“Under the Overpass”

July 12, 2008 at 6:45 am | Posted in Memoir, Nonfiction, Philosophy | Leave a comment

(October 9, 2007)

I  like audio books.  They really help the time pass when I’m cooking and cleaning up my kitchen.  Audio books cost an awful lot, though, so I get them from the library – and, due to the selection, I’ll listen to pretty much anything.  On Sunday I picked up a book called Under the Overpass by Mike Yankoski.  A Christian college student from an upper-middle-class family, Yankoski decided he had a calling to live on the streets as a homeless man.  Citing Black Like Me and Thoreau, he convinces his horrified family to go along with this plan for five months.  He hooks up with another student who wants to go with him.  The two travel from Denver to Washington DC, Portland, San Francisco, Phoenix, and San Diego.

Also at the library, I picked up Debt Proof Living, where I read about 100 pages while waiting for a computer.  The author, Mary Hunt, who paid off over $100,000 in consumer debt, advocates giving to charity even while digging out from under the most dire debt.  “Hmph,” thought I.  “Ten percent, my foot!  Try that on my income with my debt load!”

I went to the post office, where I got three envelopes: a refund check, an appeal from the Redwood Gospel Mission, and another appeal from “Wild Animal Orphanage.”

I started listening to Under the Overpass while unpacking my groceries and cooking dinner.  I love stories of undercover journalism, like Bait and Switch by Barbara Ehrenreich and High School Confidential by Jeremy Iversen.  This promised to be a good one.  I settled in to washing two pounds of unusually muddy spinach and enjoyed the story.  I was pleased and unsurprised to hear that the pair raked in enough each day in Portland, my home city, to share food with others, and displeased and unsurprised to hear that being homeless in San Francisco was the toughest of all.

I’ve worked at a homeless shelter and a drug rehab, in transitional housing and other public assistance programs.  I’ve hugged homeless people and talked to them about how to get help with prescriptions and food boxes.  My family ate on food stamps for a short time, and I’ve been borderline homeless myself, sleeping on friends’ couches for about a year after my divorce.  So, I didn’t think this book would get to me.

It snuck up on me.  Mike and Sam are walking around San Francisco – supposedly one of the most liberal cities in the world, but you’d never know it by looking at its homeless situation – filthy, exhausted, and hungry.  They pass an Indian restaurant, and find that the owners have carefully packaged up two to-go dinners and left them in the flower box in front of their establishment, now closed for the night.  Suddenly I was clutching the sink, burning tears streaming off my chin.  I couldn’t stop, thinking of the kindness of these immigrants who probably worked on their feet 12 hours a day.  I remembered how generous I had been with charities when I was young – ten years ago – and how much volunteer work I had done with the food drives and with migrant farm workers, and how all that had faded from my life.  Earning more than double what I did in those days, with health insurance to boot, all I think about any more is getting a raise and paying off my college loans.

I hit ‘pause’ on the CD and opened the Gospel Mission envelope.  They’re literally four blocks from my apartment.  When I read John Grisham’s The Street Lawyer six months ago, I got all fired up about going there to volunteer in the soup kitchen.  What with vacationing in Las Vegas and going into the City for a nice four-star meal and suchlike, I somehow never got around to it – my weekends are so full!  I just changed jobs instead.

The appeal was for $21.48, $35.80, or $57.28 – $1.79 a meal, for 12-32 meals.  (Thanksgiving is coming up).  I got out my calculator.  The 32-meal option worked out to a little over $7 a week from now until T-Day.  I had just spent $3.75 on a loaf of artisan sourdough and $2.59 on organic end-of-season strawberries.  I opened the Animal Orphanage letter.  They wanted donations up to $100 to feed exotic animals.

I read a quote recently saying there are the same number of overweight people in the world as there are starving people.  Certainly what many of us spend on coffee and pet food could feed a number of people.  I know the statistics, too: Roughly 70% of the people living on our streets are mentally ill.  People die of exposure out there every winter.  I felt the irony: several weeks ago, I decided my bed was too soft and was causing me back problems.  I removed the egg crate foam I had on top of my mattress, rolled it up, tied it with string, and carried it out to the corner under a street light.  It was gone by 7:30 AM when I left for work.  I see these Street People every single day, because they hang out under the overpass which I ride under to go downtown or get to work.

Naturally I’m going to sponsor some $1.79 Thanksgiving meals at my neighborhood soup kitchen, although I won’t be eating turkey myself.  And I’ll buy a jacket for the Giving Tree at Christmas, my only charity for the last two years.  But will my good intentions all have worn off again by February, when the holidays are over?

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