I recently came across a powerful, short video called This is Adam, about a homeless guy living on the streets of San Francisco. He had all sorts of interesting and insightful things to say, amongst them this: ‘I notice every day that people everywhere are losing their compassion and empathy – not just for homeless people but for society in general.’ What’s really striking is that we see the world as if through Adam’s eyes, including how people ignore him as they pass by.
Digging around a little, I discovered that the video had been created in an unusual way: Adam had been given a wearable video camera to become the autobiographer of his own life. He’s part of the Homeless _____ Project, a project run by an innovative media company called NearShot, which helps people tell their own stories through first-hand perspectives by giving them reconditioned video cameras to record their daily lives. They’re on a mission to curate 100 Stories of Homelessness Across America.
I was so inspired by this fabulous empathy-based project, where you step into somebody else’s shoes, that I went to visit it in San Francisco when I was there on a tour for my book Empathy earlier this month. I asked one of the project’s co-founders, Kevin F. Adler, to write a guest post about it all. Here it is…
San Francisco once had 35x as many homeless as today (and more empathy towards them)
San Francisco — beloved for its progressive ideals, entrepreneurial spirit, beautiful settings, and landmarks like the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz — is also hard to forget for its significant and highly visible homeless population. Including those in shelters or transitional housing, the number of homeless people is 6436, of which 3401 are living on the street.
These numbers are unacceptably high, no doubt. But the city has experienced higher bouts of homelessness in the past… and had a healthier disposition towards them, with better result.
Much higher: 225,000 by some estimates. After the 1906 Earthquake and Fire, 3,000 people died and over 80% of San Francisco was destroyed. From a population of 400,000 people, over half were left homeless in the most significant shared trauma the city has ever faced.
And yet, even amid the widespread devastation and plight — a period in which most residents were as vulnerable and impoverished as they ever would be — people came together. As Rebecca Solnit chronicles in A Paradise Built in Hell, help was contagious and offered without solicitation. Goodwill was spontaneous. People stitched together blankets, sheets, and tents for their neighbors. People gave away food in droves, from citizen-led outdoor soup kitchens that popped-up everywhere to the many slaughterhouses that “gave away their meat for free to everyone – white, black, or Asian – until the supply was exhausted.”
“I wanted every home to be open to the lame, the halt, and the blind, the way it had been after the San Francisco earthquake. Only then did people really live, really love their brothers.” – Dorothy Day
An important lesson resides therein for building empathy toward our beleaguered neighbours on the streets, which we take to heart in our work to help homeless volunteers capture their stories: not in spite of a shared trauma are we empathetic, but precisely because of it. And so it is worth wondering: how might society be differently disposed toward the homeless if we consider that some level of trauma shucked them onto the streets or shackles them there?
Instead of treating our homeless neighbours with disdain or righteous presumptions of laziness, worthlessness, or other pejoratives, we would see more of our own reflection in their faces. For there is strength through vulnerability together, humanity when there is trauma shared, rather than a mindset of dismissal that people always get the lot they deserve.
The makeup of an acute, widely-felt catastrophe is different than an individual or family-level trauma (a medical emergency or death) or a system-wide trauma (the widespread eradication of affordable housing and social safety nets in the US from the late 1980s onward). And yet, as I write in Natural Disasters as a Catalyst for Social Capital (2015, UPA), for the individuals affected by a trauma, it can be equally traumatic — and even more so, without a therapeutic community rallying behind you.
The shared experience of the 1906 earthquake, fire, and subsequent homelessness had a galvanizing effect for San Francisco. In 2014, we can come together once again as a city if we acknowledge the trauma that our homeless neighbours have faced, are facing, and will face (perhaps with us similarly afflicted) but for the grace of God / providence / good luck / service.
As fascinating new research has shown, we avert our eyes not because we are callous but because we feel the need to manage our softer sides and ensure that we aren’t exploited. This is why the experience of firsthand perspective storytelling is so transformative. If we cannot feel the earth rumble or see our own building burn, we must put ourselves in the shoes of someone else and take the time to hear their story in order to arouse our humanity.
If we can identify the homeless situation for what it is — one rooted in some form of trauma — a renaissance of compassion and rapport will result, which will lead to ending homelessness. For empathy lives where experience is shared by survivors and fellow neighbours alike.
This guest post was written by Kevin F. Adler, co-founder of Nearshot