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One at a Time
Richard Swerdlow knows he can't help every homeless person, but he wishes he'd helped at least one.

By Richard Swerdlow

A homeless man was in front of my building.

He showed up during that freezing cold snap. I noticed him on the sidewalk, as I was leaving for work, a tattered pile of dirty brown and gray. There was something Christ-like about the long hair, beard and sad eyes. He watched me silently as I stepped briskly around him.

It left me a little shaken up. I told my friend Bob at work. "Oh, there are all kinds of programs for them," Bob said.

But, programs or not, the man was still there when I got home. It was a cold night, and the man was shivering. I averted my gaze. In the elevator, I mentioned it to my neighbor Phil. "Crazy guy, it's annoying" Phil said, "We should call the cops."

Next morning, the man was still on the pavement. He looked worse; the freezing weather was rough.

I told my friend Sue at work. "Just scamming," she said, "He should get a job."

Arriving home, in his usual spot, something was wrong with his foot -- it was swollen and he'd wrapped rags around it. I gave him the bottle of water I was carrying. He took it and drank deeply, obviously very thirsty.

I talked to my friend Jane about it when she called. "Some drug addict, you can't help them all," Jane said.

And maybe everyone was right, since the next morning the man was gone. 

He may be gone, but he won't leave my thoughts. I think of him every morning, passing the empty spot where he sat. Is he dead? Shouldn't I have done something?

And I've been thinking, too, about those recent comments from that 29-year-old tech CEO, who found San Francisco's homeless inconvenient. "The lower part of society should stay out of your way,” he wrote. And homeless people are upsetting to look at. 

But I wonder what happens to the human spirit when we always look away, when we push the pause button on compassion every time we take a walk. 

Or when we rationalize homelessness, since everyone, including me, has some way to justify this human suffering on our own city streets.

There are as many as 5,000 homeless people in San Francisco. And as the city’s economic divide gets ever worse, that tech CEO may find even all his money isn't enough to keep them out of his sight.

And, no, you can't help them all. But I wish I had helped this one. 

With a Perspective, I'm Richard Swerdlow.

Richard Swerdlow is a teacher in the San Francisco Unified School District.

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