Everyone Has a Story: What Happened When I Stopped to Talk to a Homeless Neighbor

I was unlocking my bike when I saw a man in a wheelchair asking for money. He caught my eye and asked if he could have some change to buy coffee. He told me his name was Jimmy, and he began telling me about the horrible accident he had a few years ago, leaving him in a wheelchair. "I was cleaning windows, fell two stories, and broke both my legs." He showed me his scars and his extremely swollen knees from the surgery following his accident.

I asked Jimmy if people ever offered to help him. He told me that sometimes people give him some change, food, or drinks. Sometimes they’ll offer to push him up hills near the food kitchens he goes to. "I usually say 'No, I need the exercise’". Jimmy told me he had just started living in an SRO and was staying positive for what the future would bring.

Tina was near Union Square asking people for change. She looked very tired and stressed. I watched for about 10 minutes as everyone who walked by her completely ignored her. She told me she had been asking for change for about 3 hours and in that time had received $2 made up of quarters, dimes and pennies during that time. "When I'm desperately in need of money, I ask for money. I haven't had to do this in a really long time." She told me that just one day earlier, someone had stolen her purse, leaving her with no money.

For Tina, a typical day involves waiting in long lines at homeless shelters, hoping there will be an opening. When they are full, which often happens, she is forced to sleep on the streets. Tina told me she had been a nurse for 12 years, when an injury from a car accident forced her to stop working. "I try to do something productive every day", she told me. "Whether it's going to the library, the technology lab, or reading a book, it's my way of doing something that I know is helping me." She now has aspirations to get a guard card to become a security guard.

I stopped to see Eric this week - he got a gift card to the book store!

I stopped to see Eric this week - he got a gift card to the book store!

Eric makes lots of friends outside of Peet's Coffee and Books Inc. on Van Ness, where he sells Street Sheets. He's in his 70s, is in a wheelchair, and has been homeless for years. He told me he was born to a mid-wife in Algeria, and was never issued a birth certificate. Because he has no certificate, he said he often is denied services. Despite that, he says he loves to read, and is hoping to save enough money to buy The Casual Vacancy, JK Rowling's newest book. He was very friendly, and expressed his gratitude for my listening to what he had to say. I asked him if he stays at shelters, and he said that no, right now he’s been sleeping in the street.


Everyone has a story. This is something I’ve learned by talking to many people on the streets of San Francisco and through my work at HandUp.Org and Project Homeless Connect. At Project Homeless Connect, we use the HandUp platform to harness the power of a person’s story to create opportunities to directly connect people with those who have the means to give a helping hand. On the day that I met Jimmy, Tina and Eric, I gave them each a $25 HandUp Gift Card. This gift card can be redeemed through local nonprofit Project Homeless Connect for the value of the card, like a Walgreens gift card or towards a phone bill.

On entering Project Homeless Connect, the card holder meets a resource specialist (like me) who connects them to other resources they may have not known existed - such as a denture program, free glasses, hygiene kits, housing workshops, free haircuts, etc. The HandUp Gift Card is an easy way to give something more valuable than spare change to someone in need. I love the idea that it offers immediate value and can make a long term difference in someone’s life by introducing them to so much more. 

Marissa Balonon-Rosen works with HandUp and Project Homeless Connect, helping homeless individuals reach their goals through HandUp, and access goods and services through HandUp Gift Cards. She also teaches music to homeless youth in the Tenderloin and serves on the Piano Faculty at the SF Community Music Center.

HandUp Gift Cards are now available in San Francisco. Learn more at HandUp.org/giftcards.