Tag Archives: homelessness

God at the bus stop

When my kids were small — preschool and toddlerish — a sixtysomething man introduced himself to the three of us at a bus stop. His name was Emmanuel, a name I knew I’d remember  because of its beautiful meaning: God with us.

Emmauel told me that he looked out for our family. A few months earlier, he had met Bus Nerd — or, as he called him, “Detroit” — at the park, through a mutual friend who is widely admired in the community. Any friends of such a stellar human were OK in Emmanuel’s book. So, when he saw us around the neighborhood, he kept his eye out. Made sure we were OK.

Emmanuel and I talked for several minutes (periodically interrupted by the tugging and whining of my bored children) while we waited —  about books, and city history, and parenthood. But when the 14 finally arrived, he didn’t board with us. Instead, he waved goodbye and headed the opposite way down the street.

After that day, as often happens after I make a bus friend, I started seeing Emmanuel everywhere: at the library, the pharmacy, the community center, the park. Every time, he was happy to see me, like we were old friends. Every time, he was full of questions and observations and ideas, ready to continue our conversation where we had left it.

A couple of years into our street friendship, Emmanuel’s appearance started to change. He grew thinner. He lost teeth. His skin started to sag. One day, on my walk home from work, I came across an apparently homeless man holding a sign at an intersection. It wasn’t until I approached him with a small offering that I realized it was Emmanuel, thinner and more ragged than ever. He tried to preempt any questions by saying he was having a tough month and waiting on a delayed check. I went along with the pretense of lending him a few bucks until his check came through.

After that day, I continued to see Emmanuel around the neighborhood, but instead of holding court in front of the library, I would find him holding a sign on the side of the road. After that first time, it got easier for both of us. We returned to our friendly conversations.

On one of my chance encounters with Emmanuel, I was with the mutual friend who had introduced him to Bus Nerd. That friend told me he had known Emmanuel for almost 50 years, since his days as a student at the University of Washington. They had been part of the small group of student activists that had founded the university’s Black Student Union. Emmanuel’s passion and intelligence had helped inspire our friend to devote his life to public service.

These insights into a man I knew only superficially reinforced so many truths. That our circumstances and choices and predispositions and the systems we are subjected to all work together to create our life path. That when we’re young and passionate and full of potential, we are not able to predict — or sometimes even imagine — the paths our lives ultimately end up taking. That our soulless, unforgiving, profit-driven culture routinely breaks people. And that, even now, in this future he did not imagine for himself, Emmanuel is still inspiring people.

Emmanuel. God with us.

Buses are for everyone, part IV

Lava Mae bus

What happens to old buses after they’ve outlived their usefulness as public transit providers? Most are sold at auction and used for parts. A handful are lovingly maintained by an all-volunteer nonprofit and used to provide unique, low cost excursions to the general public. (Ahem.) And apparently, others are given away through various agency donation programs.

Friends, today I learned about Lava Mae, a new nonprofit in San Francisco that is repurposing retired Muni buses in one of the most beautiful ways I could imagine: as mobile showers for homeless people.

This is Lava Mae’s charge: provide sanitation, assist in deterring potential public health problems, and perhaps most critically, provide a much needed service to help a population struggling to retain a sense of dignity and self worth.

In essence, Lava Mae seeks to solve a small piece of what the United Nations and World Health Organization define as, and Lava Mae believes is, a basic human right: access to water and sanitation.

Thank you, Doniece Sandoval, for using your compassion, creativity, and commitment to provide dignity and hope to those in need. I can’t think of a better use for a bus.

Still more on transportation and choices

On Tuesday night, I took the 14 home from the TAC meeting. The bus was packed with people, including several homeless people, who all got off at the same stop. The last woman to get off was in worse shape (both mentally and physically) than the rest and took almost five minutes to make it from the disabled section to the front of the bus. She stopped to stare at the floor, stopped to talk to herself, and, though she was barely able to move the cart she was pushing, became extremely agitated with anyone who tried to help her.

I can’t lie: My patience and compassion were in short supply. (I had things to do, after all, not the least of which was to inhale a whole handful of Excedrin as soon as I arrived home.) I huffed. I sighed. Near the end of her trip down the aisle, I had begun to roll my eyes.

After she had finally made her exit, the man across from me started joking with his friend about how badly she had smelled. The driver joined in.

“Now that I know,” she said, “I can refuse to transport her.”

At this, another woman–one who had attempted to help the homeless woman with her cart–jumped to the front of the bus and began to lecture the rest of us.

“It only takes two months to become homeless,” she shouted down the aisle. “It only takes a couple more to become depressed. We should be thanking God for what we have.”

The driver sucked her teeth: “I’d like to thank God for soap and water.”

***** *****

I am sensitive to the fact that this incident is a good example of the reason a lot of my own peers choose not to ride the bus. It’s not just about the sensory unpleasantness of being near people in dire circumstances, or being reminded of the desperation that we might otherwise prefer to ignore. The thing is, folks don’t necessarily have 30 minutes to get from downtown up the hill to the Central District.

As a person who rides city buses (Toto, we’re not on the 545 anymore) on a daily basis, I realize that time losses like these are balanced by time savings in other areas (never having to search for parking; bus-enabled multi-tasking; no oil changes, tire changes, scheduled maintenance, or fill-ups; etc.), but you can’t explain that to a bus-averse person who’s on his second ride. And while I strongly believe that Metro should work to attract the riders who have a choice, the agency, with its limited resources, also has an obligation to serve (and certainly no right to ridicule) elderly homeless women who need transportation to shelters.

So yet again, I am confronted with this question: How do we create a public transportation system that truly serves everyone?

I’m not sure I know. I’d love to hear your thoughts.