A couple of blocks from my home in Seattle, there used to be a homeless encampment called Nickelsville. During my last year of high school, I'd walk past it and see families keeping warm around a fire and kids running around their shelters. Getting off the freeway ramp on Dearborn or Rainier, I'd see homeless men sit or walk up to cars begging for money or a smile. I grew accustomed to homelessness and became familiar with how to approach them - just avoid eye contact, especially if you're not going to give.
Before I moved to the Fillmore/Japantown neighborhood in San Francisco, I'd been warned that homelessness is pervasive in the city and that I should avoid walking alone at night. I thought to myself, "How bad could it be? I grew up in South and Central Seattle all my life. I'm pretty sure I know how to approach a homeless person. It's probably just gentrification speaking for itself. People are probably just exaggerating the situation just like the over dramatization of danger in Rainier Beach and Yesler Terrace."
In the 4 months I've lived in SF, I've definitely experienced more "in-your-face" homeless encounters, and I'm not sure if it's because the homeless population here is higher, or if many who are homeless are more likely to suffer from a mental illness. Maybe a combination of both. Back home, it seems that many of the homeless I've encountered are retired veterans who suffer from PTSD. And of my entire life living in Seattle, I'd estimate 2 close homeless interactions. The last I remember is simply walking out of my family's favorite Chinese restaurant, Honeycourt, and repeatedly being pleaded for change by a tall homeless man with long hair. I'd seen him many times before, and each time, I'd develop a little more sympathy for him. I typically say, "sorry," while shaking my head no and simultaneously walking away.
However, today's homeless encounter in SF left me feeling extremely harassed and my routine of saying "sorry" while shaking my head no only made matters worse.
I had just boarded the 38R to get back to my apartment. This bus route services more than 50,000 passengers daily and in my experience, passengers are literally butt-to-face, making it better to stand than to sit. The moment I got on the bus, I noticed a homeless man shoving through the crowded aisle mumbling, "got change?" to every person who made eye contact with him. I was facing his direction when he approached me and immediately after I said "sorry" while shaking my head no, he yelled, "b!tch! why you sorry?!" and continued to do so while aggressively inching towards me with his strong odor of urine. I was afraid he'd become violent. While making eye contact with him, I suddenly felt mute and internally processed how offensive my "sorry" may have come across. He might've interpreted it as pity while I meant it as a nice way to say no.
I couldn't believed what had happened as I searched for others to chime in to save me. Instead, all I felt were eyes and silence. What seemed like minutes later, a tall dark-haired gentleman came between me and the homeless man. I felt a sense of relief. I could feel myself gripping onto the bus pole tighter and I was counting the seconds until the homeless man got off the bus. I felt so violated and weak.
This experience made me realize how weak we can become during moments of fear. There's no protocol to prepare humans to respond in moments of fear because the reaction of people and things cannot be predicted. All I can say is, I'm thankful for the dark-haired gentleman who came between me and the homeless man. In the slight chance you come across this, THANK YOU!