During my first week walking through San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood, I often looked down. Largely due to practical reasons, I liked to believe. I looked down to make sure I avoided the puddles of urine, to make sure I avoided the used condoms and syringes strewn on the ground, to make sure I avoided stepping on the sleeping bodies resting against the side of brick buildings. I had my reasons—reasons that masked underlying excuses. Now in retrospect, I realize that despite all these reasons I created, I looked down mostly to avoid making eye contact with the homeless people I encountered on the streets. I must have innately understood that making eye contact was the precursor to potentially undesirable interactions.
By looking down, I silently maintained all the negative stereotypes commonly held about the homeless. The deceptively simple act of looking downward was an outward manifestation of an ingrained, internal fear that the homeless might aggressively seek the cash in my pocket, or stain my clothes with the diseases, stench, and filth they carried on their bodies. Put simply, I feared the potential consequences that inherently accompany such stereotypical portrayals of homeless individuals. My judgment was clouded with unfounded fears, grounded in nothing more than the inaccuracies of societal gossip.
The homeless youth I have met and worked with at Larkin Street Youth Services have since made it impossible for me to continue to look down, in not only the literal sense of the phrase, but also the idiomatic sense. Unsuspectingly, I quickly began to look up. Unconsciously, I quickly adopted a new sense of normal.
I have enjoyed a humbling yet exhilarating time physically looking up and initiating interactions, breaking down all the stereotypes I have long-since carried within me regarding homelessness. The homeless youth I have spoken to are people who have effortlessly become my role models. They are young people who have become some of the individuals for whom I have the most respect. Their passions, talents, sensitive humor, and sense of responsibility for themselves and others are so admirable that I cannot help but to look up to them. These youth are some of the most non-judgmental, resourceful, forward-thinking people I have ever met. Never ceasing to amaze me, they are people who I have much to learn from.
The science underlying the formation of memory dictates that creating groups based on similarities—on a societal level, stereotyping—is necessary in order for us to keep track of new memories in relation to old ones. From this perspective, it is in our nature to think in stereotypes. However, a natural tendency to label “the other” does not validate the act. In order to stop creating boxes based on singular stories and portrayals, we need to delve into those communities in which we initially don’t belong. In order to discover the differences between one’s truth and the reality, we must immerse ourselves into these communities, leaving our presumptions and assumptions far behind.
The sun is on its way to meet the earth as we walk as a group back from the Haight neighborhood after a reflective session. I look up towards the sky, not having to look far to see the rainbow colors soak the clouds with undeniable passion, love, and life. The beauty of the scene washes over me, and I internally thank the youth at Larkin Street who have given me the chance to look up, rather than down.