There has always been the impulse to-- ironic as it seems-- glamorize the poor, from the holy hermits of yore to movies like With Honors in which a self-proclaimed "bum" out-debates a Harvard law professor. Likewise, there has been an long-held impulse to sanctify the mentally ill.
It's true that some indigent or lower-class people are undiscovered geniuses--like "Good" Will Hunting-- and some-- like John Nash in A Beautiful Mind-- struggle with mental illness while still contributing genius-level work to society. But, in fact, the poor and/or mentally ill are just as mixed a bag as the rest of society, goodness-wise and intelligence-wise.
In this song, we get another sacred genius who has not been able to make his way in society and so has wound up homeless. The speaker calls him a "Street Angel," but doesn't give us his name.
He begins by saying that he sympathizes with those good, decent people who are, nevertheless mentally ill and/or homeless: "My heart goes out to the street angels." He "saves his change" for them, too, and is especially impressed with the ones "working their way back home" either geographically or psychologically.
He doesn't just give them his money, either-- he gives them something more rare: his attention. He talks to one Street Angel who confesses: "Nobody talks to me much." The speaker says he can relate: "Nobody talks to me much." [The italics are not in the lyrics but implied in the delivery and inflection when sung.]
The Street Angel also has something else in common with the speaker (assuming it's Simon himself); they are both writers. But the Angel does it for free. The Street Angel says he makes his verse "for the universe" and asks nothing in return-- he does it for the "hoot" of it. This is an old expression-- "Wasn't that a hoot?" once meant "Wasn't that so very funny?"
"The tree is bare," says the Angel, "but the root of it/ Goes deeper than logical reasoning." Maybe nothing he does bears any fruit, in other words, but there is a reason to do it beyond the expectation of return, or rather not a reason but an emotional compulsion.
Then the Angel switches topics to religion: "God goes fishing/ And we are the fishes." So religion is a trap, complete with a lure: "He baits his [sic] lines/ With prayers and wishes." Does it work? Yes: "We're hungry for the love, and so we bite." God uses our loneliness against us, he argues.
So he is not changing topics as such, but returning to the original one, about how nobody talks to him. He's in a bind-- he's lonely, but on the one hand, human-type people ignore him... and on the other, God while does seek his company, it's only for selfish reasons.
His response is two-fold: To retreat from the world ("We hide our hearts like holy hostages") and to assume all communication is a one-way street-- to/at the world, but not back from it ("I tell my tale for the toot of it.")
What becomes of the Street Angel? Even though he was "working his way back home," he is removed from the street by the same society that dumped him there: "They took him away in the ambulance... He waved goodbye from the ambulance." One last gesture of communication with the one person who ever acknowledged him.
There is one note of possible hope. Remember how he was "working his way back home"? Well, now, he "made a way with the ambulance." So even though it's only "a" way and not "his" way-- and even though that way is not "back home"-- at least he is not on the street anymore.
And he still gets to be an angel.
The song concludes with the line: "My heart goes out to the street angel." Does it matter if a homeless or mentally ill person is angelic in some intellectual or spiritual way? Can't you still feel bad for them, even if they are ordinary, just because they live on the street?
Next Song: Stranger to Stranger