'No matter how much I thought they needed it, I wouldn't walk up and hand it to them.'

Mary Harrison does good works at night while the rest of the city sleeps. Since July, this 35-year-old Carlsbad woman, who works the swing shift as a word processor at the law firm of Gray, Cary, Ames & Frye, has spent countless lunch hours distributing food to homeless people in downtown San Diego. In almost a Wee Willie Winkie-type fashion, she has developed various routes and her own technique for leaving bag lunches and hot food on the tops of garbage cans and newspaper racks around downtown at night. Several people from her church and work donate food and sometimes clothes for her to drop off. Harrison doesn't do this daily and she never takes the same route twice. She says she knows she can't do anything to change the plight of the homeless, but it takes virtually no time and no money to do her part by giving food that would otherwise go to waste. Times staff writer Caroline Lemke interviewed her and Don Bartletti photographed her.

It's a very simple thing. It has always bothered me in every big city I've ever been in, and I've lived all over the country, that you always see homeless people and you always feel bad. You walk out on the street here and you see them and you feel bad and you say, "Well, there is nothing I can do about it. I can't change the world." I felt that for years. It finally occurred to me one day that I can't change the world's problems and I can't feed the world, but I could feed one person.

I live in a house where my mother buys a lot. There's always plenty of stuff around there and food goes to waste. I think that happens everywhere. We're all pretty affluent, we buy a bunch of bananas, the last three get overripe, they get thrown out. I started thinking there's that stuff in everybody's house, and if you put that out on the street it would be eaten immediately.

Not that I would ever feed them anything I wouldn't eat myself. It's good stuff, it's just what's going to go to waste. If somebody goes to lunch and only eats half their sandwich and puts the rest of it in the refrigerator, I ask them for it.

I think any kind of food I can get my hands on, whether it's soda pop, bananas, sandwich stuff . . . it doesn't matter what. I put it in a paper bag, I go out on the streets on my lunch hour and I leave it on top of garbage cans, or on the trolley benches or on the newspaper stands. It's usually gone within about two minutes. I've never seen any litter.

When I have it, I like to make a whole balanced meal, a sandwich, a piece of fruit, some sliced cucumbers and whatnot. I don't always have that. I'll put out anything I really can get.

It takes me almost no time, almost no money. I'm not a wealthy person. I barely make ends meet. But the people who give me things to put out on the street, they don't know what they're missing. You know, when you sign your name on your little United Way card and they take out the eight bucks a month, that's absolutely painless, you don't even know about it. You also don't get any of the joys either. You didn't participate in the giving of it.

They (the homeless) need some dignity. In most cases, no matter how much I thought they needed it, I wouldn't walk up and hand it to them. Because if you think of yourself in that situation, if you got thrown out on the street for whatever reason, you don't want people to see you digging through garbage cans. So I just leave it somewhere convenient and inevitably no one touches it when I first put it down, but by the time I get to the end of the street someone has snuck out and grabbed it and has scurried off with it.

All the people that are receiving from me fairly regularly know who I am and I know who they are, but we don't speak to each other. We kind of have an unspoken relationship. We both know where we stand. I'm not going to accost them and I've never had one of them come up and say anything to me.

I'm not changing the life of anyone in downtown San Diego, but I'm doing my one little thing. I don't want to be financed by someplace big and take a ton of food downtown--that won't solve the problem. What I'm doing won't solve the problem, it just gives someone a little comfort in the night.

That's all it is.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World