There was this sense, when I was homeless, that my personal achievements were not as important as the achievements of those who lived indoors. On the other side of the coin, my misfortunes were not as worthy of sympathy as those of people who lived inside. If I achieved something wonderful, it was dismissed as irrelevant. If I suffered something horrible, it was shrugged off as unimportant. Yet if the same wonderful thing had happened to someone who lived inside, people would have smiled and offered their congratulations. And if the same horrible thing had happened to someone who lived indoors, they would have received due sympathy.
I’ll never forget how, when I was house-sitting for a friend of mine, I took a twenty-five mile bus trip to a homeless feed, and I left my wallet on the bus. I was more than inconvenienced by this. It threw me into a completely discouraged state. The house-sitting had enabled me to replace my stolen photo I.D and a lost debit card, obtain a library card, and (last but not least) store needed cash in a single place. In this case, the dollar I needed to get back to my friend’s place on the bus was a critical component of that cash.
Naively, I figured that that the social workers at the feed might have helped me with a dollar to get back to my friend’s house. Instead, what followed was a demeaning event, in which one by one, every single person I asked for a dollar bill assumed I was a hustler working a sophisticated con. Not one of them believed I had actually lost my wallet.
When I told one of them how I had lost my wallet, my cards, and all my money, she replied by saying:
“It is what it is.”
At that point, I finally exploded.
“How would you like it if you had lost your keys, and couldn’t get into your car, and couldn’t get into your house, and were desperate for help and support, and somebody responded by saying: ‘It is what it is?'”
I guess I had raised my voice a little too loudly with that question, for it was then that the security guard approached me to inform me that I was no longer welcome at the feed.
A far worse assault is something I find myself reluctant to share, for fear I might relive the trauma. It happened at about four in the morning, when I stopped to ask a buddy of mine for change to get onto the BART train from the Downtown Berkeley station. While my friend and I were counting the change, I casually set my backpack down behind me. My backpack, at the time, contained a Mac PowerBook, two years worth of CD’s of music I’d written, headphones, and various and sundry life-aids, survival devices, and creature comforts. In other words, it contained everything I owned.
While I was not looking, a nearby kid poured lighter fluid all over my backpack and set it on fire.
My friends saw it first, and started to scream: “What the hell are you doing!? This guy’s a friend of mine!”
But the kid, apparently having been up for five or six days on crystal methamphetamine, only laughed. He thought it was funny and fun.
Badly shaken, I forgot all about my BART trip and began to seek the emotional support of friends. First, I called my best female friend in Georgia. When she heard what had happened, of course she gasped, and cried: “That’s horrible!”
But when I approached a certain fellowship in the vicinity, and I related the story to a member who was standing outside, she only said:
“Aw, who cares?”
This triggered a chain reaction involving a number of the members dismissing my trauma as irrelevant. The message I received was essentially: “Well, if you weren’t homeless, these kinds of things wouldn’t happen to you.”
I was upset enough that I later approached the president of the church council, only to hear:
“Well, how did you expect them to react?”
I wanted to tell him that I’d expected them to say something similar to what my friend in Georgia had said; i.e., “that’s horrible!” I wanted to tell him that I had expected there to be some sympathy for the condition of a guy who had just watched all his possessions burnt down by arson before his eyes. But instead, grasping the incredulity of the scenario, all I could say to the council president was: “That’s a good question.”
A better question would have been: “Why didn’t they react with normal human sympathy for a person who had just been so violated and traumatized?
The answer is simple. My friend in Georgia was treating me like a human being. The people at the fellowship were treating me like a homeless person. Apparently, in a lot of people’s minds, there’s a big difference.
This is to say nothing about the achievements I managed to accomplish when I was homeless. When I lived outdoors in Berkeley between 2013 and 2016, I composed all of the music on the Berkeley Page of this web site without the aid of a laptop or music notation software. I walked about town like a madman, singing “bop bop bop” and playing drums on my pants legs. And when I was able to get inside with a laptop in 2016, I scored and sequenced all of that music with Finale music notation software.
The total strangers in the cafe here in town where I scored all that music recognized it as an achievement. But what kind of response did I get from the townspeople?
“Shut the f–k up, you wingnut!”
And from church people?
You act as though your music is more important than your God.”
But do you know who did appreciate the songs I was writing?
The homeless people. They clapped whenever I found a piano to play it on, or when a homeless friend and I sang harmonies, while he strummed on his guitar.
And you know why?
Because homeless people see each other as human beings. People who live indoors, by and large, see homeless people as homeless people.
There’s a big difference, you see — and don’t you forget it.
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