Danielle Steel Offers “A Gift of Hope”
Seeking a way to ease the pain of her son Nick’s suicide, bestselling author Danielle Steel took to the streets of San Francisco for 11 years, providing outreach to individuals who would be considered chronically homeless. In writing about her efforts in A Gift of Hope (Delacorte Press, 2012), Ms. Steel says she broke her silence to give the people she served a voice.
In 1997, bestselling author Danielle Steel’s 19-year old son Nick, one of nine children, took his own life. Diagnosed with bipolar disorder, it was not his first suicide attempt. Distraught after his death, Ms. Steel prayed for a way to ease her own pain by helping others. The answer, she writes in her 2012 book A Gift of Hope, was simple and quick: “Help the homeless [emphasis original]. And all I could think was Oh no!! Not that!! Please!!”
However, remembering that Nick often stopped to help people who were homeless, Ms. Steel answered the call. For 11 years, she and a group of 10 employees and friends spent one night a month on the streets of San Francisco. They began by giving away down jackets, sleeping bags, wool socks, and gloves to about 50 people a night. By the time the team disbanded, Ms. Steel was distributing clothing, toiletries, and nonperishable food to as many as 300 people at a time.
“We represented no church, no organization, no religion, no agency, no shelter,” Ms. Steel writes. “We wanted nothing from them… They didn’t even need to say thank you, although they always did, always.” Believing that good deeds lose meaning when you expect acknowledgment or praise, Ms. Steel insisted on anonymity during her years on the streets, only breaking her silence, she says, “because I felt that the homeless could best be served by waking people up and sharing what I’ve seen.”
Giving the Gift of Hope
There is much to learn from this book. Ms. Steel writes eloquently about the importance of hope, which she believes is “our most important gift.” She describes a code of honor on the streets, where need is acute but greed is rare. Ms. Steel respects a person’s space as their home and never pries into the circumstances that led them to become homeless. The book is perhaps most touching when she writes about the individuals she encountered, including, most notably, “the girl in the wheelchair with one leg who once wore pearls.”
In recounting her experiences, Ms. Steel points out gaps in the system. She writes about lack of coordination among outreach teams serving San Francisco’s homeless population. At one point, she tried to organize a coalition among six such groups to share information and exchange ideas, but people were too busy to attend meetings. She worries that the annual point-in-time count leads to an undercount of homelessness that lulls people into believing the problem is less severe than it is.
Keeping People Alive on the Streets
Yet, there is much about this book that is troubling. Though Ms. Steel acknowledges she could have worked with an established organization, she preferred doing outreach herself. “That way, I knew [people] received what we intended to give them,” she writes. She financed the entire project for 11 years, always buying everything new. She says she stopped because she could no longer afford to fulfill the need. Could her money have gone farther had she donated to one of the many organizations she credits with doing good work?
Also, her stated mission was “to keep homeless people alive for as long as possible, until someone more skilled could help them in concrete ways.” She worked exclusively with adults, though she praised the work of several groups that help get youth off the streets. Shouldn’t that be the goal for adults, too? Is keeping people alive on the streets a laudable goal or a mistaken use of both compassion and money?
Working with People Who Are Chronically Homeless
Ms. Steel prides herself on serving “those who are less capable, less functional, more disturbed or damaged,” people she says who “sink to the bottom of the system like rocks, where no one helps them.” Though she doesn’t use the term, she is describing the population of individuals who are chronically homeless. San Francisco ranks seventh in the nation for number of chronically homeless people, at more than 1,800.1
Without citing any statistics, Ms. Steel claims that 80 to 90 percent of people who are homeless are mentally ill (the number is probably closer to half)2, and she calls for “laws that allow us to hospitalize people when necessary, for treatment and safekeeping, even without their consent.” She compares individuals with mental illnesses who are homeless to “children [who] cannot find their way back themselves.” I worry that the legions of people who will read this book simply because Danielle Steel wrote it will be misled into thinking these opinions are fact.
Finally, there are numerous and repeated references throughout this short (128-page) book about her fears for her safety and that of her team. She admits that “some of what we did was just plain foolish.” Four members of her team were off-duty police officers; however, she points out that she is a single mother of eight children. It is perhaps not surprising that in the last chapter she encourages others to “find an established group that works with the homeless, and do it in a safe way.”
In the end, A Gift of Hope is a loving tribute to a lost son that sheds light on some critical gaps in the homeless services system. However, it should not be considered a well-researched treatise on the problems of homelessness in America, or even in San Francisco, nor a manual for how best to help.
1. U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. (2012). The 2012 point-in-time estimates of homelessness. Volume I of the 2012 Annual Homeless Assessment Report. Washington, DC.↩
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