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.