I Never Meant to Hurt You

I tried three times throughout the week to do a decent take of this old Laura Nyro song.   I think this might be the one.  I thought it would be a nice gesture for Good Friday.   There are a lot of people, including Him, whom I did not really mean to hurt.   But I hurt them anyway, although I loved them.  I am glad He paid the price for all of that.  It’s a far greater price than I could pay.

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A Sacrifice of the Heart

If you are a person who knows what it’s like to be poor, have you ever noticed how quick people of privilege are to attribute aspects of poverty to something that has absolutely nothing to do with your financial situation?  Such as, for example, your mental health?

I live in a city of approximately 26,000 people, 30% of whom are at poverty level.  Most of the poor people in this city are reasonably happy and healthy.  This is one reason why I enjoy the unique city in which I live.   But it appalls me how readily some of my wealthier friends will assume that my current poverty must have been caused by a mental health problem, a drug or alcohol problem, or (quite simply) a moral failing. 

Although I will be the first to admit that I have mental health issues requiring treatment, I find it disturbing how often these issues will be cited as the reasons for my impoverished condition.  Many of the wealthier people who say such things would become much crazier than I am, if they, too, were to suddenly lost their shirts as quickly as I did in the year 2004.

The people who most often allude to this fallacy will usually make no attempt to actually understand my condition.  They are clearly looking for a scapegoat — something beyond the scope of their experience that they can use to shift the blame away from the realities of poverty that they do not wish to look at.

“Hey Bob, I really hate to bother you for another loan.  I know you’re busy, but my car just broke down terribly.  I need it to get to work, and I just can’t afford the bill.  Is there any way at all you can help me?”

“Well, Bill, I know you always pay me back, but I’m getting to be a little bit bothered by the fact that you’re not many progress.  Don’t you think it’s high time you dealt with your mental health, so that you won’t be so chronically down on your luck?”

friend in needOnce again, this is classism – pure and simple.   It can be incredibly frustrating when one is doing their best to maintain a healthy relationship to society, and the frequent setbacks endemic to poverty are dismissed as signs of poor mental health.  Of course one’s mental health suffers when encountering such setbacks.  But poor mental health does not cause those setbacks.  This is only an assumption on the part of those whose lives are such that they never have to experience such setbacks, and thus don’t know what those setbacks are like.

In short, they don’t know what it’s like to be poor.

Now here’s another thing I’ve noticed.  It is often assumed that someone who experiences a life crisis that hurls them into abject poverty — or even homelessness — has gotten there as the result of a moral failing.

“Obviously, Bill screwed up.  Nobody gets from where he was to the streets that fast without having done something wrong.   That being the case, I have no sympathy for Bob whatsoever.”

“Amen, Brother Bob.”

But the reality is that many people of privilege are extremely slow to let go of what they’ve got. In many cases, their natural stinginess is the reason why they’ve managed to accrue so much in the first place.  But many poor people, knowing what it’s like to be poor, will give another poor person the shirt off their back.  I myself have been known to give my last twenty dollars to another poor person if I felt they needed it more than I do.  When I do so, I am confident they would do the same for me, if the tables were turned.

A lot of people become poor as the result of something good that they have done — something that a rich person, under the same circumstances, might not do.  For example, if one’s mother or father is in poor health, perhaps dying, a person who is lower middle class might have their parent come live with them, despite having to take on added medical expenses.   A rich person, under the same circumstances, will often send their parent to a retirement home.

Granted, the richer person can afford to send Mom or Dad to the retirement home, and the poor person cannot.  But if you were aging, ailing, and dying, where would you rather be?   In a retirement home among total strangers?   Or with your kids whom you love, knowing that they love you too?  Where would you rather die?   With your children by your side?   Or not?

It is not a moral failing to take care of an ailing parent.  It is actually an act of self-sacrificial love.  Love, in its purest form, involves sacrifice.   When one sends one’s dying mother to an “old folk’s home,” what sacrifice is involved?  Only money.   But when one invites their dying parent to come live with them, that is a Sacrifice of the Heart.

I find it ironic that people of poverty often are more giving and more loving than people of wealth, and yet in our society it is often assumed that poverty is an effect of moral failing.   While moral laxity can certainly lead to poverty, it is definitely not the case that poverty necessarily results from it.

When Jesus appeared on the earth, who did he generally hang around?   Rich people or poor people?   Anyone with a cursory background in Scripture will know that he hung around the dregs of society, the outcasts, the lepers, the pariahs, those who were so dirt poor they were ostracized and vilified by the Pharisees and Saducees of their day.

If the first arrival of Jesus Christ were to have occurred today rather than two thousand years ago, you know who He would hang around?

The homeless people.  For my homeless brothers and sisters are the lepers of today’s society.  Let them in!   Let all of us in — before it is too late.

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Tuesday Tuneup Three

Q. Do you know who I am?

A. Not exactly, to be honest with you.

Q. Then why on earth have you summoned me?

A. I’m in existential conflict.  Whoever you are, I have found in the past that you have of helping me through such angst.

