A New Path to Reclaiming the Block

by Ben Judd

As pandemic relief efforts come to a close in this city, the future of solutions to homelessness is uncertain. Frustratingly,  it has taken emergency responses to life-or-death illness to effectively address the problem. 

The recent Point-in-Time (PIT) survey findings show that unhoused people have been relying on safe-sleeping locations that opened during the pandemic. As these sites close, people will be forced to once again search for a safe place to rest. COVID relief also included sanitary measures to protect residents—much appreciated—but there’s foil for that in its absence. What people need is a bed, global pandemic or otherwise, and what few Shelter-in-place hotels remain are set to close at the end of this year. Mother Brown’s, Providence, MSC, and a host of other shelters will now absorb the influx of people looking for shelter. As currently structured, lasting solutions are lost somewhere in a fog of pandemic response and unexplored territory. 

My perspective is that of a housed, well-to-do San Franciscan who works at one of the non-profit organizations that existed before the City rolled out its pandemic response. I’m the chef on a team serving meals in compostable trays found around the city. Over time, I have collected stories from many of my coworkers about their own experiences of  homelessness, and their eventual journeys back to housing. I also hear the feedback of our guests, who repeatedly clearly state that they just need a place to sleep. Their stories point to how extreme desperation takes hold of the mind, and hurts a person’s ability to think or act rationally (whether they are homeless or not). To those of us who haven’t experienced homelessness, these are the most unlikely of friends who have the capacity to speak life into this struggle. They have helped me come to terms with my own troubles, and I hope they share their stories when the time is right for them.

We operate in the Tenderloin, a neighborhood filled with many reliable services. Programs here are ready to save lives, yet often can’t meet people halfway, and ultimately have unrealized potential. The Homeless Outreach Team (HOT) and the Drug Overdose Prevention and Education (DOPE) Project represent a foundation of entities needed to save lives, but don’t offer what someone on drugs looks to for help on a day-to-day basis. They can educate people on safer drug practice and harm reduction, but cannot convince someone they would feel better sober. They can administer the Narcan needed at any moment, but by doing so might pull someone back to the reality they were so desperately escaping. My organization can offer a meal, a shower, and change of clothes, but not every person in crisis has the wherewithal to prioritize this either.

I hesitate to think it could be the free choice of a stable mind to turn down a life-saving meal, but even eating is often out of scope for many suffering people. Someone might be painfully starving for food, yet refuse a meal. We do in fact serve a lot of meals, but a short-circuited mind will push away help if it’s not specific to what they are looking for at that moment. By offering beds in hotel rooms during the pandemic, the City met many people where they were with their grief. A reliable safe space to rest answered the most primal request of the city’s homeless people. Safety is the feeling people so desperately need, yet someone’s need for help still waits around the corner. So as long as these cries creep through my window in the night, and I walk through my neighbors’ living spaces, we will be intertwined until a new solution is explored.

For years now there has been a great struggle to address homelessness in San Francisco. Attacks continually emerge in the media blaming drug users for this, often failing to appreciate the humanity of their subjects. Recent legislative action to increase police funding reframed this problem as criminal, but failed to grapple with substance use as a public health question. What is left of the Breed Administration’s state-of-emergency funding is the orange-butted block guns used by officers to leverage their stance in every face-to-face situation. 

It’s safe to say the police serve to increase the anxiety and lack of safety for people surviving on the streets. People are left to navigate their environment alone, be it in the spirit of retaliation or complete mental dismay. For each person this struggle looks so different, and should be appreciated as unique. What is shared is the space this trauma unfolds in: the Tenderloin. 

If the mind can be understood like a map of roadways, a traumatized mind is one shattered, rearranged, and re-solidified. No connecting routes are familiar. It’s impossible to navigate your mind when you can’t recognize your own thought patterns, impulses, and are afraid of the world around you. This much I can speak to with confidence, from a sober space. I can’t even begin to describe how the substances at play here supercharge disorder. The next unwell pedestrian you see walking circles in the street might be dealing with more than just a high.

It’s time we find ways to help those suffering put their mind at ease. Find ways to stabilize when ungrounded, woken up, and swept from one block to the next. Breathe through any situation, so they might have the ability to calm the noise of a frantic mind. Those moments when clarity passes over can be far and few between, especially when distraught. We can practice re-centering the mind with conscious breath so that peace and sense of direction might fall into place more frequently. This practice allows the mind to reclaim the space it needs to process stimulus effectively, and to calm any storm in the face of disruption. It’s the resolve I needed in the moment I found myself under the weight of 6 officers pinning me down. Their enjoyment in it effectively left me broken, and I was left to scrap for any dignity I could find on my own. It is also the ultimate goal of a zen practitioner, or Buddhist monk, to find stability in groundlessness.  

This is clearly no replacement for programs that alleviate immediate suffering across the community. We owe our neighbors more than a fighting chance; we owe them safe and permanent housing. You need a safe space to rest your head so these ideas might assimilate into a lasting framework of solutions. Focusing on your breath is simply a practice I realized improves the mind’s ability to handle stress and it helped me see the world more clearly. 

Seek out a neighbor who might want to join you, or enjoy two minutes to yourself when the time feels right. Turn inward and listen to the silence, even if it’s deafening. This is the sound of an alarm that’s gone unheard for too long—sit with it. Most importantly, learn to sit with yourself and love each passing emotion. I hope this message resonates with crisis and wellness response teams, with people who might have more direct interaction with unhoused people and an interest in sharing the practice. 

My friend Kenny complements this thought well by explaining his own experience with mediation while in confinement. “If I would have known meditation before I went in the hole, I would have seen the whole world shining. Instead, when you’re locked up, you close the world out, and start questioning God. But you gotta let light in, or you’ll miss the one hand meant to help you.” My brother served 38 years’ time across every CA state penitentiary. I’ve never met someone so prepared for their blessings and at peace with the challenges that lie ahead. Breath is everything. 

 Time, space, stability, and new peace to the Tenderloin.