What a Difference a Train Ticket Makes

Chris Block December 9, 2020

Charlie and I were walking down some steps after a long walk in Corona Heights in San Francisco.  In the corner, at the bottom of the stairs, sat a young man with a backpack.  Let’s call him “A”.

I make it a point on my walks and in my life to see homeless people when our paths cross. And by “see” I mean that I look at their faces and often say good morning.  It is not unusual for me to give them a couple of bucks, and now a mask is often included with the cash. When I looked at A, he looked hungry so I gave him a little more than I usually do and asked him how he was doing. As he answered, he started to cry and told me that he was scared.  

The story A told me is not an unusual one. He had been living with someone, they had gotten sick, the family came in, accused him of stealing, and kicked him out.  

As many of us have probably felt when encountering a painful situation, I wanted to help but I didn’t know what to do. It didn’t look like the homelessness response system was going to be in a position to help him. He was 25 years old, so too old for TAY (Transition Age Youth) services. He looked to be in good health, so I wouldn’t be able to get him into a SIP (Shelter in Place) Hotel, and he had not been on the streets long enough to be considered chronically homeless and qualify for ACE (Adult Coordinated Entry). 

All of our superpower acronyms were powerless to get this scared young man off the streets and somewhere safe.

So, I did the only thing I could think of and asked what he would like to do. He said he wanted to call his mom — he hadn’t seen her in a year.  

I handed him my phone.  He called his mom.  She answered, as if she had been expecting the call the entire time.

A told her he was scared. His mom said, “come home.” I took him to the train station, bought him a ticket to Auburn, and he was home for dinner.

I am not naïve. I know, from personal experience, a lot about drug and alcohol addiction; which tells me that A has a lot of work to do to make sure that his meth addiction doesn’t put him on the streets again.  But, he’s off the streets and with his family now — he caught a break.

Often that’s all you can ask for.

Actually, the train ticket home was the easy part – a short car ride and $35. The hard part was forming a circle of care including this young man, myself, and most importantly his mom.  The circle was formed at the bottom of some steps, made possible by a cell phone and fueled by hope.  A had to believe that he could get help if he asked for it, I had to believe that it was possible to help, and his mother had to hope every day for a year that her son would call. 

The biggest challenge we face in San Francisco around homelessness is not a lack of resources or a comprehensive strategy or community-wide transparency and accountability.  Sure, these are all challenges that we must meet in order to reduce chronic homelessness by 50% by 2022—a goal that the Chronic Homelessness Initiative at Tipping Point shares with the City. 

Most importantly, we have to believe that every homeless person can catch a break and that we all have a part to play in creating that reality.

The good news is that our work at the All In campaign shows that San Franciscans believe that this is possible. So the next time you venture out, think about how you might be a neighbor to someone on the street.  Maybe it’s as simple as eye contact and a smile. Maybe it’s striking up a conversation. Your actions could be the spark of hope in someone’s life. 

Of course, it will take more than hope to address the homelessness challenge in San Francisco but that has to be the foundation on which our efforts are based.