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Everyone can afford eye contact with those who have nothing

The inhumanity of being on street without the security of a home is a very debilitating experience, says Joe Wilson, the executive director of the Hospitality House in San Francisco. And for those who have nothing, it's the "harshness in our eyes" that really makes an imprint. Wilson shares his Brief but Spectacular take on being homeless in America.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Finally, another installment of our weekly Brief But Spectacular.

    The Hospitality House has been offering support to homeless and poor residents of San Francisco's Tenderloin neighborhood since 1967.

    Its executive director, Joe Wilson, has been affiliated with the organization for more than 35 years, and is uniquely qualified for the job.

  • Joe Wilson:

    I have literally slept in gutters at night. I have gone to sleep at night on the street, in some cases hoping that morning wouldn't come.

    The coldness, the starkness, the inhumanity of being on the street with nothing, without the security that four walls can bring, is a very debilitating experience.

    I was born in Mississippi, raised in Chicago, came out to California in the mid-'70s to attend college. I actually attended Stanford. I stopped out initially to care for my mother, who was ill, eventually dropped out after an extended illness, wound up exhausting savings, no family support, no siblings, no friends.

    I found myself homeless on the streets of San Francisco.

    San Francisco has the incredible dichotomy of having some of the most expensive real estate in the world, and yet people living on the street. I do know that a momentary glance, a touch, a smile, any evidence of human warmth makes a huge difference in people's lives.

    And it certainly made a huge difference in mine, when someone was willing to make eye contact with me, was willing to actually touch me as another human being. That had more value than a dollar.

    We don't expect people to do the things that they either don't know how to do or are uncomfortable with, but I think everyone can make eye contact with another person on the street. If you choose to give someone money in the street, that's fine. If you choose not to, that's still fine.

    I would hope that we could remind ourselves that it is the judgment and the harshness in our eyes that really make an imprint on those who have nothing.

    I remember a very powerful image for me personally was being afraid and embarrassed at the judgment the look in my mother's eyes, if she could have seen me sleeping on the streets, sleeping in a rain gutter.

    That ultimately was — you know, served as motivation for me to get up from the street, to take that first tentative, unsure step forward, back toward the light.

    Eventually, in late 1982, I heard about Hospitality House's shelter. That was the beginning of a 35-year relationship that significantly changed the course of my life.

    The people who run the programs look like the people who utilize the programs. We present better options, so that people can be encouraged to make better choices. And that's certainly true in my life.

    My mother is still alive. She has seen the light return to her son's eyes, and that has been both gratifying to her and immensely gratifying to me.

    My name is Joe Wilson. This is my Brief But Spectacular take on being homeless in America.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    An uplifting story we needed to hear at the end of this week.

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