Who Will Help That Man?

It’s amazing what we learn to walk past in big-city (North) America.

Almost fifteen years ago, we took my daughters on a Toronto vacation. They were very young. The city I wanted to show them was the beautiful, somewhat imaginary place I remember from my own youth. In my mind’s eye, Toronto remains a squeaky-clean and safe counterpoint to gritty Rochester, Buffalo, and New York. This image was never fully accurate, even decades ago. Certainly today, Toronto faces every American urban challenge that doesn’t involve handguns.

We walked out of our fancy hotel for sightseeing—and immediately encountered a homeless man sprawled on the sidewalk. He was sitting on a dirty blanket. He was wet and cold on a blustery morning. With the stabbing innocence of a six-year-old, my daughter asked: “Who will help that man?” I stammered some crummy answer I’ve now forgotten. We were out-of-towners. He was right outside a major hotel in plain view of police and others. We didn’t know his story. We had places to go, sights to see. What else could we really do? We moved on.

Just last week, I attended the American Society of Criminology in San Francisco. I love that city, perhaps the most beautiful and prosperous urban jewel America has to offer. It also has an amazing number of homeless people, many of whom lay under blankets right outside the doorways of internet start-ups and fancy condos.

This Saturday, I was walking up Powell Street, headed to a fancy expensed lunch. I encountered this man. Yeah, it was a start.

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“Are you ok?” I asked.

A head popped up. A man smiled. “Yes, I’m fine.” His hair was knotted, and he was dirty. But he was happy and alert. He didn’t seem drunk, immediately ill, or high.

I asked if he was hungry. Could I get him anything? Did he want a sandwich? Nope. He just wanted to nap on the warm sidewalk. We talked for a few moments. Satisfied that he was immediately ok, I moved on.

Fifteen minutes later, I ordered a $15 chicken sandwich. There was a touch too much pesto. That’s not the way I like it.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is the Helen Ross Professor at the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago.