Homeless and Sick

Recently I’ve been answering questions pertaining to homelessness on Quora, a site dedicated to the distribution of useful, factual information.  Below is a transcript of my answer to the question: “What do homeless people do when they get sick?”

I would like to address this one in a hopefully unbiased way based entirely on my own personal experience as one who once spent the better part of twelve years on the streets.

The short answer is: they don’t. E.R. rooms in hospitals are not accustomed to accepting someone who has caught a severe cold or a bad case of the flu and doing anything other than providing them with medicines and advising them to rest in bed for 7–10 days. The problem with this, for the homeless person, is that they like-as-not don’t have a bed to rest in.

I watched five people die of hypothermia overnight when a mere two dollars would have afforded any one of them an all night stay on a bus, in order to get warm. Bus drivers in my area were notorious for showing no mercy to homeless people when they didn’t have proper fare, even if the bus was only sparsely populated on a graveyard run.

Myself, I am fortunate enough to have been gifted with an unusually strong immune system. Throughout the twelve years, I only caught a flu twice.

poor and sickThe first time was roughly nine years into my homeless experience, in December of 2013. When my friend on the East Coast (3000 miles away from me) found out I was ailing, she immediately sent me $700 off of her credit card, asking me to pay it all back at the beginning of the month, when I got my government check. The idea was to put me in a hotel room for 7–10 days so I could recover in full.

I did recover, and I did pay her back, though it took most of my government check. It was worth it, to spare my life.

The second time was different, and much worse. I had gotten a bed in a homeless shelter, where I am pretty sure I caught the flu. I went to the doctor, who said it was “viral bronchitis,” and that I was to rest in bed for ten days. When I went back, and they saw the thing that said “viral bronchitis,” and that it was contagious for the first three days, they freaked out and kicked me out of the shelter. I’m pretty sure “viral bronchitis” is just a high-fallutin’ name for a kind of flu, but they kicked me out anyway. In retrospect, they’d have probably kicked me out even if I said it was a flu.

The mistake I made there was honesty. Lots of guys in the men’s dormitory at the shelter were heaving and wheezing and coughing like mad. I was the only one who went to the doctor to try and do anything about it, and who let the shelter managers know what was up. So out I went into the cold.

Returning to the hospital, I implored them to let me stay there overnight. They declined, on the basis that homeless people came in all the time requesting overnight stays on various pretexts. So, they reasoned, if they let me in, they’d have to let the whole lot of us in. No can do.

After that I tried an all-night bus. But the riders on the bus complained so much about my obviously sick condition, they got the driver to kick me out.

Left out in the elements with the flu, the rest is history. My story is told on my blog Eden in Babylon under the title “Somebody Gave Easily.” (It has also been published in Street Spirit.) If you’re interested, you can find the pertinent stories and read them.

The upshot was that I fell down on my knees and pleaded with God to put an end to twelve years of totally unpredictable, totally unreliable, anything-can-happen-anywhere-anytime Homelessness. That prayer was answered.

Two weeks later I had an apartment in another State, and three weeks later I had a job — after being considered unemployable for over 12 years in the San Francisco Bay Area. Prayer works, when it is delivered with fervency, from the heart.

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Tuesday Tuneup Eleven

Q. Do you know who I am?

A. Probably.

Q. So why have you summoned me?

A. Because I am annoyed.

Q. What about?

A. It has to do with the Prayer of St. Francis.

prayer of saint francis

Q. You find this prayer annoying?

A. Not at all, sir.  I only find it annoying that I seem so lame when it comes to applying it.

Q. How so?

A. Well, take the part where he prays “not so much to be understood as to understand.”  I feel so misunderstood, it’s very hard for me to get past this frustrating urge to explain myself all the time.  But it would be better for everybody if I would instead open up my eyes and see where others are coming from.

Q. So you are annoyed by this personal quirk of yours?

A. Extremely annoyed.  And even more so when I see the same trait in a very close family member.  In my flesh and blood, there appears to be remarkably similar DNA.

Q. Can you elaborate?

A. Of course!  This person reaches the place where whatever anyone else says to her is utterly unimportant.  The only things that seem important are what she says to us.

Q. And you see yourself in this unenviable trait?

A. I do.  It comes from a feeling of being misunderstood.

Q. So how can you and this dear family member begin to make yourself more understood?

A. By listening more.  By seeking to understand.  For you see, people don’t care about what may constant explanations say.  They only care about the fact that I’m explaining myself.  It gets tiresome.  It exhausts them.  They would rather see me become interested in them, not in proving myself to them.   If they see that I am interested in them, they will then therefore become interested in me.  Law of karma.  What goes around comes around.  You reap what you sow.  All that good stuff.

Q. How can you begin to change?

A. By listening to her.  By not letting myself become exasperated when she constantly tries to explain herself.  By looking at her — and seeing in this mirror the Echo of Myself — and realizing that I am not alone.

The Questioner is silent.

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Gratitude List 830

(1) I have a roof over my head.  (A lot of people don’t – and for a long time I didn’t either).

(2) Running water.   (There are people all over the world who lack it.)

(3) I can take a shower without having to wait in a long line with people whom I would worry might steal my things while I was showering.   (In fact, this is the first time in years that I have access to a shower without having to deal with other men trying to access the same shower.)

(4) Great 3 1/2 mile run three days ago, and nice 1 1/2 mile run before bedtime last night.  After all these years — specifically, since April 9, 1976 — I still have two strong legs and a good set of lungs.

(5) There are two comfortable spots to sleep in my apartment – a Queen size bed in the bedroom, and a cozy couch in the living room.  For many years, my mattress was three layers of cardboard on a concrete slab.  Nice to get a good night’s sleep.

(6) When I was homeless, my strengths were disregarded and my weaknesses illuminated.  Now that I am indoors, my weaknesses are overlooked, and my strengths revealed.

(7) I used to speak all kinds of misleading falsehoods in order to try and impress people.  Today I speak my truth — and if they don’t like it, don’t believe it, or don’t understand it, c’est la vie.  It’s easier on the spirit to speak the truth plainly, than to try and keep track of all those woeful webs we weave.

(8) This.

(9) I used to live here all alone, and was relieved and grateful, but lonely.   Now I live here with the woman I love — and am inspired, joyful, and fulfilled.  

(10) I was once rich in money, but lacking in faith.  Now I am lacking in money – but I am rich in faith.  I wouldn’t trade my present “poverty” for my past “wealth” for all the money in the world.   May the God of Love be Praised.

 

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Judges with Evil Thoughts

For if a man wearing a gold ring
and fine clothing
comes into your assembly,
and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in,
and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say,
“You sit here in a good place,”
while you say to the poor man,
“You stand over there,”
or, “Sit down at my feet,”
have you not then made distinctions among yourselves
and become judges with evil thoughts?
Listen, my beloved brothers,
has not God chosen those who are poor in the world
to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom,
which he has promised to those who love Him?

-James 2:2-10

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The Marathon Race to Hell

There are values within American culture that are often lined up side to side with positive moral values, but that contain no moral component whatsoever.  Among these values are what, for the sake of this essay, will be referred to as “industry” and “competence.”

erving goffman
Erving Goffman

Industry is what comes about when one is industrious; that is, when one works hard.  We all tend to admire people who are hard-working.  On the other hand, we are often disdainful of those who do not work, even labeling them “lazy” or “losers,” before we bother to sufficiently examine the facts.  A disabled person, for example, may actually be unable to perform work for reasons that are entirely physical or psychological in nature.  Yet we may write such a person off as  “freeloader” who feels that he or she is “entitled.”  This exemplifies what Erving Goffman calls social stigma — the instance in which a common preconception about a group as a whole spoils the perception of a person as an individual.

The idea that a person with a severe physical disability might think of themselves as “entitled” flies in the face of the facts.   Enormous tax breaks are granted to the super-rich.  But disabled people who make a modicum of $900/mo., while condemned by the wealthy for “not paying taxes,” barely have enough money to get by even without having to add taxation to their hardships.

hustlerOn the other hand, a person who works very hard will often be acclaimed for their industry.  The hard-working person might themselves look down upon those who seem unproductive, using words like “lazy” or “crazy” to explain their lack of tangible progress.  But does it ever occur to any of these people that, while hard work is certainly in line with the Puritan work ethic, it bears absolutely no relationship whatsoever to moral stature?

I was on the streets for many years.   I observed the hustlers and con artists in my midst.  Many of them would spend at least eight hours a day doing nothing but accosting one person after another, asking them “can you spare a dollar?” repeatedly.   At the end of their day, their dollars would be lined up.  Law of averages!  Now —  this may be morally reprehensible, but one cannot claim such work is easy.   Hustlers work hard at what they do.

