There’s a homeless man I see every day during my commute to The City. While homeless people are part of the fabric of San Francisco, this man stood out when I first walked past him about two months ago. Perhaps it was because his clothes were spotless, his hair, beard and hands clean, or because he was tall and lanky and appeared a picture of health.
Every day I would see him walking down the sidewalks of The City, and I began to notice his condition was deteriorating. He covered his ears as he walked. His face was becoming more pale as the weeks turned into months. His clothes were soiled. One day while riding on BART, I noticed people pulling their jacket collars up to their noses when he stood near them.
Like so many people who live or work in The City, I felt helpless, guilty and awkward. I had no idea what to do. Should I talk to him? He never makes eye contact with anyone, from what I could see. Should I call someone? Should I give him money? Should I buy him some food?
This week, as I walked down a BART hallway, I was disturbed to see him lying there, not in a place where several homeless people rest every day, but in the middle of the station, with morning commuters walking around him. I stood for a minute and waited, again wondering what to do. When some officials headed toward him, I went on my way.
Two days, later I was relieved to see he was alive, and walking along the sidewalk as if being homeless is something to wish for.
Although I don’t pretend to know how to help him or the thousands of others who live on the streets in San Francisco, it was heartening this week to be reminded of how, by just telling one story, journalism can help when we least expect it.
As journalists, we don’t often brag about our work, so forgive me while I do.
Earlier this week, Examiner staff writer Laura Waxmann wrote about police dismantling a homeless encampment in the Mission District. She went to the site and talked with people who had been living there, people who said they had nowhere to go and would likely return to the camp, or elsewhere nearby, as soon as authorities stopped paying attention. It underlined the futility of the exercise in a similar way that watching a single homeless person accentuates my helplessness. In describing camp resident Jose Garcia and the challenges he faced, Waxmann humanized one of the thousands of homeless people in San Francisco, while pictures by Lola Chase, an Examiner photographer intern, showed readers Garcia’s weathered face and the push broom he uses to keep his piece of the sidewalk clean.
This is the type of reporting that journalists do routinely.
What happened the next day was not routine.
After the story and photos appeared on the front page of the Examiner and the home section of the website, a city official contacted Waxmann and said he planned to reach out to Garcia to offer him training that could perhaps lead to a job.
In the bigger picture, it hardly moves the needle of the inequities in The City and the world, but we were thrilled. Our actions made a difference. But we often never hear about the effects of our work.
Earlier in the week, were it not for a chance encounter, I wouldn’t have known about how another story we published meant to its subject. As I was walking out of my office, I encountered a man inquiring about how to get extra copies of Sunday’s paper. I quickly recognized him as Guy Clark, or “Guy the Flower Man,” the recent subject of Examiner guest columnist Denise Sullivan.
Clark’s been selling flowers at Noe and 15th streets for nearly four decades, enduring gentrification, and the misbehavior of dogs and humans alike. He’s also watched generations grow up before his eyes as he makes his little corner of the world a more beautiful place.
I persuaded Clark to pose for a photograph with the article and he offered up his signature smile. He told me that his father, who used to visit him every June around Father’s Day, died five years ago. Since his death, something good has happened to Clark every June. This year, Clark told me, the good thing was the story about him that we published.
Deborah Petersen is the Editor-in-Chief of the San Francisco Media Co. which publishes the Examiner, SF Weekly and SF Evergreen. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.