There’s a homeless man asleep in my hotel room right now.
Yes I know what you are thinking, but it’s not as crazy as it sounds. He is not a crack addict showing signs of extreme, unpredictability. I’m not a complete idiot! He is very clearly a thoroughly decent guy – honest and with great integrity – it’s just his life has been on a downward spiral all the way to this point. He’s called Chris. It kind of resonated! He’s 58. We met and swapped our individual stories for over an hour. His is off-the-scale sensational. Particularly what happened to him today before we met. My head has been too active to get myself sleeping on the pacific time zone hour so far and I have already had five hours – even though it is now 2am – and I won’t be using that bed again tonight. So, given what happened to him today, it just seemed right not to let him go back to his shop entrance tonight, not tonight. So, I offered him my room. And that is where he is. I know what you are thinking…if he is there and you are not, where the hell are you? What the heck are you doing? Or maybe you’re not. I have this laptop thing in front of me. My phone. My passport and wallet in my pocket. There are only clothes and a bunch of work and books in my room – none are any use to him. If he wants to lug a 26-inch old style tonne of TV out of my room and flog it, who cares. But I know he won’t. I do know he won’t.
What is this really about? The two days I have been here this city has seriously tested my faith in humanity…I didn’t say dissolved, I just said tested! The number of people surviving on the street in this area of San Francisco is simply inexplicable. It is an obscenity actually. And clearly an issue that has escalated out of control since previous visits. At their very scariest these people are rambling and unpredictable, with a tendency to aggression. Scary yes, but imagine how scary it must be to be one of them, to have lived the life that got them there! Tonight, one such HUMAN being burst into the 24hr Starbucks that I have been using as my office space since I got here, rushed my table shouting and throwing her arms around, pushing into me. It was a pretty clever ploy because I had been staring at my computer screen engrossed and so I was completely caught me off my guard and in the brief hullabaloo of me jumping up in a combination of self-preservation, blind fear and confusion she snatched my phone and exited quickly. My mind was mangled and more concerned with “phew, I haven’t actually been physically assaulted” than things like phones. So, I didn’t know it had gone. But get this: Starbucks guy comes over and says: “has she stolen anything? She does that a lot!” Oh, right I think to myself, I am so reassured by this news! So this particular Starbucks experience – this place that for me is often like a home given the hours I spend in here and is sold to me as such in a warm and cosy way – is where I can get my drink just how I want it, get super friendly service, plug in my laptop and connect to the wifi, read about all the lovely things that the corporation does for the world’s poor, starving and, err yes, homeless…AND, if I am really lucky, experience the true San Francisco culture of being attacked by a human being that both the corporation and the good people of this city, through their elected government, have left to rot on the streets. It was then that I checked my stuff and realised the phone had gone. So, what did I do? What would you have done? I told the man to stand by the rest of my stuff and sprinted out the door. Chased her down and did what she did to me: surprised her! It was actually the waiter who was smoking outside his restaurant saying that he would call the cops that made her give it back to me.
So, there are the scary ones. There are the truly forgotten, pathetic ones too. They are the ones that are literally dying on the street and to pass-by people simply pick a way through or even just step over to get on with their day. Telling you that is a difficult scene to deal with. And then there are people like Chris. The 58-year-old man who is currently in my room. And there are ones like Wayne too. There he is in his “situation” offering me philosophical insights during our 15-minute conversation outside my hotel the first night I was here. He sits with a kind of regal depth and poise, and he looks deep into my eyes and says: “You know Christopher you worry too much”. He is where he is and it is me who worries too much! How can you feel anything other than completely humbled by that?
Does any of that answer why – really, why – there is a homeless man in my room right now?
Not really. So here goes. I think that when it came down to it, I gave this man my space, which he had absolutely in no way asked for and had to be persuaded to take, because deep down something occurred to me. I got some clarity on the point that if I am asking the world to line up in a way for someone to understand my cause, how is that possibly going to happen if I cannot understand someone else’s. Mine was simply a gesture. A very simple gesture.
It is now two days later and most people I have relayed any part of that story too have simply thought I was barking mad. Which is funny really because most of them are here with me at the conference for Eco-Cities. Now, for those of you that just can’t wait this is what you want to know…he stole the TV, trashed the room and took my favourite pink shirt, right?
No, of course, he didn’t. At 7am he turned up back in the Starbucks and as I packed up my stuff to go and get on with my day and get back to the conference, he shook my hand: “Christopher I can never tell you what that meant”, he said blinking away wet eyes. I looked at him still firmly shaking hands: “it was nothing” I said, but then I hesitated and said: “no actually it was just the right thing”. Believe me it really was nothing, relatively, and Chris most definitely gave me more than I, Christopher, gave him.
I wrote this in 2008! I was in the midst of a contract to “green” Las Vegas. The turn of events that created the most amazing 8 years in between are impossible to fathom. But one thing for sure that has not changed, is that I would always be happy to share my space with someone who has less than me.
Christopher James Pomfret