Q. Helped you?   By asking you questions?  Incessantly?  Obnoxiously, as it were?

A. Yes.  Despite your incessant obnoxiousness, the many questions you ask have a way of causing me to question my own inclinations.  I therefore examine those inclinations more carefully.

Q. What inclinations?  What are you talking about?

A. I’m inclined to think that a decision I have recently made is going to work against me.  I suspect it will overload me, and thus interfere with my mission.

Q. And what is your mission?

A. Well – “mission” may not be the exact right word.   But I tend to think I’m on this planet in order to make a social statement involving some serious questions and suggestions to my fellow Americans.

Q. Isn’t that somewhat grandiose?

A. Perhaps.  This is where I am conflicted.

Q. What is the essence of the conflict?

A. It is as follows. On the one hand, I want to live a quiet, reclusive life, so that I can write poems, songs, stories, plays, blogs, articles, and perhaps even a novel – or even a thesis – because I strongly feel that I have something  important to say about homelessness, classism, and social stigma.

home sweet homeless 2Q. And on the other hand?

A. On the other hand, I have a strong desire to help out particular homeless people in need; specifically, by letting them stay here in my house, where I have a spare room.

Q. What’s wrong with that?

A. Isn’t it obvious? I need my space in order to write, in order to create.   What if they get in the way?

Q. Why would they get in the way if you have a spare room?

A. Well, it’s not the biggest house on earth, and – and – there are other variables that have me a bit nervous — it could have to do with the nature of the specific individual whom I have recently invited to stay in the room — it could have to with a lot of things — and — and —

Q. Will you please stop beating around the bush?

A. All right.   You painted me into a corner.

A. I invited a Trump supporter to live here.

Q. A Trump supporter!?  To live with you, of all people?

A. I felt for him because he was homeless.   Mercifully, he declined.

Q. And then?

A. I invited a Satan worshipper to live here.

Q. A Satan worshipper!?  To live with you, of all people?

A. I felt for him because he was homeless.  He too declined — although admittedly, he wouldn’t have been nearly as bad as the Trump supporter. 

Q. And then?

A. Somebody else a wee bit closer to home was also facing homelessness.  For the first time in her life, at the age of 59.   Never having been homeless in her life, mind you.  And coming from a farm out in the country, to the cold cruel realities of impending Homelessness in the Big City.   I invited her to live here, and she did not decline.

Q. Who is this person?

A. My ex-wife.

The Questioner is silent.

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Homelessness, Family and Identity

The other day on the Q&A site Quora ,someone asked why homeless people don’t go stay with their families.  The person who asked that question seemed a bit naive, so I thought I’d enlighten them.  

Again, I can only answer by sharing my personal experience. However, it might point to a generality.

I first became homeless in April 2004. In May of that year, I asked my brother if I could stay at his house, where I knew he had a spare room. He said no. I asked him why? He said: “I won’t expand.”

It hurt me. I was not drinking. I was not on drugs. I was out in the cold. Although at the time, I took it as rejection, I later realized that he needed privacy. He probably had some private practice that he wished not to share with anyone, let alone his brother, who might be disdainful of whatever private habit he indulged. That’s just a theory. But I’ll go on.

LGBT Homeless YouthI asked my sister if I could stay at her house. She said no. She, however, gave me a reason. She had a very small house, was aging with health concerns, in a wheelchair, and with live-in care. My presence in the house would not have helped her health, and I can understand that. (She is since deceased.)

I was already running out of relatives, but the point is that once I had asked them all if I could stay there, all of them had said no. At the time, I took it as though there were something terribly wrong with me. But that was not the case. They all had reasons why they couldn’t permit another person in their space.

My best female friend while I was homeless was a woman who had had two strokes, and difficulty speaking. Again, she did not use drugs. But it took great patience to understand what she was saying or trying to do. Her relatives responded by never having her over to their houses, even on holidays and special occasions.

She would cry. “I used to play tennis. I used to wait tables. I used to ride a bicycle.” She would be arrested while she was sleeping, and once spent four nights in jail because the cops had no empathy for her condition. They woke her up because she wasn’t sleeping in the right place – a parking lot — and when she began to talk in strange half-words, they clamped handcuffs on her and put her in a jail.

In other words, she was criminalized for being gravely disabled, and for sleeping.

Believe me, I was homeless for a lot of years. People seemed to think it should have been easy for me to have pulled out of it. But for the better part of twelve years, all roads in the San Francisco Bay Area only led back to homelessness. People would ask me: “What about the halfway house? The rehabs? The shelters? The board and care homes?” Board and care, maybe, I can see that — if I were the type who wanted to completely give up all his freedoms. But I’m not that type – thank God. So it wasn’t too long before I realized that all the well-meaning advice was useless. Those advisers had never been homeless, and they had never been me.

