PACIFIC NEWS SERVICE
SAN FRANCISCO “My pants are ripped. They are the only pair I own and I would like to get a new pair.”
“Well, we will see what we can do.”
She is all smiles. That big bright smile that only volunteers give while their eyes constantly search for someone to help them in case I go ballistic. I’m not planning on going nuts, I just want pants.
“Is there anything else?” she asks.
“What about medical? Or dental? Food stamps?” She begins to offer a wide list of services and this is how the trap is set, this is how I end up shuffling from line to line, this is how I spend most of my day. It is Oct. 18, 2005, and I am now deep in the belly of Project Homeless Connect (PHC).
To the people with four walls and a roof, the PHC represents a bimonthly mass mobilization of resources and services organized under one roof to help “clients” solve the problems that exist from living on the streets. It is an impressive display of volunteers, agencies and advocacy groups getting together under one roof to end the problems of homelessness.
When I had arrived at the Bill Graham Auditorium, which hosted PHC’s mass mobilization, I had high hopes that this would be the place that could solve my pants problem. Being a big person, clothes are hard for me to find. So far, I have searched through all the donation places and have come up with only this one pair of pants, which are now ripped with a large gash down the leg held together loosely with a piece of black rubber.
Waiting is the constant bane of the homeless. I stand in line to eat. I stand in line to sleep. I stand in line to use the bathroom. As I enter the auditorium and see the stadium seating above my head, I wonder why we have to stand for all those hours.
The first hurdle is a registration point called “triage.” Triage turns out to be just a series of questions and registration forms used to speed the process of visiting various organizations throughout the auditorium. I breathe again as I’m shuffled into the next room, but now, my boredom turns into paranoia and I wonder if the food they are going to serve for lunch is poisoned. I picture San Francisco as Hamelin and Mayor Gavin Newsom as the Pied Piper ready to rid the city of its human rat population.
My friendly, smiling escort shows me around to the various services. Soon I realize my escort follows me everywhere. A girl near me named April asks to use the restroom, only to be met by another smiling volunteer to show her the way. What started as paranoia now jumps into the world of the bizarre.
“What would you like to do first?” my volunteer asks.
“I need some pants.”
“You don’t need medical? Dental?”
“Nope. Just pants.”
My volunteer is now confused, but the smile never fades. We walk from table to table, booth to booth. There are no programs there for clothing. They are giving some clothes out on the way out, but nothing now. What’s worse is, now the rip has grown.
“Well what else do you need?” my volunteer asks, as if having no solutions is the solution to my first dilemma.
I shrug. “I need shelter.”
We wander aimlessly from table to table, and I quickly realize that the volunteers are as clueless as I am as to what is actually going on here today. It doesn’t look like my pants situation is getting solved anytime soon, so I decide to check out food stamps and whatever other services I can find. I run into April again and I can tell she wants to just give up and leave, but her volunteer won’t let her. I can’t seem to escape from mine either. As April passes I slip her a note that has the tunnel routes and the escape plan.
I had arrived at 10, and by two, I decide to give up, too. I now have tons of appointments with doctors, government offices, TB and HIV testing, a waiting list for housing, but I am no closer to solving my problem than when I first arrived. On the way out, they give me a hygiene kit and ask me, “What was the best part of your day?”
“Lunch,” I smile back between gritted teeth.
Outside, I see that April has finally escaped.
“They wouldn’t let me leave for lunch,” she says. “I’m a vegan. They gave me this sandwich and told me it was vegan.” She tosses me the sandwich. It’s turkey.
More than 1,400 volunteers have shown up to help an equal number of homeless people, and in my heart I thank them. But to see volunteers all wearing bright new T-shirts and me leaving with nothing, not even a pair of socks, I have a feeling that San Francisco still does not have a clue about what the homeless really need.
Here’s a free clue: Next time, give the shirts to the people who need new clothes.
Crowbar is a writer for Roaddawgz, a multimedia drop-in space for young homeless, traveling writers and artists. Work created by homeless youth is published weekly on www.roaddawgz.org. Contact roaddawgz@ pacificnews.org.