The con artists operated in similarly high gear:

“Excuse me, my car just broke down and I need two dollars for the bus to get back to Daly City.  Oh thank you, sir!   Thank you.” (Brief pause.) “Excuse me, my car just broke down and I need two dollars for the bus to get back to Daly City.  Oh thank you, sir!   Thank you.” (Brief pause.) “Excuse me, my car just broke down and I . . .”

That’s only to cite the low end of the socio-economic spectrum.  On the high end, I know a guy who was making in excess of $150,000 a year prior to his retirement.  He wound up getting both a huge retirement and a rather hefty inheritance.  One would think he’d have relaxed after that, and spent some time with his family.  But what did he do instead?

He began to work even harder, accepting odd jobs and gigs in all kinds of places, boasting that he was making much more money after retirement than he was before.  But anyone close to him could tell that the main reason he was doing this was to get out of the house, since the idea of having to spend more time with his poor wife was of no appeal.  That, and the sheer force of workaholism, wherein his entire identity was wrapped up in how hard he worked, often at the expense of common courtesy to family and friends.

A hard-working woman in a similar bracket kicked her own mother out of the house at a time when she felt her aging, struggling mother was nothing but an invasion of her space.   Her mother was of course heartbroken and devastated.  But did her daughter bat an eye?  Not in the least.  She kept on chasing the bucks, oblivious to the moral depravity of her actions.

In neither of those cases could “industry” be logically equated with a high moral standard.  Yet our society, in so many ways beyond the mere monetary factor, routinely rewards industry and punishes what appears to be “laxity.”  But things are not always what they seem.  What may seem “sloth” to the hard-at-work is often nothing other than the lack of workaholism.  People become addicted to work.  As with any other addiction, this affects those close to them.

I’m all in favor of going out and getting a job, especially if one is prone to sitting on one’s rump doing nothing and getting nowhere in life.  But the way that we exalt the value of industry in our society is, to my view, missing the mark.  Many people work hard to feed their families, save up for hard times, and contribute to worthy causes.   But hard work in and of itself is not a moral value.   Criminals work hard, and hard-working people often become criminals in the process.

The same goes for the value known as competence.  I am a person who has been declared “legally incompetent” by the United States government.  I am not only seen to be incompetent, but — (try not to laugh) — legally incompetent.  The reason for this verdict is a combination of two mental health diagnoses, usually labeled “bipolar one hypomanic disorder,” and “severe adult attention deficit hyperactive disorder.”  In other words, I’m a space case.  No one wants to hire me, because I have a hard time concentrating on anything outside of my own head.

This is a legitimate mental health disability.  It rears its head every time I am required to focus on an external task that is time-dependent.  The greater the time pressure, the less likely I will turn the work on time.  It can be maddening.  Because of it, I have lost many jobs.  But is it a moral failing?   Not at all.  Not even the bosses who fired me saw it as anything other than a condition.  It’s not even a moral choice.   

Fortunately, there are a couple of things I do very well.  I am a decent piano player, and I also type very fast, in the area of 120 wpm.  If I’m writing an article like this, or a song, or a musical play, I am able to organize my thoughts with a fair degree of clarity.  But these are my thoughts — not the thoughts transmitted to me by an external employer.  It’s pretty easy for me to channel my own thinking in ways that are constructive, as long as I do it on my own time, and in my own space.  But try to get me to keep track of items in a workplace, or to function normally in the face of an pressing deadline, and you might not even think I’m the same guy.

Another thing I am incapable of doing is to juggle two or more tasks at once.  Everything I do well involves only one task, and to do it well, I need to be alone.  But I have met people who can multi-task effectively in the presence of multiple human influences.  These are the valuable workers of this world.  And yet, at least one of these highly competent people has left his poor, ailing wife alone at home all alone; and another one kicked her own mother out of her house.

Like industry, competence contains no moral component whatsoever.  Great thieves and even serial killers are competent.  So why do we place such a high value on competence and industry?  Why do we not place a similarly high value on unconditional, self-sacrificial love?

In my opinion, it all boils down to classism.  A competent person who works very hard naturally tends to make more money than one who is incompetent or who can’t seem to find work.  Water seeks its own level, and so someone making $150,000 or more usually finds themselves in the company of the upper class.  And there is where all the self-congratulating and mutual admiration reeks of what Jesus called the “deceitfulness of riches”.

In our society, if someone is steadily making more and more money, they often hear the words: “You must be doing something right!”  Then, convinced that they are indeed “doing something right,” they naturally make no effort to change their modus operandi, even if, in fact, they are doing something wrong.  Conversely, they may find themselves befuddled by the lack of productivity of some who are in the lower social classes, and shake their heads in incredulity.  “They’ve got it all wrong!” they are quick to declare, when in reality, in God’s eyes, many of those poor, self-sacrificing people are the ones who are doing things right.

