We just recently took a trip to the west coast to take our high school senior to look at possible colleges to attend. We had our tour planned. We looked at Stanford, on the west side of the bay, looked at Berkeley on the east side of the bay.
Many years ago, I was a flight attendant for American Airlines and while I was based in the San Francisco Bay area I became as close as a family member to a couple that I call Mom and Dad “O” and after 22 years they will get to meet my son and my new wife.
So on the second day we head from the west bay of San Francisco, across the Bay Bridge into Oakland to stay with Mom and Dad “O”. It is mid day on a Friday and we are diligently following our GPS directions. Turn left, turn right and go under the bridge until you hit X Street. We make the turn under the bridge and all of a sudden we come across what must be at least 4 blocks of tents, grocery carts and a series of trash.
The first thing that comes to my mind, is maybe there is a flea market and the tarps over all the carts just mean the market isn’t open yet. The second thing that comes to mind is WHAT AN ATROCITY????? I think these are homeless people!
Now if you are reading this from another state, you probably think my shock is naïve and silly. And I must admit being from Oklahoma I am sheltered. But I lived in this area a long time ago so this site shouldn’t be a surprise to me. Plus, we have homeless people in Oklahoma. But I have never in my whole life seen anything like this…..or have I?
It isn’t until we arrive at our friends’ house and are enjoying our nice wine, warm meal and cozy visit that I bring it up for discussion. I mention that we had seen a crazy thing under the bridge, and before I can finish my sentence, they quickly confirm what we saw to be: TENT CITY. What? Yep…that’s Tent City - that’s the name of it.
So, let me get this straight, you actually have a city named for your homeless people’s grocery carts? You have people that claim they reside in TENT CITY? Can you get mail sent there?
I can’t believe it.
Mom and Dad “O” continue to tell us about it and how it has gotten national and local attention. It has been a consistent problem for a while. The City of Oakland has started to step in and try and take some responsibility in cleaning it up by dropping off porta potties, cases of water and non perishable foods so it has gotten a lot better in the last year. The city had been under extreme scrutiny, with many complaints from area residence about sanitary conditions and the nuisance of it all.
REALLY? It took the city getting major complaints before they decided to step up? But before I get all judgmental, I have to stop and ask myself. What do I think about homeless people? What do I do when I see a homeless person at the entrance to the freeway holding a sign? What would I do if I encountered unsanitary conditions in a place like TENT CITY and I thought my family might harm from it?
Honestly??? I am the person that tries not to make eye contact with the homeless person, just so I won’t feel guilty if I don’t give them anything. I am the person that instead of packing sandwiches to deliver to people in a place like Tent City, I lock my car door and take a picture from inside my car. I am the person that does lip service of how we can help thru a blog on a web site like this. I am critical of what seems to be a perfectly healthy human standing on the entrance to the freeway holding a sign when they could be working a job. Any job. I am skeptical they will take my hard working money and use it for good instead of on drugs or alcohol. I am bitter when I hear on a news report that the panhandlers make on average $35,000 a year and don’t pay a dime in taxes.
The funny thing is we; my wife, my son and I spent a good chunk of time discussing tent city. But not really in a how can we help sort of way but in a kind of judgment sort of way; in a kind of flippant sort of way. We said things like: “Oh well I bet the homeless population is big here since their weather is so nice.” and “They probably have more homeless people here because it is so expensive to live and I bet people get kicked out of their homes.” And if those statements above weren’t bad….we ended our discussion with something that sounded like this: “I mean let’s face it. The homeless people in OKC can’t possibly think they can make it year round in a tent thru our winters or hot summers; so what better place for the homeless but in California?”
But here is the deal. I think there is a reason that a place like Tent City exist just as much as I think there is a reason that I don’t want to look them in the face. Both sides have issues. And I know a simple blog like this won’t solve those issues. The issues are too complicated and many people have tried.
Maybe some of those issues are that those people choose to be homeless…I know that sounds harsh, but maybe they do. Maybe they don’t choose it but their mental issues are too great to manage and they don’t have resources to help. Maybe they are liars and they aren’t homeless at all and just want a free hand out. Tent City isn’t unique to California, homeless people are everywhere…and maybe the real reason they are homeless is a private matter and none of my business.
But whatever their reason….I think they are brave. Brave for holding a sign….brave for getting up every morning. And brave for collecting whatever resources they can find to make their life a little better than it was; even if it looks unsanitary to me.
So here is what I say to all of us: If the reason that they are homeless matters to us before we will consider giving…..then why don’t we try and find out what the reason is. If I am a human and care about other humans, then when or if we stumble across a TENT CITY, let it inspire us to be more grateful of what we have and more giving of what we can easily spare. And if a “Tent City” ever creeps up in your town. Do what you can…even it it's merely looking someone in the eye.