Spring came overnight in San Francisco. The cold rain that persisted on and off for a skin-drenching, soul-crushing two months finally gave way to sunshine that illuminates the streets. Locals broke out their short sleeves, tank tops, and sunglasses. I, like many others, chose to walk on the sunny side of the street, drawn to the warmth and security of the long-missed sunlight.

Despite the new-coming sunshine, the concrete sidewalk remains a cold place to sit. The buildings still cast their shadows and the breeze still blows down the street, channeled in the wind-tunnel of the city. Even with the more consistent sunshine of spring, street living remains difficult. Those living on the street quickly welcome a warm drink.


As we poured her a cup, she told us a snippet of her story… a journey riddled with drugs, alcohol, and domestic violence…

A cup of warm hot chocolate goes a long way to make a connection — even in the middle of a bright March day in San Francisco. I know since I spent one March morning walking around the Tenderloin with a small group of people, a large thermos of hot chocolate, a stack of cups, and a smile.

With one cup of hot chocolate, I met Tiffany, an outgoing middle-aged woman. As we poured her a cup, she told us a snippet of her story. After a journey riddled with drugs, alcohol, and domestic violence, Tiffany has been clean for about a month having just finished a recovery program. Her motivation for the change? Her kids. She wants her kids back. Before the foster care system will give her custody, she has to stay clean for a few more months and rebuild her mental health.

“I’m bipolar,” Tiffany told us, “but I got on some better meds now that help me. But this whole area — it triggers me.”  

The ‘area’ Tiffany referred to is the Tenderloin — more specifically, the heart of the Tenderloin, notorious for its alcohol and drug scene as well as its homeless population. From where we stood, I could see about twelve people sitting or sleeping on the street and a few others heatedly debating a deal, the specifics of which I do not want to know.

“This area…” Tiffany shook her head, “… it triggers me. Everywhere I go here, I have to choose — I have to choose to stay clean. It’s not easy. I’m in outpatient now, but I’ve considered goin’ back to the [recovery] program just to get a little more help — but then I think, ‘No, I’ve got to know that I can do this on my own, that I am strong enough to get my life back on track.’”


I’ve got to know that… I am strong enough to get my life back on track.

As our small group listened to Tiffany, we offered to connect her to a local women’s shelter, a place reserved solely for women in recovery. Tiffany began to tear up, emphatically nodding her head, “Yes, yes, yes.” She wiped at her eyes, smiling, the cup of hot chocolate forgotten amidst the conversation.

Because the hot chocolate isn’t the point.

The hot chocolate just opens the door for human connection, for a relationship deeper than familiarity. Familiarity alone means nothing.

Every San Francisco resident is “familiar” with homelessness, but there’s a danger in familiarity, a crisis of apathy that results from a cocktail of frequent exposure and infrequent action — a cocktail so many in San Francisco unknowingly drink. This familiarity cocktail propagates indifference. The faces of the streets become commonplace, a supposedly unchangeable part of the cityscape, equivalent to the TransAmerica Pyramid or the Golden Gate Bridge.

How do you combat indifference? How do you reverse the process of familiarity without becoming ignorant?

Easy.

Just take out the headphones. Put away the sunglasses. Turn off the phone. Look up from the sidewalk.

See the people around you. Smile at them, nod at them, and respectfully acknowledge their existence.

Most importantly, simply let the homelessness crisis irritate you, anger you, and slowly move you to action.

The results will surprise you.


How do you combat indifference? How do you reverse the process of familiarity without becoming ignorant?

If I have learned anything in San Francisco, it’s this: I always want homelessness to hurt my heart, to invade my mind, and to provoke my compassion.

After all, homelessness is not an insurmountable problem, especially in San Francisco where countless local organizations work daily to meet the physical, mental, emotional, and relational needs of people experiencing homelessness. Ultimately, conquering homelessness to help these marginalized people will take everyone — organizations and individuals alike.

Together, we can restore hope and dignity to every resident in San Francisco — on and off the street.

Read Part I & Part II