If there is a God in heaven – which I fully believe there is — can you imagine the sorrow He feels when He looks down upon those whom His Providence has blessed, and beholds their utter refusal to return the blessing to those of their own families?   A mother brings a woman into the world, cares for her, nurtures her, packs her lunch, holds her hand on the way to school, tucks her into bed at night, and sends her proudly to the finest schools.   Why cannot that person take care of her mother in her old age?  Why can she not return the favor?

“Through sickness and through health, till death do us part,” is the wedding vow shared by a man and his bride.  Forty years down the road, where is the healthy, vigorous man when the bride is lonely and sick?   Where is the man who made her that promise?   Chasing the dollar, at world record pace, running on empty — to nowhere.   How I pity the one who runs after money!  Who will be there to cheer his victory, when he crosses the finish line of the Marathon Race to Hell?

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Tuesday Tuneup Ten

Q. Do you know who I am?

A. Do you ever listen to my answer to that question?

Q. Why have you summoned me?

A. I guess not.  Well, I summoned you because I am disgruntled.

Q. Disgruntled?

A. Is there an echo in here?

Q. Why are you disgruntled?

A. Cognitive dissonance.

Q. Meaning?

A. I simultaneously hold to two conflicting systems of values.

Q. Specifically?

A. As a Christian, I believe in forgiving those who have wronged me.  As a guy who spent twelve years on the streets, I believe in rewarding loyalty and punishing betrayal.  

Q. Can’t you forgive them and punish them at the same time?

A. (nods) The concept of chastening.  I’m afraid only God has the rights on that one.

Q. But supposing your son or daughter had wronged you, wouldn’t you forgive them and still “chasten” them, as you say?

A. Sure I would.  But these people are not my sons and daughters, nor am I their father.  One of them is a 63 year old man.  Another is 62.

Q. What about their own fathers?

A. Neither of them is alive.  And if they were, I doubt they’d take my side.

Q. Then doesn’t that leaves the Father God to do the chastening?

A. But Father God might not be their father.   

Q. How can that be?  Is not God the father of all?  

A. Not necessarily.  According to Scripture, their father is either God the Father, or “their father the devil.”  Look what Jesus said once:

You are of your father the devil, 
and you want to do the desires of your father. 
He was a murderer from the beginning, 
and does not stand in the truth 
because there is no truth in him. 
Whenever he speaks a lie, 
he speaks from his own nature, 
for he is a liar and the father of lies. 
But because I speak the truth, 
you do not believe Me. 
“Which one of you convicts Me of sin? 
If I speak truth, why do you not believe Me? 
He who is of God hears the words of God; 
for this reason you do not hear them,
because you are not of God.”

— John 8:44-47

Q. Do you really think it’s all that black and white?   Are there a bunch of liars that are children of the devil and another batch of truth-seekers that are, like, God’s kids?

A. (nods again) Black and white thinking.  I don’t like the concept much either.  But as the article I just linked to points out, a lot of times we engage those approximations because the language lacks wording that will sufficiently describe the “middle ground” or “gray area” without having to use too many words, thus impeding communication.

Q. What do you mean by that?

A. Well, take the word “God” for example.  Any intelligent person engaged in the vaguest search for a definition of that word will first have to admit that “God” is only a word.  Like all words, it has a meaning.  Many meanings.  Different meanings for different people, and so forth.  So one person will say, “I don’t believe in God,” based solely on their preconceptions as to what that word means.

To one person, “God” is an old man with a long gray beard sitting in the clouds somewhere.  Do I believe that meaning?  No, I do not.  But the same person who holds to that idea of “God” will often speak of a “force” or a “higher power” or even of the Universe.  Who’s to say that those descriptives are not of God?  And yet, they say they don’t “believe in God.”  To me, it seems that they do believe in God.   They just won’t use the word God, because it’s loaded down with stigmatic preconceptions.

Q. Then why do you keep using the word “God?”

A. Ease of use.  It’s simply easier to say the single word “God” than to keep saying, “Spirit or Power of the Universe or whatever you want to call it.”  I get tired of using too many words when one will suffice.  I use too many words as it is already without having to add yet more words to the mix.  

