Wake Up And Smell the Stink

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Before I head to work on those mornings after I finish at my gym -- dozens of classes, weights and machines galore, a salt water swimming pool, sauna, steam room, towel service, in other words, all a body could want -- I get on BART at the Powell Street Station.

There's a long pedestrian tunnel from the entrance I use to the station itself. Lately, in the morning at least, it's been home to a group of homeless folks, men and women, young and old, seeking a warm dry, place away from the cold and rain. The smell of body odor, urine and more, frankly, can be overpowering with dozens of unwashed people bedded down in a confined space. It wafts up from the tunnel as I descend the steps and assaults my nose as I quicken my pace to get through the tunnel to the station.

My discomfort walking through the mass of people is matched by my shame and frustration that people in the one of the wealthiest cities in the wealthiest country in the world are forced to live on the street, under the street, like vermin.

The old woman wrapped in the ragged blanket was once someone's little girl. The teenager under the tarp still is.

Yes, I know that a lot of these people have mental health issues, and have refused help in the past. Yes, I also know that a lot of these folks are drugged-out addicts. People blame the situation on everyone from then-Governor Ronald Reagan to selfish baby boomers interested only in the performance of their IRAs, but none of that relieves we who are more fortunate -- maybe just luckier -- from our responsibility to do something.


Governments, community-based organizations and caring individuals are all trying, but for some reason, it doesn't seem to work, and the problem seems to be growing more intractable every day. Many of us who work hard for our money prefer to hold our breath literally and figuratively as we rush by, ignoring the plight of these human beings, hoping that by some sort of magic they will just disappear.

Maybe we all need to stop and smell the stink.
With a perspective, this is Jeff Braff.

Jeff Braff is an infectious disease epidemiologist with a doctorate in public health from UC Berkeley.