Last week, a homeless man in San Francisco agreed to be outfitted with a high tech camera for a day, for the purpose of giving more affluent San Franciscans the experience of seeing the world through the point of view of a homeless person, according to Homeless GoPro. The results of this experiment: the vast majority of passers-by completely ignored the man and walked by as if he wasn’t even there.

The way San Franciscans treated this homeless man was symptomatic of a general culture of apathy, not only in San Francisco but all across this country. Unfortunately though, as someone who’s also lived back East, it definitely seems worse here. This is not only depressing but also somewhat surprising, considering the Bay Area is famous for being politically active. While there are still rallies and protests here, it seems like this spirit doesn’t carry into everyday life.

It’s not just the homeless either. Pedestrians give the deaf act to petitioners and political activists, shoppers ignore service workers — who themselves sometimes ignore customers — and bus riders let grisly crimes occur without even looking up. It’s understandable that no one wants to be bothered but part of the price we pay to live in civilization is that we have to deal with other people. The very minimum level of interaction that’s acceptable should be at least saying “I’ve got to get to work,” not staring straight ahead like you’re looking at nothing.

This is a problem because sometimes there are real issues that need to be noticed in order to be fixed.

There have been several times when someone on the streets of San Francisco looked obviously mentally ill or on drugs and the reaction of every person passing by has been to look away and not even let it bother them. While there’s not much one person can do in that situation, why aren’t people demanding that politicians invest in mental health services? Why does no one call police or social services? Why is the nearest six-foot-tall, 200 pound man not going up to the person and saying that maybe they shouldn’t be doing a strip tease dance in the middle of traffic?

This isn’t a problem that’s going to be fixed overnight, but like helping the environment or ending racism, each one of us can take baby steps every day to end this culture of apathy.

Start by actually saying something to every single person who addresses you, even if it’s “leave me alone.” Program helpful numbers into your phone like the police, public hospital and Muni headquarters. If you feel safe doing so and no one is armed, get in someone’s face once in a while and ask them to stop smoking in the bus shelter or throwing their trash on the ground. Living in a society means that we need to do our part to care about our fellow human beings, no matter who they are or how much they annoy you.

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  1. Jon Wing
    April 21, 2014 at 5:15 pm

    Have you ever tried to call the police about a crackhead in San Francisco? They can’t do much. Mental health services only work if they volunteer to use them, which most refuse. Thanks for reminding us we are kind of at the mercy of these people. In general we are all kind of tired of the emotionally draining vampiric interactions they force on us. You can blame it on our ignoring it but after the 30th person you at least try to smile to takes advantage of that little crack to try to scam you, or a junkie comes up and touches you while slobbering while you are trying to eat at subway, then curses at you when you refuse to give them money… Well it’s human nature to just look away. It’s actually the fact that we do care and support a lot of nonprofits and government programs that draws them to San Francisco in droves. So before you start preaching to us, write an op ed in Las Vegas, where the city gives homeless people a free bus ticket to guess where…?

  2. Acro
    May 5, 2014 at 10:56 am

    So you’re insinuating that we ought to engage w/ every one of SF’s homeless when they ask us for something, or else we surrender ourselves to apathy?
    I don’t even know where to begin w/ this argument beyond the lack of any structured argument.

    • Christine Zhao
      August 31, 2014 at 1:01 am

      Xpress target audience is towards busy college students. There is not a lot of time in the day. Promptness is appreciated.

    March 28, 2016 at 7:04 am

    This is all sweetness and light crap. People don’t do anything because society has said the homless have every “right” to eat out of trashcan’s if they want. The homeless have the “right” not to be taken off the street and put into a shelter. The homeless have the “right” to lay on the street and live inb filth. The mentally ill have the “right” to wander the streets so long as they don’t pose a threat to themselves or others. In the face of “rights” of the homeless to live like animals on the streets I must ask, “WHAT DO YOU WANT US TO DO AS CITIZENS WITH OUR OWN PROBLEMS!
    If I do anything I am infringing on the “rights of self determination” of the homeless and mentally ill homeless. Shelters are unsafe. Some people don’t have the skills needed to keep a house apartment even if you gave them one. Saying good morning to a mentally ill homeless person on a bus or street corner could get you stabbed beaten up or worse. Being 6 ft tall and 250 pound does not mean you are immune to being shot or otherwise hurt. The question here is how much risk are ordinary people supposed to take to comfort their fellow human.
    We all have families, lives and responsibilities that must come first. Compassion does not exist in thei new economy. The new compassion is defined by not annoying others and not being annoyed. The homeless don’t come with risk identifiers. If the homeless came with an identifier that says I’m harmless, I’m not a druggie, I am not a drunk, I’m just down on my luck you can help me without risk more would help. Dope addicts, crack hads, drunks, criminals and mentally ill dangerous homeless people don’t have signs alerting folk to the risk. In our society all the rights for the himeless, the mentally ill and the criminals have taught us to practice defensive survival routines. The first rule of survival in the urban jungle is when in doubt ignore all people and situations that could pose the slightest risk. Second rule of urban survival is look straight through & make no eye contact with anyone who looks like they need money, a bath, a psychiatrist, a home, a bite to eat or anything else. Focus only on avoiding others as you make your way to your destination. Ignore all pleas for help or attention of any kind that is not in keeping with your own personal safety. Focus your attention on your own world by reading a book or playing aa game on your phone when on buses, subways soyou send the message to all bums, steet people and other takers that you are too busy to be bothered by anything they want or need.
    People have read enough horror stories about homeless mental patients and homeless criminals hurting those to stop to help or care. People aren’t stupid hence we know money given to a homeless drunk will end up spent on booze. Give money to a dope addict he will me laying in an alley high 15 minutes after he gets enough to score their next fix I’m all for helping the homeless but regular people trying to live in this society should not put themselves at risk helping people the law says has every “right” to suffer in public as homeless individuals. The apathy that shackles the homeless today was engineered by well meaning lawyers who basically suggest that living in filth homeless on the street is a RIGHT WORTHY OF PROTECTING! There was a time when society cared for the mentally ill and others who could not care for themselves in hospitals. The hospitals were not perfect but they beat living on the streets on a steam grate. Now the homeless have won their rights to live in filth thanks to the lawyers who walk by ignoring their handywork so don’t blame the apathy on the rest of us who are just trying to get by.
    We who ignore the homeless are just like them, trying to survive in a world made imperfect by people in power that had good intentions.