Live With Generosity

Peter’s Caring Commute

Like many San Franciscans, Peter commutes to work. The walk to and from his Cathedral Hill apartment to his job as a porter in a Downtown high rise in the pre-dawn cold is a welcome mix of exercise, observation, and reflection. In 2017, he added a new component, handing out blankets for the homeless after a chance encounter changed him. And as a 2020 recipient of Veritas’ Live with Character award, his gestures of goodwill and impact in the community will be assured for months if not years to come.

Peter — he prefers not to publish his last name — makes his journey on foot in all kinds of San Francisco weather, but one particularly cold, rainy walk home made a lasting impression. Tired and in a hurry after a long day, he passed a homeless man, underdressed and shivering, in front of a coffee shop. The man’s presence registered, but because the gentleman didn’t ask for clothing, change, or food, Peter didn’t stop. “I thought, ‘Someone else will help him out,’” he explains. When he returned home, a deep feeling of regret washed over him – he could have offered a hot beverage or helping hand. He quickly grabbed some items from his closet and rushed back out to find the man, but he was gone.

That cold night and a missed opportunity to help a fellow San Franciscan in need haunted Peter. As a devout Catholic and student of Buddhism, giving is deeply important to the way he lives; after 30 years in the recovery movement, it also hit too close to home. He knew that at one time, with a few less fortunate outcomes, that homeless man could have been him. He vowed to never be unprepared to give again.

Peter wanted to find an item that was easy to carry and immediately impactful to the homeless he encountered. He discovered an inexpensive, good-quality blanket online. Being lightweight, waterproof on one side, and portable, it was the perfect choice for cold and foggy San Francisco nights. He began ordering them in bulk, making sure to stuff a couple in his backpack before leaving home so he always had at least one to offer.

At first, Peter was surprised to feel anxious about approaching the needy people he met on his walks. He had developed a knack for interacting with people in less-than-ideal states over years working hotel night shifts, as well as considerable street smarts from decades of city living. Shouldn’t he be comfortable engaging with anyone?

He quickly realized that simple conversation and kind words went a long way. Peter began to learn their stories: some had college degrees; one man could recite poetry by heart; others were acknowledged addicts working to address their vices. “These are just people, who want to be treated with respect and compassion like anyone else,” says Peter. By acknowledging their humanity and engaging without bias, his notions of homelessness were shattered. The standard societal assumptions – that homeless people were uneducated, or addicts, or mentally ill – were not only wrong, they had prevented him from being fully engaged with the act of giving. His fear evaporated; soon, the act became second nature.

Over 200 blankets later, Peter continues to assist homeless San Franciscans. His criterion is simple: he would rather give a blanket to someone who doesn’t need it than not give one to someone who does. He plans to use his Live with Character prize money to purchase and distribute even more blankets to the homeless on a one-on-one basis. Each time he does, his backpack lightens – a physical reminder of the opportunity to give, and a chance to reflect and be grateful that he is able to do so.

Sometimes, amid so much need, Peter wishes he could do even more. But time and experience have taught him to take solace in his ability to give. By doing something bigger than himself, taking a risk, and offering a healthy dose of empathy in the process, Peter is making a small, but tangible, difference for hundreds of homeless San Franciscans.

Do you know someone who is making a positive impact in the Bay Area?
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