A cold Wednesday evening in May 2017 found me standing, as usual, in front of the meetinghouse on 9th Street in San Francisco. Few people passed by that night. In front of me, one of the many drug dealers who worked our neighborhood was crouched, his back to me. I grappled with conflicting feelings.
I had prayed earlier that night for God to break open my heart, having no idea of what that might mean. I stared at the drug dealer’s back. Then I realized his shoulders were hunched up against the cold, and in an instant, I no longer saw “a drug dealer.” I saw a cold boy, barely in his twenties. I prayed, asking what I could do. At that point in my work, I had no supplies, no clothes, no food.
“You could give him your scarf,” came the answer. But that is not easy on the street. Young men are shy creatures, they startle easily. Silently, I blurted out, “Lord, I need to have an opening.”
And then the boy turned around, looked me in the eye, and asked, “How are you?” I was the one to startle. I hoped my shock did not show too much. For eight months, I had been standing on that street every Wednesday and could count on one hand the number of times anyone actually spoke to me. But taking the opportunity, I walked up to the boy, handed him my scarf, and said, “It’s cold. This will help.” He said nothing, but quickly wrapped the scarf around his neck and tucked it out of sight under his coat.
The boy went back to his crouch, and I went back to leaning against the meetinghouse. I could not suppress some irritation as I realized that I had another hour to go in the cold, now without my scarf. And then I began to feel warm. I do not mean that I had warm thoughts, or that my heart was warmed. I mean that I felt physically warm, warmer than I had been all night. I have no explanation. I get cold easily. I have never had an experience like that, but I got warmer, and stayed warm for the rest of the night.
I did not see the boy again for several weeks, until he slipped up to me quietly one evening, and with a shy smile, handed me a can of Red Bull. After that, I never saw him again. I rarely drink sodas, and at my age, I never drink caffeine at night, but I drank that Red Bull, one of the best gifts I have ever received. I still have the empty can, to remind me. And I have never seen the neighborhood the same way since.
What am I doing on 9th Street? I give out clothing; I check to make sure people are breathing; I suggest resources; I give money; and I listen. I currently visit regularly with four people with whom I have established relationships, talk with a dozen or so others from time to time, and occasionally get to know somebody new. One needs masks and gloves, and clothes for a son who is homeless. Another needs transportation to medical care in Redwood City. A third needs clothes, a bathroom, and a microwave. And one needs bathing, hygiene items, clothing, and laundry service. For them and for others, I offer a friendly chat, a sympathetic ear, and at times, a call for an ambulance. All welcome money.
Getting started: In 2016, a Friend of Color asked me one night, after our weekly Quaker study group, how we should respond to all the young Latinos near the meetinghouse. “What Latinos?” I replied. I did not remember seeing any. But when I left the building that night, I saw lots of them. I began asking myself, “How can I be so blind?” And then, “What else am I not seeing?” I was deeply disturbed. Finally, I began to ask, “What can I do?” and eventually got an answer.
The answer that I received was tailored for me in particular. I am a retired social worker, with over twenty years in psychiatric social work. Early in my career, I was hired by a program for homeless youth in the Tenderloin. I began standing out on Polk Street at night, to try to learn more about this new world. It occurred to me that I might try that approach again.
I began by attending our midweek meeting for worship, and afterwards, instead of going home, I stood outside our building. In those cold and lonely nights, I had no clear idea what I was doing. All I knew was that I had to be there. Sometimes I read from the Psalms, and sometimes I asked in my prayers what I was supposed to be doing. One night, I received four words, an answer as clear as if spoken aloud: “See. Be seen. Pray.” So that is what I did. I tried to observe as much as I could; I was noticed by lots of people, since an old man on crutches just standing outside was an unusual sight; and I prayed a lot.
Over time, I got to know some people, and they began to ask for concrete help – money (which I declined to give at first), clothes, food. After a year or so, my meeting allowed me to use space in our basement, and I began to collect supplies. I set up a collection barrel in our lobby, and Friends started donating clothes and other items. One thing leads to another.
Every now and then, someone will ask, “Isn’t it dangerous?” I have found that violence is rare. My training as a psychiatric social worker helps me assess the risk of a situation, but mostly, I think I rely on common sense. As an old man who is disabled, I am not much of a threat. I can usually approach people without escalating their alarm. There are no hard and fast rules. I feel out each situation and try not to reach beyond my ability. However, boldness sometimes helps. A couple of times, I intervened in a violent encounter, and my arrival seemed to help end the fight, maybe because the combatants did not want to be watched – especially not by someone who looks like a “church man.”
It has now been over five years since I began this work, and it shows no sign of letting up. I still have my four “regulars,” whom I love dearly. I have lost some people who no longer come by. There are five I still pray for, though I do not know if they are alive or dead. Some of them were my best teachers, especially in the early years. I am currently working on arranging a simple memorial for one well known in the neighborhood, who died in March.
Last December, a man I hadn’t seen for a couple of years stopped by to say hello. I remembered him as struggling with drug use and homelessness. Then suddenly, there he was, smiling and looking better than I had ever seen him. Although I never had much contact with him, he remembered me with kindness. He said he had gotten off the street and off drugs, and his life had improved beyond measure. I told him that hearing his story was my best Christmas gift of all. And I prayed silent gratitude for kindness, which helps all of us through our troubles. ~~~
After decades of serving as librarian, and leader of Bible and Quaker study groups, Bruce Folsom was called to new life outside the meetinghouse. He is a member of San Francisco Meeting (PacYM).