Homeless GoPro – San Francisco

I heard about Homeless GoPro via aimlessly reading the San Francisco Chronicle online. The social project’s tagline is “building empathy through firsthand perspective”. In San Francisco, the tech capital of America, using GoPros (cameras usually associated with extreme sports and young professionals) to capture the empathy (or lack of) shown towards the city’s homeless seemed a pretty interesting, thought-provoking concept. So much so, that I responded to their call for volunteers and writers and shared my firsthand perspective of San Fran: the first time I stepped up from the BART station right into the US’s social problems.

Open your eyes

I walked up the steps, out of the darkness of the Civic Center/UN Plaza BART Station, and into the heart of San Francisco’s social problems.

In the first minute of my arrival in San Fran, I was awestruck. But not in that Golden Gate way you might imagine. My eyes were well and truly opened to the possibility and reality of poverty in the US. In that minute, more than a little jet-lagged and confused, standing in the spot where I’d been spat out by the BART, I absorbed the surroundings. I’m ashamed to say it, but the brutal reality of what I saw shocked me.

I had never seen so much homelessness in such a small area. Yes, I’ve visited New York on more than one occasion and London more times than I care to remember; but it was the general slowness of pace and the concentration of sadness, right in the bustle of the UN Plaza, that got me. Pitifully, I clung to my suitcase a bit harder, quickened my pace that bit faster, and opened my eyes just a bit wider. In my hastily hailed cab I climbed up through the Tenderloin as though anaesthetized. I fear that my reaction, if it were captured on Homeless GoPro’s cameras today, would have mirrored the stock response of the uncaring, the thoughtless, the tourist.

But my reaction was more shock than apathy. It moved me, the sight of old veterans lost in the maze of the city, their belongings piled high in a shopping cart, the overspill of daily life housed in checkered plastic laundry bags. The sight of grown men with no shoes.

This isn’t a judgment piece on the US’s social security system. In Leeds, in the north of England where I’m from, we have our social problems too. They’re just better hidden. The cold Yorkshire winters don’t make for easy street sleeping. It’s easier to turn a cheek into the chilly night air when you can tell yourself it’s an isolated case. You can kid yourself that the homeless man sat with a duvet wrapped tightly round his shoulders, his matted dog nuzzling beside him, is not really homeless. Just begging. In San Francisco, poverty hits you head on, and all the more violently as it’s in the cultural heart of the city. Its prevalence can leave you feeling numb.

Last summer, my eyes were opened to the possibility of poverty – and it’s not quite as far away as you might think. I hope Homeless GoPro will open the eyes of others. Tech gets a bad press for its increasing insularity. For all the noise about ‘social’ media, it does much to remove us from our surroundings. We’re not very social, or connected, we numbly walk by the homeless with a cup outstretched in our direction, too absorbed in our trance-like tweeting. Homeless GoPro forces us to look up.