When a homeless woman, apparently mentally ill, shot a disabled man and seriously wounded him at a Sacramento bus stop on Sept. 22, it sparked new discussions about the homeless and public safety. She had been panhandling and he had refused to give her money.
So as all the problems of homelessness come to the fore with that incident -- panhandling, loitering, inappropriate behavior -- I'd like to relate a heartwarming incident. Stereotyping of the homeless doesn't pay.
Two Sundays ago, I was on a very crowded bus -- standing room only, very hot -- from Golden Gate Park to the Financial District on San Francisco's Market Street. An apparently homeless man, about early 50s, his belongings in a big black bag, clothes with holes and not particularly clean, was striking up cheerful conversation with the passengers around him (with most paying no attention).
All of a sudden he stood up, shouting: "Miss, Miss, would you like a seat" to a young woman in front of him. My anxiety level, and probably that of others, rose. Was this going to be an incident of unpredictable behavior? He caught the young woman just as she was about to hit the floor. She was fainting and he had seen it coming. He placed her in his seat, instantly produced a red plastic cup (which he assured her was clean and unused), and poured her water from a bottle he pulled out of his bag. He talked reassuringly to her all the while.
She was embarrassed, drank the water and all was well. The man got off the bus two stops later with all his belongings and went on his way. No one thanked him. Clearly he was observant of everything around him, didn't hesitate to offer a helping hand when needed and knew what to do.
So when I hear people talk about not wanting to use public transportation until it becomes more "clean and safe," usually a euphemism for wanting to be insulated from the full range of human beings, I think of that man. His generosity and helpfulness to a person in need provided that crowded busful of people, including me, a lesson: The homeless may be down-and-out, but they have Good Samaritans among them.