About ten days ago, I attended “Homeless Connect,” a kind of trade show for poor folks. At a big auto show, all the most important car manufacturers in the world would have exhibits staffed by representatives who engage in conversations with attendees and disseminate lots of information regarding new products from their companies. It would be the same at MacWorld or at the Consumer Electronics Show -- and it was exactly like that at “Homeless Connect.”
The Bill Graham Auditorium in the Civic Center was packed with tables staffed by representatives from (I would guess) more than 100 agencies or businesses that provide services for the poor. The show also included a café where we were served a free lunch. When we were finished, the path to the exit led us by tables laden with food from the Glide Memorial Methodist Church food bank, and nearly everyone left with a big bag of groceries.
I have learned in the last couple of years that there is a surprisingly wide range of resources available to the poor but that accessing them is not often easy. When I used to go to the UCSF School of Dentistry for my dental care, I told friends that “they operate on the old Soviet system: instead of a filing costing you a certain number of dollars, it costs you a certain number of hours in line.” So too most services for the homeless and hungry can be had only after lining up any number of times – and that after traveling (usually by bus) to a remote location where the charity or government agency can afford to rent office space.
The nature of bureaucracies compounds the problem, since multiple layers of oversight and compliance require multiple forms and filings to qualify for whatever benefit is offered, requiring more lines and more waiting. Sometimes I think that the politicians who write the laws that govern these things just want to be sure that no one is “getting off easy.” If you are unemployed, they seem to think, the least you can do is show up at multiple meetings or individual appointments at multiple locations over a period of a week or more – just so we know that you aren’t getting something for nothing, even if the work you are being made to do is of benefit to no one, mind-numbingly tedious, and corrosive to your own sense of dignity or self-worth.
Not only that, but all the time spent queuing for this and that only makes it harder and harder to get on with a search for a real job.
Back to “Homeless Connect”: a friend of mine needed to get a California picture I.D., an item which is necessary if you want to enroll in any government program. At the DMV, he would have had to wait in line for hours. Even if he called or went online to make an appointment, the next available one would probably be weeks away. He would also have had to spend an hour or more on buses getting to and from the DMV office. But at “Homeless Connect” he got his I.D. after waiting in a line less than twenty minutes. And I was able to do something I had been meaning to do for months: I submitted an application for a free phone and free monthly wireless service through the “Assurance” program ( which, by the way, I mistakenly called “Access“ in the post titled “Accounts Payable.”).
“Homeless Connect” was also like other trade shows in that it attracted so many people that the organizers had to issue tickets. The tickets came in the non-transferable form of wristbands secured on your wrist by the official handing them out. The wristbands were printed with admission times so that manageable numbers of people would flow through the facility throughout the day. Men in bright yellow vests began to distribute the wristbands in the huge open square that is the heart of the Civic Center beginning at about 7:45 am. I got mine at about 8:00, which allowed me to enter at 11:00 am.
Different color wristbands granted entry at different times. I was looking at my wristband and smiling as I walked back home to eat breakfast. My wristband was orange.
The last time I had worn an orange wristband, I had been a guest of the county, first at 850 Bryant and then at Bruno. As I told you in Bruno, this label is affixed to your wrist as part of the dehumanizing and demoralizing process of being booked into the System. It cannot be removed with anything less than a very sharp pair of scissors -- not something that one is allowed in jail. Not even the officer who hands you back the clothes that you were wearing and the contents of your pockets at the time of your arrest will lend you a pair of scissors; nor will she cut it off herself. Apparently, you must not be allowed to be anything more than an object while within the Sherriff’s domain, even if you are walking out the door.
I complained of this to the officer who handed me my property.
“O don’t worry, honey -- you’re gonna want that.”
Her condescension evoked a bitterly sarcastic response which I need not report.
“No,” she said, “that’s gonna get you a free ride on MUNI anywhere you want to go. Just show it to the driver when you get on.”
Mumbling to myself, I carried my clothes into the alcove provided, stripped off my orange, dressed in my own clothes, and walked through the doors to the waiting area. There I sat down and laced my shoes. (When I was processed in, I was allowed to keep my own shoes, because they did not have any size 15 orange slippers, but I had to surrender the laces and shuffle around with my shoes half-fallen off for the ten days I was inside.)
Walking into fresh cool air was sweet not in the way sugar is sweet but in the way that moonlight is sweet. I wandered away from the jail texting friends with the news that I was out and then began to consider where I should head for the fast-approaching night. In jail, my Chinese friend (see Accounts Payable) had told me about a place nearby where I could get a room for $50, but there was, so to speak, no room at the inn. I remembered that I had once been able to rent a room for about $75 at a motel across town on Lombard Street. So I walked to Van Ness and waited for the cross-town bus.
It was now close to nine o’clock and very dark. I had been wandering around SOMA and then walking out Market Street for a little more than an hour. All that time, I did my best to keep my wristband, which was both a bright orange badge of shame and an advertisement to others to “Beware!”, pushed way up on my forearm, where the muscle was thick enough to keep it from slipping down to my wrist. I wanted it well hidden under the sleeve of my shirt. I had to keep pushing it back up my arm as it kept sliding down to my wrist.
I have to admit that there were a couple of dicey blocks that I traversed where I decided that I, a middle-aged white man with close-cropped hair and clean, neat clothing, might become a target (beggars; muggers), and I not only let my wristband slide out of my cuff but even casually rolled up my sleeves to just below the elbow so that everyone could see it. I noticed quick looks that were registering my appearance, sizing me up, judging my potential as prey, relax into subtle smiles of recognition when they saw the orange on my arm. So I felt more relaxed, indeed I felt safer, walking with my orange wristband through the knots of my fellow creatures along the sidewalk.
When the doors of the 49 Van Ness MUNI bus opened, I held my banded wrist up for the driver to see but pulled it back under cover of the cuff of my sleeve to hide it from the other passengers. I sat down quickly, in the first seat inside the door, where no one was close to me. After a couple of blocks, I asked the driver whether he stopped right at Lombard, and if he did not, where I should get off. He named the stop just prior to Lombard and assured me that he would alert me when we got there.
The trip was quick and uneventful. As we approached my stop, the driver told me we were there. I thanked him and said something about looking for a reasonable motel. As I stepped off the bus, I again thanked him for his help.
“Don’t mention it, Sir” he replied. “You are my Number One passenger tonight. Have a good night. And good luck.”
I was at first confused by what I took as misplaced flattery. What did he mean by that? Then I remembered my wristband. A heat of shame ran through me, leaving me a bit resentful: was he being sarcastic with me, an old white man who should be a well-to-do retired something but who instead was just out of jail? I was, after all, so obviously not important. Then I felt ashamed of having questioned the driver’s sincerity, and I decided that his exaggerated graciousness stemmed from a sense that he did not know what an appropriate comment might be, and he had tried too hard to make up for it.
As the days and weeks passed, however, I came to see the meaning in his words and to appreciate the depth of soul that this MUNI driver had shared with me. I see now that the moment shone with grace. He was the angel (the word means “messenger”) come to welcome me into the light with an acknowledgement that I had crossed over into the realm of that “common humanity” I wrote about in my first posting to this blog (“A Cup of Coffee.”) I realized that his brothers or father or uncles or even he himself probably had had experience with riding MUNI free with an orange wristband. Even now I feel sadness, gratitude, longing, honor, and truth when I remember his words.
The driver had said what he meant, and I can only hope that the goodwill I feel toward him will be somehow manifest in the days of his life.