I’ve been thinking on my most recent sleepless night about why homeless rights activism isn’t really taking off. I’ve also been wondering why I have such a disturbing problem with identity politics. The two seem somehow related.
For identitarianism to make sense, we need to be dealing with actual identities. Then we can discuss if people of that identity have been ignored, minimized, overlooked, marginalized or oppressed. But first, it has to actually be a real identity.
In other words, if a person is Black, then to claim that identity makes sense. It means something for them to say: “As a person of color, I ——.” If a person (usually a White person) then says: “I’m blind to color,” they may think they are expressing equality with the person of color, but what they are actually conveying is that they are indifferent to all the segregation, the systemic racism, the redlining, and all the things that a predominantly White culture has done to try to keep Black people “in their place.”
We could make similar statements with respect to women, in the manner that women have been subjugated and dehumanized in a patriarchal culture. But we cannot make such statements about homeless people. To do so would be as erroneous as to say “Blue Lives Matter” in reference to cops.
The woman was born female. The Black person was born into that race. It’s part of their birth identity, so to speak. But the cop was not born a cop, and the homeless person was generally not born homeless. When the cop is out of uniform, the cop is no longer “blue.” And for the first 51 years of my life, I lived indoors, I had a job, I had a car — an identity like “homeless” may have been hovering over the horizon, but I sure wasn’t looking in that direction.
So there was a little twelve year jaunt of mistaken identity? Please — I’ve lived indoors for almost five years now. I could once claim that I was a homeless person, but I can no longer make that claim. I’ve almost forgotten that I ever could. Women and people of color do not have that luxury.
But it’s deeper than that. I’ve been reading statements that begin with the word “as.” “As a woman of color (for example) —— .” Those who speak such truths desire to speak them. They desire to identify according to these natural identities.
The homeless person in general does not desire to make such statements, and actually finds it maddening when suggested they do so. I could have many times said: “As a homeless person, I find that ——-.” But the occasions on which such statements would have been meaningful or helpful were far outweighed by the occasions when it was much more helpful to say: “As a human being, I have basic needs, a few of which are not being met right now. I also have rights that are equal to yours. Please do not see me as a “homeless person.” Please see me as a “person.” A person experiencing homelessness — but a person all the same.”
Such statements as I often made were not formed of shame or even of disgust with my condition. They were made out of exasperation that people were dehumanizing us. People talked loudly while were trying to sleep; they stepped over us as though we were things, not people – just inanimate objects in their way; they walked past us talking about gay rights and civil rights and equal rights — and who even thought to include us in those discussions? Why did they care about all these other kinds of people’s rights, and not care about the rights of the people whom they so casually made privy to their conversations? That is to say, the rights of homeless people?
Sometimes, while trying to sleep, we overheard every word.
We were by and large ignored, and when we weren’t, we were generally either judged harshly or else greeted with a feign of compassion that came across more like condescension than anything else. People rarely asked our opinions on matters — for our opinions did not count. We were often given all kinds of advice that didn’t apply to our situations at all. It was assumed that we knew nothing about the “real world.” People treated us as though we had always been that way, would always be that way, and — get this — should always be that way.
It was assumed that I was completely incompetent. “There there, Andy,” came the vibe from the well-meaning social worker. “Good, Andy! You’re doing fine Andy! Are you hungry? We know you’ll never be able to take care of yourself, but never fear. We’ll take care of you. For the rest of your life, we will.”
Or, it was assumed that I was a “piece of shit.” This is the part that most bothered me. I happen to think I’ve got a bit on the ball, and a lot to offer to the planet if I can ever connect the dots and get all the ducks in line. The infuriating irony is that I went from being an award-winning educator, twice appearing in Who’s Who in America, to a “piece of shit” in a matter of months during a total breakdown. And when exactly did I cross that line? At what point did I cease to be the decent, respected musician and educator, and begin to be the “piece of shit?”
My personality had not changed along that seemingly downward path. It might have become a bit deranged compared to its previous manifestation — but think about it. Try sleeping on sidewalks and stairwells for months and eventually years on end, and see for yourself what it does for your head. I’m surprised I’m alive. I saw a lot of people die. Good people — people that shouldn’t have died. They died for lack of $2 to get on an all night bus to sleep; they died of hypothermia in the freezing cold. They were whacked in the middle of the night by crazies – one guy was beat over the head with baseball bats by frat boys — to his death.
But those people were not any innately less deserving or worthy than people who were fortunate enough to be living indoors. They just lived in a wild dangerous world — and they couldn’t get out of it.
I never thought I would get out of it. All roads seemed to lead back to it. So eventually I resigned to it. Whatever it would take to get out of homelessness, I did not believe that I could ever achieve it.
So we’ve established all this. But what is really bothering me? Well – it’s this:
Here I am, having sat myself down in a predominantly White, peaceful little hamlet in North Idaho. The “Blue city in the Red State.” Here I eventually found fulfilling companionship among a number of University professors, and am honored to attend the church that has the highest per capita number of University professors in the State. My intellect has sharpened up a bit (gradually), and I find myself very thankful to be sleeping safe and sound (on most nights anyway). People seem to like me, I get along amiably with most, and above all, I’m just not a “homeless person” anymore. Homelessness no longer needs to be the topic. I’m a person! Just like them — just like us. People don’t see me from either a bleeding heart or a throne of judgment. They say “excuse me” if they have to walk too close to me. They extend their hands for handshakes. They even ask me my name. It matters what my name is.
Finally, I’m an equal!
And as an equal, I start to learn a few things about my other equals. Very intelligent people, very learned. Most of them have never slept outdoors unless they like to go camping. They certainly haven’t slept outdoors for years on end, as I did. A lot of them seem sheltered — in more ways than one. Yet they have strong ideals, and they care about others, about people different than themselves. They value diversity.
But when will the homeless person be included in that diversity?
Had I been a Black man, I might have come up here and found after five years that there was considerable opportunity to embrace that identity. But in no way am I embracing an identity that I simply don’t have. In fact, I never had it. Homelessness is not who I am. Or is it?
People who cared about social justice and racial inequality walked past us with an indifference that belied their ideals. We saw them as hypocrites. If they cared about all those other kinds of people whom they claimed to care about, then why were they treating us like dogshit? Why were we not included in the realm of humanity that would be concerned with our equality?
It makes me wonder — if I were a homeless person in this neck of the woods, would I still be treated with the great equanimity that I have found here? Would I still be Andy? Or would I be — one of them? Worthless — a piece of shit . . .
I like to think the former. But how will I know?
There’s one way to find out.
We shall not go there.
Or shall we?
Maybe I need to listen to the words I spoke above – in the year 2013 — when I was actually in the thick of it. Maybe if I do, I might be comforted. I might begin to believe again that maybe I can make a difference. Maybe then, I can get some sleep.
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