The Igloos of San Francisco

by Jake Block

I once worked on Van Ness Avenue in San Francisco, and commuted to work on BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit).  The train ran about seven blocks from my office, so every morning and every evening, I made my brisk walk to and from the station.  I had to walk past a homeless encampment that had been established just a block away from the City Hall of this busy, affluent city.  After a while, I got used to seeing the homeless, cuddled up in their blankets, sometimes next to a shopping cart that they had “liberated” from a local grocery store, that held what meager possessions they might own.  However, one morning in the fall, I was making my way through the area when I stepped on a wet patch of leaves.  I landed with a painful “OOOF,” sprawled on the concrete walkway in my now wet three piece suit.  My light gray trench coat was stained and torn.

Almost immediately, I felt someone grab my upper arm and help me to my feet.  I thought that perhaps another commuter had come to my rescue, so I was surprised to see a disheveled man wearing old and tattered clothes.  He smiled and said, “Hell of a fall you took there, sir.  Are you ok?”  I smiled sheepishly and shook his hand, thanking him for his help.  He smiled back and started to walk away, but I took a $5 bill out of my pocket and handed it to him.  I was surprised as hell when he told me, “That’s not necessary, sir.”  I insisted that he take the money and at least get some hot coffee and a donut, so he did and told me to have a good day.

I was surprised because if you have ever been to San Francisco, at least at that time, it seemed that you couldn’t go from point A to point B anywhere in town without someone panhandling you on the street.  In fact, an inside joke about the city at that time was that the official greeting in San Francisco was, “Welcome to San Francisco.  Got any spare change?”  So, sitting in my office on the 5th floor of the glass-walled building, I thought about that good Samaritan who helped me.  He could just as easily have taken my wallet and run.  He obviously could have used the money.  He was living on the street.  I had been there and done that, so I knew how cold the nights can get when you have to find some protection from the elements and be prepared to defend yourself.  Then my day got busy and I put him out of my mind.

On the way back to the train station, I saw him in the little park and he waved at me.  I waved and kept walking, but then stopped and made my way to where he sat next to his plastic bags of “things.”  I shook his hand and introduced myself, and learned that his name was “Jimmy.”  I asked his last name, and he told me, “It don’t matter, man.”  It didn’t, but as we talked, I began to like him.  He was a bit younger than me and had been on the street for about four years.  He had come to San Francisco from Chicago because he said that he just couldn’t do another midwestern winter.  I told him that I was from Illinois myself, so I knew what he was talking about, but I also knew that a cold night in San Francisco was no picnic, either!

I told Jimmy that I wanted to do something for him, seeing as how he had helped me, and asked if he would like me to help find him a low cost place to live, as the company I was working for had connections with the City of San Francisco.  He told me, “No, thank you, but if I wanted to live in a house or an apartment, I would.”  I told him that I understood, but that I really thought that there should be something that I could do for him.  He thought for a few moments and then said, “Jake, let me show you something.”  We walked several yards away and into a small area of where. sitting next to a wall, chained to tree was a large, “igloo style” dog House. 

“Do you want a dog,” I asked.  Jimmy smiled and said, “No.  I would like one of these so I can be out of the weather and warm when I sleep.”  About that time, a flap moved on the white dog house and a man emerged, crawling through the entrance to the dwelling.  He waved at Jimmy and Jimmy waved back.  Jimmy asked the man, his name was Terry, if I could take a look at his igloo.  With Terry’s approval, I looked inside and found that a man of medium height could curl up in the thing and be relatively comfortable and, being made of thick, rigid plastic, his body heat could raise the temperature inside as well.  So I asked Jimmy if this would be the size he wanted, and he nodded yes.  Terry even volunteered to share his space next to the wall.  I told Jimmy that I would meet him there on Monday morning at 8 AM.

I went back home, purchased the igloo, a few odds and ends and a pair of walking shoes with treaded soles to wear between the train station and my office.  I made arrangements to come into work a bit later than normal, and to borrow my wife’s pickup truck.  Monday morning at 8AM, I was there with the igloo and both Jimmy and Tommy were there to help me unload it.  It had a thick, plastic floor, and I had drilled holes to run a chain through and a padlock, so that we could attach it to the tree.   Moments later, it was move in ready, and Jimmy was happy to have a place to sleep that night.  I went back to the truck and brought back four warm blankets and two thick pillows and gave a set to Jimmy and to Tommy as well.  I’d spent about $200,  but the smile on the men’s faces was worth every cent.  I told them I had to go to work, and left them there to themselves.

I saw Jimmy every now and then over the next few months on my way to or from the office.  Mostly, he and Tommy would be by their little hovels by the wall, where they felt safer in the night, end the spring and summer foliage on the bushes there hid them from sight most of the time.  Once in a while we would wave or just nod, and if I should be walking through the area and met him on the walkways, we might speak, and I might slip him a few bucks from time to time.  He seemed to be ok, or as ok as a homeless guy can be.  The last time I saw him was on an evening in October.  The next morning, he, and all of the homeless people that frequented that small area of San Francisco were gone, along with their things, grocery carts and the igloos that Tommy and Jimmy had chained to the tree.  The homeless encampment had been removed by the city to accommodate one of the many festivals in the area each  year.  My warped sense of humor reasoned that it certainly must have been a “Save The Homeless” rally.

It’s not uncommon for cities with larger homeless populations to purge their homeless from time to time.  If the city is relatively progressive, they might just round them up, clean them up, and transport them to the local bus terminal and they’re given a ticket “elsewhere,” where they can be “someone else’s  problem.”  In other less affluent cities, they’re simply woken by a less then friendly cop in the middle of the night and told to move and don’t come back.  So, Jimmy could have been moved to Key West, or Albuquerque, El Paso or somewhere else, where I hoped that at least it would be warm.  And his igloo?  Like all of the other shacks and temporary structures the homeless sometimes manage to build to find some comfort, it probably ended up in a landfill as part of one of the city’s beautification projects, replaced by a bed of tulips or fresh, green grass.

Even though I’ve been on the streets myself, I’m not one of those who will damn the city as being heartless and cruel.  It simply is what it is.  We all have to take responsibility for our own survival, in the long run, and some of us simply do it better than others.  And sometimes, because of a reciprocal act of kindness, individuals can sometimes, at least temporarily, make a difference in the lives of others in need.  Jimmy helped me up when I was down, expecting nothing in return.    I helped Jimmy when he was down, expecting nothing in return.  It was up to Jimmy to change his life, if not here, wherever he ended up, and whatever temporary assistance he gained along the way was only a chance benefit, like a bandaid on an infected wound, that would eventually fester unless one makes a personal effort to affect a cure.

It has always reminded me that you can help someone if they are down, but you can’t change their lives unless they want change.  If they don’t, your efforts might mitigate the circumstances for a time, but in the end, you’re only delaying the inevitable.  Retreating into your personal igloo to keep you warm and somewhat safe at night is an interim fix, but it won’t save you if your igloo isn’t on your own property and safe from those who can just remove you when they need the space, or just want you gone.

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