.

I had not ridden BART in a long time, although weekly I look forward to my niece visiting us for a day or two from her place in the East Bay. I meet her outside the Fremont station; she sits on a bench if I’m running a few minutes late. My niece has never told me she has felt unsafe, and I have not witnessed people who make me worry about my niece’s safety. I see folks of all ages rushing in and out of the station and waiting for rides. However, after my walk through the Powell Street Station last Friday, I vowed to myself that I will not ride BART again into San Francisco as long as I have other available options.

I don’t think of myself as a “head in the sand” person, so my shock at seeing homeless person after homeless person, body after body, sleeping on the floor throughout the large Powell Street Station surprised me. No, that’s not accurate. It stunned me. Some people, men mostly, slept on flat pieces of corrugated cardboard. Others slept on the floor with a rolled-up sweatshirt under their head, with no cardboard separating themselves from the floor. Throughout the long underground station, many people had chosen to sleep next to a wall, but others had positioned themselves with their heads against the wall and their feet jutting into the corridor. As it is a wide corridor, at least I didn’t have to step over anybody. Some people sat propped up, and a few were eating. One man was talking to no one in particular, but overall, it was eerily quiet. Walking through the station I noticed two separate empty squares of cardboard, one set in a corner with a blanket on it, and the other against a wall. I figured these “beds” were already claimed. I looked at my watch; it was just after 4:00 o’clock in the afternoon on a bright and relatively warm day without precipitation. What would this place look like in a few hours when it grew dark? I consider myself a compassionate person, but honestly, I did not want to walk through the station at that time to get my answer. I was in shock.

My city, San Jose, has a large homeless population and I’m not immune to it. No one is, really. I choose to live in an urban neighborhood, so I see more homeless people than I would were I to live in a suburban or rural area. My neighbors and I do not turn a blind eye to people near us who are in need. Sometimes meals, clothing, and sleeping bags are accepted, and other times, they are not. Some of the homeless in my neighborhood are very kind people, though neighbors have not been able to engage them in lengthy conversation. At the park where I walk my dog, there is a constant discussion among neighbors as to what can be done, especially since people have been known to sleep on the school grounds. One man has called the school his home now for months and months. I was told that the school administrators have asked him to vacate the grounds when classes are in session, and he obliges. This gentleman uses a small space. There is always evidence that someone inhabits this space, as he may leave food containers or wrappers, trash, there, or some clothing that neighbors have given him. And there is always a rounded depression left in the tan bark where he sleeps.

Can a person live at a school? Other than asking him to leave the grounds during class time, the school does not take responsibility. They say they can’t. But isn’t the school responsible for the health and safety of its students and staff? This homeless man is not a safety threat; he has a gentle disposition and acknowledges us. However, there are other homeless people who have lived in the yard, or who have spent time there, and not all of them have been kind. One is belligerent, and I feel threatened when he is near. There may also be a health threat, even from the pleasant man.

When neighbors arrive to enjoy the park after school hours, conversations frequently progress from noticing if the homeless gentleman is in his usual spot, to asking if other homeless individuals have been seen at or near the school that day, and if anyone knows if they have eaten or accepted recent offers to help. We wonder what can be done when someone is living on the school grounds, as it just seems wrong. Neighbors discuss what obligation the school has to step in. We wonder how this man survived the bitter winter this year. We recognize that while there are more homeless in our neighborhood now, it is still a drop in the bucket compared to the large-scale homeless problem in San José. We discuss just how little the police can do, especially on a long-term basis, even when a person becomes belligerent and throws rocks at us (we do call the police for situations like that). We wish out loud that the long-term school resident would change from his tattered, filthy rags to the clothing that neighbors have given him, and we also wish that he would avail himself of neighborhood services for the homeless. If the man who lives at the school uses bathroom facilities in local businesses during the day, what about after hours? We wonder if local restaurant owners ask the homeless man to leave if he has been standing or sitting outside a business for a long period of time, though we don’t think they have done this. We ask ourselves if there is anything more that we can do. There must be city or county services available. However, just like refusing to wear new clothing, what happens if help is refused? Again, can people live at a school? We acknowledge that we shouldn’t always feel obligated to buy a coffee or a meal every time we walk by a homeless person. The problem is overwhelming and our frustration escalates. One of the neighbors described how one morning, when he was in line at a local coffee shop, a homeless man created a minor scene, talking loudly in the shop, and after he was asked to leave and was standing outside the premises, a patron handed him a hot cup of coffee. That worked; sometimes we see the humor in experiences. We talk about the future, the importance of a stellar education for our youth so they can live and work in society and make good decisions to help end the perpetuation of a cycle of living on the margins. We discuss it all as our dogs run back and forth in the side yard, chasing balls and having fun. And we make a decision as to how we exit the school grounds, which border two streets, depending on which homeless person is stationed where.

As a result of my experience at the Powell Street Station, I opted to take Caltrain to San Francisco and back each day to attend a convention. Not only is the San Jose Diridon train station only a mile from home, the San Francisco Caltrain station is even closer to the Moscone Center, and I did not have to file past dozens and dozens of homeless individuals in either of the stations. I breathed a sigh of relief. This was going to work for me.

While walking to the Diridon station very early one morning, I had to sidestep a man sleeping on the sidewalk of the underpass as I neared the station. I am fairly certain he was just sleeping, although I wasn’t sure; he looked very still. I’m assuming it was his hypodermic needle that I stepped over in the middle of the sidewalk. When I told this story to a colleague at the convention, she said that the night before, when she was walking through the Powell Street BART station and past the many, many homeless people, one homeless man was vomiting. She said it was bad. She didn’t know who was going to take care of it, and she was upset by it.

Sadly, that’s two of us now who are going to elect to start driving again to the City.

Kathy Galgano

June 7, 2014