On empathy and homeless “riff-raff”

Last week, San Francisco developer Justin Keller drew widespread scorn for an open letter he wrote to that city’s mayor, decrying the homeless “riff-raff.”

“I shouldn’t have to see the pain, struggle and despair of homeless people to and from my way to work every day,” he complained.

I thought of that last Thursday when, on my drive home from work, I encountered a man crouching in the gutter at the corner of Alhambra Boulevard and S Street. He was next to an overturned bike and even from a distance I could see he wore shabby clothes and was in need of a shower.

As he knelt, his forehead touching pavement, cars kept driving. I pulled over and as I approached, another person walked up. The man on the ground said he’d been struck by a truck. He clutched at his stomach in pain.

We wanted to call 911. He insisted we didn’t. Urgent care? There was a center nearby. But, no. He stood up, grabbed his bike’s handles and started moving, slowly.

The man who’d joined me followed worriedly and I watched them walk until they disappeared from sight.

I’m not sure if the struck man was homeless but he seemed like someone who faced real struggles and felt despair.

I’ve thought of him every day since. I hope he’s OK and I’m grateful for the man who appointed himself, however temporarily, his guardian.

You can’t teach someone empathy, but perhaps Keller will some day be lucky enough to feel it.