All roads led me back to a quiet spot beneath the stars where nobody could find me and where I could say my prayers. That I am now living indoors and free to illuminate the sordid realities of homelessness to those who do not know, is the answer to those prayers.

I hope this helps.

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The Poor Oppressed

If you see the poor oppressed in a district,
and justice and rights denied,
do not be surprised at such things;
for one official is eyed by a higher one,
and over them both are others higher still.
The increase from the land is taken by all;
the king himself profits from the fields.

Whoever loves money never has enough;
whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with their income.
This too is meaningless.
As goods increase,
so do those who consume them.
And what benefit are they to the owners
except to feast their eyes on them?

The sleep of a laborer is sweet,
whether they eat little or much,
but as for the rich,
their abundance
permits them no sleep.

I have seen a grievous evil under the sun:
wealth hoarded to the harm of its owners,
or wealth lost through some misfortune,
so that when they have children
there is nothing left for them to inherit.

Everyone comes naked from their mother’s womb,
and as everyone comes, so they depart.
They take nothing from their toil
that they can carry
in their hands.

– Ecclesiastes 5:8-15

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Classism, Stigma, and Addiction

Statistics often point to the large percentage of homeless people who are drug addicts.  Recently, I read the figure “26%” in such a context.  That would mean that about one out of every four homeless people is a drug addict.

I don’t doubt that this statistic might be true.  But do you ever hear anybody asking what percentage of upper middle class and wealthy people are drug addicts?   Of course not.  Why would anybody even bother trying to find out?  

This is sheer classism.   I have associated with lots of hard-working people whom I would consider to be “industrious rich,” and you wouldn’t believe the level of legally sanctioned drug dependency that runs rampant in their circles.  Addictive medications such adderol and ritalin, ostensibly prescribed for “Adult ADHD,” are essentially used as high-power wake-up drugs.  It is also not uncommon to see klonopin and ativan used as tranquilizers or as “come down drugs” to ensure sleep after a long hard day.  Pills are routinely popped, often publicly, in an overt effort to manage the stress of an insanely fast-paced life.   

When I was an itinerant music teacher in cities like Burlingame, Foster City, and Menlo Park, almost every person I worked with openly proclaimed that they were using psychiatric drugs.   In fact, they would refer to their psychiatrists as “dope dealers” in a colloquial way.   Often, the doctor had no knowledge whatsoever of their issues.  His or her only role was to dish out drugs.   Less talked about, but just as prevalent, was the usage of marijuana.  I certainly found no fewer “stoners” among the upper middle class than I did among those who struggled to keep their sanity on the streets.

rich cocaine addictsThis says nothing about the “idle rich” — people who are rich by inheritance and may never have done a lick of work in their lives.   They have so much time on their hands, and so much money, that many of them become addicted to heroin and cocaine — and they buy top grade.

The idea that there are more drug addicts among people who have lost their homes than there are among people who live in big huge mansions is simply a lie.  There are plenty of practicing drug addicts among those with privilege.  It’s just that they’re so rich, they’re not at risk of losing their homes over it, unlike the other 99%.  The only difference between the homeless drug addict and the wealthy one, is that one has lost his privilege.  The other one never will, no matter what he does.

And here’s another thing that bugs me.  If a homeless person is on drugs, it is often assumed that his drug problem caused his homelessness.    This is another lie.  Why cannot people understand that in many cases, the homelessness came first, and the drugs further on down the road?

This is sheer stigma.  Sure, if a person is working poor or lower middle class, and that person develops a drug problem, they are likely to lose everything and land on the streets.   But the overall conditions of homelessness could easily drive a person to drugs who had previously been living a completely sober life.

I know a certain fellow who became homeless pretty darned fast due to a first-time manic episode.  Suddenly, this man was thrust from an insular world of parents, principals, teachers, and elementary school students into a world where all kinds of drug dealers were roaming the streets.  Here is a typical conversation that he would have with a drug dealer:

“Hey!  You good?”

“What do you mean, am I good?”

“You good!   Do you need anything?”

“Need any what?”

“Never mind.”

Four years down the road of homelessness, the conversation looks a little different:

“Darn, it’s cold, and I don’t even have a blanket.”

“Go up to People’s Park and steal one.”

“I don’t want to be a thief.”

“You’re gonna freeze your buns off.”

“Yeah, I know, it’s scary.”

“Well, I got something that will keep you warm all night.”

“Yeah?  What’s that?”

“This.”

And if anybody were to question that there are proportionately as many drug addicts among the 1% as there are among the 99%, I doubt I would even dignify such a question with an answer.  

There is nothing about having a lot of money that makes a person superior to one who does not.  Rich or poor, the Lord God made them all.  But try telling that to some of the more sheltered of the wealthy.   Half of those guys are so out of touch, they don’t even know the meaning of the word “rich.”

I know one thing for sure, though.  Once they learn the meaning of the word “respect,” we’re all going to be a lot better off.

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