Coming from 20 years on a kibbutz (an intentional community), it was a shock to see so many homeless people on the streets of San Francisco and Berkeley. There are over 14,000 people without a home in the City and I think this is a black mark on an, otherwise, amazing urban area.
Compounding this is the alarming amount of war veterans who swell these ranks. The idea that a man or woman was willing to sacrifice their life for their country and to then be thrown onto the street and forgotten makes my blood boil.
I served in the Israeli army, a national service that most Israeli youngsters must do. Afterwards, men serve for up to a month a year as the country and army are so small. If a soldier is wounded, inside or out, they receive the best medical attention possible, the best counseling, and whatever else is needed. It isn’t perfect, and there are a few who slip between the cracks, but there is a national consensus because everyone serves.
It was an incident with a war veteran outside the San Francisco Zoo that served as the kernel for Unwanted Heroes, a fictional account of a war veteran still battling on his own personal front in San Francisco.
The real incident involved a proud war vet selling small American flags for $1 each. Seeing his two rows of medals, I gave my sons $5 but told them to only take one each and leave him the change.
The man began yelling at them and then at me. I had offended him. He did not want charity: he was doing a business. I felt terrible that I had insulted him. I took the change back from him apologizing and took my sons into the zoo where we bought ice cream and I explained to them, as best I could, what had happened.
I am never comfortable giving money to homeless people on street corners for all the stereotypes that prevail: will they spend it on drugs, alcohol, fast food etc. I know it is wrong to feel this way, but I do.
But I never hesitate to buy a copy of Street Spirit, a newspaper sold for a dollar by homeless people.
From the Street Spirit website:
“Street Spirit is a publication of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) that reports extensively on homelessness, poverty, economic inequality, welfare issues, human rights issues and the struggle for social justice. For the past 17 years, Street Spirit has been dedicated to empowering poor and homeless people and giving a voice to the voiceless, at a time when the voices of the poor are virtually locked out of the mainstream media.
American Friends Service Committee shoulders the entire printing costs of more than $3,000 per month to give more than 100 homeless vendors a positive alternative to panhandling, and to give our readers a progressive alternative to the corporate-controlled mainstream media. Help us remain an independent voice for justice! Please donate or subscribe to Street Spirit.”
In addition to offering homeless people a chance to earn money, it also offers them a voice as the homeless themselves write many of the articles. One man who sold us a newspaper told us proudly that he wrote a poem that was in this issue.
My youngest (then 9 years old) opened the paper to where the poem is and asked him to autograph it. You could see the pride in both the poet and my son, who then told him that I was also an author and we shook hands – two writers.
So next time you pass a homeless person selling Street Spirit, see if you can spare a dollar bill. It will help buy a man some food and some dignity.
Alon Shalev is the author of the 2013 Eric Hoffer YA Book Award winner, At The Walls of Galbrieth, Wycaan Master Book 1 and The First Decree, both released by Tourmaline Books. Ashbar – Book 3 – is due for release in October 2013. Shalev is also the author of three social justice-themed novels including Unwanted Heroes. He swears there is a connection. More at http://www.alonshalev.com and on Twitter (@elfwriter).