Q. But why does the single word have to be “God?” Why not use some other word, if “God” is so loaded down with stigma?

A. (frowns) I find they all fall short.  The other words “Spirit” or “Universe’ somehow lack sufficient power or personality for me — or maybe command or authority — something like that.  I don’t know exactly.  But really, Questioner dear, aren’t we veering a bit astray of the subject?

Q. And what, pray tell, is the “subject?”

A. The subject is the black-and-white codification of humanity into a batch of Satan’s babies as contrasted with the real children of God.   I believe the words of Jesus I quote run deeper than that.

Q. In what way?

A. In lots of ways.  For one thing, I think we’re all born “children of the devil” in the sense that we’re too unsophisticated to grasp the concept of a loving Father God apart from our own earthly fathers — who, let’s face it, might not be all that loving.  We’re innocent.  We’re vulnerable.  We’re easy to con, to manipulate.  I learned that on the streets.  The people who were pushovers seemed to be so faultless, yet in a very real sense they were the devil’s babies.   The hustlers, the thieves — they had them over a barrel.  In order to realize the authority of the True God, and to see yourself as His child, there has to be some kind of revelation, leading up to a transformation.  One gets to the point where one refuses to be hustled any further.  One says to oneself: “Screw these guys!  I’m a child of God!  I don’t have to put up with their garbage.”

Q. One says?  Or you say?

A. Both – along with a lot of other people who have managed to escape all the trappings of street life.  I’m a lot better off spiritually than I was earlier on.  I was such a pushover I believed all those lies I heard from pretentious preacher’s pulpits.   It’s like I always say, before the age of 51, I believed just about anybody who wore a badge.

Q. And now you don’t?

A. No, I don’t.  And obviously, in the passage I quote, Jesus didn’t either.  Those were Pharisees he was talking to — religious hypocrites very much like those who betrayed me.  Like I said, there’s a lot of depth to what the Master is saying here.  He speaks on many levels.

Q. Such as?

A. This.

(The Answerer takes a very deep breath.)

A. There are people who are so caught up in the game that they can’t tell lies from truth.  They lie so much and are lied to so often, they come to expect it from everyone.  You would think that the truth would stand out like an orchid in a petunia patch with people like that.  But somehow it doesn’t.  They are so used to lies, that when someone speaks the truth like Jesus did, they don’t hear it.  Their minds immediately begin to speculate and calculate.  

Speculate – by which I mean they speculate as to just what kind of a scam the truthful person is trying to pull.

Calculate – meaning they calculate a response designed to trap the one who tells the truth, and get them to say something completely inconsistent, to prove them a liar.

Q. And you are not one of those people?

A. Sure I am – in a certain context.  I test people all the time.  But the testing is of a different nature, because it follows an inward process of trying to dredge out the lies within my own heart.

Q. Are you lying to me, Andy?

A. Verily, verily, I tell you no lie.  But this is because I find myself lying to myself at times, and compelled to share that lie to others.  And when I do, I stop to examine my motives.  What am I trying to conceal?  Who am I afraid of?  Who am I trying to impress?

Q. Then what happens?

A. Then, when someone like that fellow who betrayed me lies to me, I don’t swallow his lies, because I see the same lies in my own self.

Q. Really?

A. Really.

Q. So the streets have made you sharper?

A. Can’t speak for my sharpness.  I’m an old guy, and my intellectual powers are naturally on the wane.  But I’m a bit more discerning between falsehood and truth.

Q. Andy, what is the bottom line?

A. This.

(Another deep breath is taken.)

Q. People seem to think that all those years on the streets are supposed to have crippled me to the point where I should have no higher goal than to sit in some meeting and raise my hand as an alcoholic or a drug addict, and then get down on my knees (and stay on my knees) and humble myself before every Tom, Dick, and Harry on the block.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

I came off the streets realizing I no longer had to take crap from just anybody.  I came off the streets seeing through all the Mainstream garbage that I swallowed so wholeheartedly before.  I came off the streets discerning that all those money-chasing money-hoarding money-worshipers who look down on poor people are the liars — not me.  They lie to their own selves, and yet they don’t stop to look within, to really see what’s inside them, to be able to discern with accuracy what’s going on around them.

So the bottom line is, I’m not going to get down on my knees before all those Mainstream robot clones, or to their “God,” whoever they think he is, or cow-tow to whatever they think it means to be a “Christian.”  I know what I’m about – or beginning to find out anyway – and on my spiritual journey, I ain’t taking no shit from nobody.

Q. Do you want to know what I think?

A. Shoot.

The Questioner is silent.

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