There is an old saying: Until the last person is free, none of us is free.
That is how I feel as I stand for peace today, amidst the pain and suffering of the men and women who drag their few belongings to the piazza every night and try to stay safe and warm and to get a little sleep.
Most of these people ended up on the street because of mental illness. Some are here because a combination of medical bills and employment factors, exacerbated by their inability to hold a job due to health problems, caused them to lose their homes.
And yes, of course, some are here because an addiction got the better of them.
Walking the same route to work from the subway for six years, I watched one new street-comer after another slide quietly into the hopelessness and despair that the street offers.
Once on the street, even the most respectable looking man or woman eventually succumbs to the succor of drugs. I’ve witnessed individuals down on their luck gradually decline from a person with bright eyes, a ready smile in front of the sadness, and words of hope and belief that this is only temporary.
In the first months, even the first year or two, they studiously maintained hygiene, as difficult as it is when no public facility permits bathing or even washing up.
Over time, their clothing, at first showing the middle class affluence they once knew, frayed and tore.
Eventually, the burden of trying to wash a few things out in public restrooms, where such washing is strictly forbidden, and dry them in the damp air, became too much.
Increasingly forced to suage their hunger and thirst by eating and drinking from garbage can refuse, they lost their health and their teeth.
By the second or third year, regulars along my path to work or neighborhood degraded to ragged, filthy clothing, unwashed hair, and eventually, the rheumy, blood-shot eyes, rambling speech, and filth that bespeaks hopelessness and self-medication with whatever drugs are available for the quarters and dollar bills they collect in a day.
Can I blame them for succumbing to the comfort drugs bring, for whatever ease narcotics provide to the pain of daily vomiting up rotten food and living in a constant state of fear and sleep deprivation?
The unloved, untended mentally ill, and those unfortunate individuals who have used up every last resource, wind up here, in Joseph Alioto Performing Arts Piazza to sleep at night. Not all of them by far. Our city gives meager succor to thousands of disenfranchised homeless wandering the streets by day, seeking any warmth at night.
For me, walking the gauntlet of the homeless toward our standing spot each week, there can be no peace on earth until we find a way to take care of these, “the least of our brethren,” as Jesus said.
Until we do, I wear shame blazed on my back and on my forehead for my collusion in this tragedy repeated over and over and over again.
Text and image © L Kathryn Grace – All rights reserved