It was almost 9 p.m. The sun was setting, strips of sapphire, orange and pink floating in the sky. I ran from the Fremont BART station to the express bus that would take me back home, wheezing from the remnants of a chest cold. With no money on my Clipper card, I grabbed a handful of quarters and dimes, and I slowly paid my bus fare. The bus driver raised his eyebrows. When I finished paying my fare, I took a seat in the front, aching partly from thoughts about school but more so from the fatigue of a long day.
A black man with worn eyes and graying hair came onto the bus. Carrying a cart, torn backpack and worn sleeping bag, he took a seat behind me. He smelled like mint. A voluptuous blond woman sat across from me, wearing a gray baseball cap and a torn teal shirt. She clutched close to her chest a green Trader Joe’s bag and began talking to the man, whose name was Robert, about going to a church in San Jose.
I hiccuped. The blond woman laughed. I looked at her and smiled, laughing at my inability to control my body functions, too worn out for speech. She laughed again in surprise when Robert’s cart rolled over to her. Suddenly, the bus lights turned off. A boy my age sitting across from me looked up in surprise. Everything was dark except for the blinking red lights that showed the time on the bus, which rocked gently back and forth.
The woman said, “Look at the sunset, Robert! Isn’t it pretty?” The sunset was slowly fading away, swallowed by dots of lights in giant buildings.
He replied, “I know, and don’t you see the moon?” He pointed to the white crescent flaunting itself in what would soon fade into a dark blue sky. The blond woman smiled at him and then at me.
All was quiet, except for a middle-aged Vietnamese man yelling into his phone that he was almost home. And indeed, we were almost home.
I felt as though I was embarking a journey with complete strangers, like we shared something in common that was often overlooked in our rushed daily lives, which we conduct by creating walls of difference rather than bridges of community. For a moment, the anxiety of interacting with strangers was gone.
Ever since I came to college, I began noticing these walls set up between students and the homeless population. Someone could be asking for change or food or sometimes throwing out a compliment. Comments like “You’ve got a beautiful smile!” were met with cold shoulders. I always felt myself shrink back a little in shame whenever I saw this happen, although I knew that it wasn’t always rational or safe to talk to or acknowledge strangers.
This wall of otherness manifests in concrete public policies as well. According to NPR, criminalization of homelessness is on the rise. The National Law Center for Homelessness and Poverty also states that homelessness increased in urban areas after the recession, followed by a widespread initiative to revitalize downtown areas, which elicit crackdowns on the homeless. Grounded in appeals to public safety, laws that criminalize homelessness prohibit actions such as sleeping in vehicles, loitering and begging. Advocates for the homeless oppose these laws, considering them counterproductive. Many of the homeless cannot afford jail time or fines, and arrest records make it more difficult to find housing or a job. Many also suffer from mental health issues and substance abuse, struggling to understand city bureaucracy. Moreover, since 2001, the United States has lost more than 13 percent of its low-income housing.
Reforms such as housing developments and mental health and substance abuse services have been initiated for the homeless population. For example, using funding from a tax on millionaires for mental health assistance that California voters approved in 2004, Los Angeles County has committed $118 million to 41 housing developments with a total of 2,066 residences, 918 set aside for those who are mentally ill and homeless.
But a shift in concrete policy is arguably less powerful than a shift in perceptions of homelessness, which is more ambiguous and convoluted to draw out. I’m always surprised when I see the most rampant and affectionate displays of patriotism in political and community speeches, where leaders address citizens as “fellow Americans” and “brothers and sisters,” and where they end speeches with “God bless America.” I can’t help but wonder, freedom for whom? Blessings for whom? Civic solidarity is painted with such broad strokes, when trust and empathy are difficult to manage on a mundane basis. When things like eye contact or a simple hello are difficult to muster, how do we learn to share and project human dignity?