Allow me to introduce you to Sweeet. That’s his street name. You might also know him by Sterling, his handle for the Street Sheet newspaper, or Christophe (that’s phonetic, never saw his name in print), his given name. I met Sweeet on the streets of San Francisco, working on a project for GCY. What was our goal? To talk to people, to learn their stories. See where people come from. Now, you might be wondering how I met Sweeet. My friends and I were walking down the street, looking for people to talk to, and we sort of simultaneously started up conversations with each other. He was looking to sell us the Street Sheet, we were looking for his story. The condition was simple: if he told us about his life, we’d buy a copy.
Sweeet is just one of many homeless people walking the streets of San Francisco, selling a newspaper made to support the homeless and their interests.
Sweeet dealt pot for a long time. Started young, and continued to sell it well into his middle years. As he aged, he progressed into selling more and more dangerous drugs: cocaine, heroin, the whole nine yards of stuff guaranteed to get you messed up. He’s committed armed robbery once, and went to jail for it. He’s committed unarmed robbery several times throughout his life. He cheated on his wife, an act that ultimately ended his marriage. He got into crack, and ultimately ended up on the streets, his money spent in the pursuit of addiction, one he carries to this very day.
I’ve just told you everything you probably assume on a regular basis about the homeless. I know I did. I’m ashamed to admit it, but here it is, in writing. So, let me tell you what you don’t know about Sweeet, the things I’d never imagined, never even conceived could be true about someone sleeping on the streets, selling newspapers to earn money for food.
Sweeet was born in Germany, to wealthy parents, who raised him right, as he said. He completed his education, going to and completing his college education. He worked in the army during Vietnam. He never once partook in pot or any other drug during his days as a dealer. Sterling spoke more eloquently than you could possibly imagine. He spoke German, conversing with Cameron at the start of our conversation. He quit selling hard drugs to marry his wife. He’s had several jobs, working at Safeway and even acting as a manager for 24-Hour fitness back before the company was really large. He got into crack relatively late in his life, having previously never taken any substances, and every day he struggles with the addiction, trying to fight it off, and restart his life. The morning we met him he’d actually just put down some money for self-help books, which I saw with my own eyes in the bag he carried with him. I can’t really express to you how kind he was. So taken aback at someone asking after his story, and yet, thrilled, simultaneously. He unfalteringly told us every facet of his life, as we sat on a low concrete wall on the streets of San Francisco.
I could go on, but you get the point. Believe what you want, take your grains of salt, but I believe, truly, earnestly, deeply everything Sweeet told me on that wall. I can’t put the experience to you in words. I was totally blown away, my expectations blown to a million pieces. Perhaps I’m naïve, to never have thought about the walks of life the homeless come from, and to take refuge in my carefully crafted illusions about how people get to the very bottom of society. Yeah, Sweeet made a lot of mistakes. But those mistakes don’t define him as a person. Just another person in the world with flaws, just like the rest of us.
I’m sure some of you are and will be skeptical of the story I’m telling, which is just a very small part of what Sweeet told, but people, challenge your assumptions. You know how in my very first post, I talked about needing to know a person and a community to even understand a problem? To put aside my assumptions and really immerse myself within another reality? This is my first step towards learning to eliminate my biases and preconceptions and understand the world. This training is training for life, not just a bridge year. I hope you all can start to do the same, and start challenging the way y’all might think. It couldn’t hurt.