Welcome to Homelessness

I make a point of remembering important dates in my life.  One would think that the first night I slept outdoors, inaugurating twelve long years of homelessness, would be a very important date.  That I don’t know the date is telling.  Who wants to know a date like that?

I do know that I was prescribed the psychiatric drug klonopin on the morning that my mother was to die (unbeknownst to me) on October 9, 2003.   I do know I was asked to resign my teaching job on February 17, 2004.   I know that I was illegally evicted from my place of residence on April 1, 2004.   Though I became legally homeless on that date, I still had enough money for motel rooms to keep me afloat for another month or more.

The day when I stopped using klonopin was certainly one that I remember.   I went off of 4mg of klonopin cold turkey on May 10, 2004.  I never even had the seizure they told me I would have, as they tried to convince me to keep taking that God-awful drug that had lost me my shirt.  I was so relieved to finally be free of that stuff.  My short-term memory returned, I began to speak coherently again, and I started to remember the names of the people with whom I was conversing.

Though my living situation by that time was sketchy — an illegally parked motor home in the back yard of a friend of mine – at least I was still indoors.  But then, by May 20, 2004, I had lost my reading glasses after sleeping in Golden Gate Park. It was that day that inspired the first piece of literature I ever had published on the subject of homelessness: A New Pair of Glasses.

So it was at some point between May 10th and May 20th that I sat on a bench at a CalTrain station all night long, sometimes nodding off, sometimes waking with a start — to the sound of a roaring engine, or laughter from late night carousers, or some other noise in the night.   Cops would drive by, and I feared interrogation.  But they never stopped me.  Eventually, the sky grew light.  I grabbed a coffee at a nearby doughnut shop, then walked up to the church where for several years, I had been the Director of Music.

Pete, the pastor, had known of some of my recent struggles, and we seemed to be on good terms.  I had visited with him more than once in the past few months, and I figured he might be able to help me get up to San Francisco, where my friend Tony had promised to help.   As I strolled to the church on that bright sunny morning, I pondered how easily I had made it through the night.  There was nothing so far about homelessness that seemed intolerable.

When I arrived at the church, I saw that the Hispanic minister was there, along with two friends.  He did not recognize me from the 90’s, where he had seen me at the church organ many times.  Walking up to shake his hand, I told him that I remembered him from all of those joint preaching sessions, where he and Pete would take turns behind the pulpit on days when the Spanish-speaking congregation joined in with us English-speaking folks.

But he eyed me cautiously, as though I were somehow suspect.  The others looked at me strangely, too.  It seemed they did not believe me.  I could understand if the Hispanic pastor would not have recognized me.  But I couldn’t understand why I wasn’t being believed.  That seemed strange.  I had provided at least enough information for him to have made the connection.

“Pastor Peter will not be in today,” he said, in a guarded fashion.  “This is his day off.”

“Oh that’s right,” I said.  “He takes Mondays off after preaching on Sundays.  Well — I’ll just come back tomorrow again at eight.   Just let him know that Andy stopped by.”

“He won’t be in at eight tomorrow.  He never comes in before noon, you know.”

“He doesn’t?” I asked, perplexed.  “I just saw him a couple months ago.  He was in at eight as usual, the same way he always came in at eight every morning for years, when I worked here before.”

“Please, no more, sir,” he said.  “I cannot help you, and Peter will not help you.   Please go back to wherever you came from.”

love thy neighborAt that, a strange mix of fear and anger ripped through my body.  The man had not only lied to me about Pete’s schedule, but he blatantly refused to even consider that I might have been telling the truth.  Moreover, I had recognized him; I knew exactly who he was, and I could not possibly have changed my appearance so hugely in the past seven years, that he would think I was anyone other than who I said I was.

“And you call yourself a Christian pastor?” I said, outraged. “I’ll have you know I’m a decent guy who’s down on his luck, and you’re treating me like a scum bag.”

“Go!” he shouted, as his friends joined in.  “Go!  Go!  Go away!!”

Talk about your Monday morning! 

I stormed away in torment.  Somehow I knew at that moment that the worst was yet to come.   The worst thing about homelessness, I somehow sensed, would have nothing to do with weather conditions, or malnutrition, or even sleep deprivation — or any of the other things that people always ask about when they find out that one is homeless.  It would have to do with something they never ask about: the way I would be treated.   I would be cast out like a leper, as though one would contract a deadly disease just from being in my presence.

But if nothing else comes of my recounting this horrible memory, at least I have finally learned the exact date.   After all, it was Monday.   There is only one Monday between May 10, 2004 and May 20, 2004.   So the first night I slept outdoors was May 17, 2004.

How could I forget?

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Flattering Lips

Help, Lord, for no one is faithful anymore;
those who are loyal have vanished from the human race.
Everyone lies to their neighbor;
they flatter with their lips
but harbor deception in their hearts.

May the Lord silence all flattering lips
and every boastful tongue—
those who say,
“By our tongues we will prevail;
our own lips will defend us—who is lord over us?”

“Because the poor are plundered and the needy groan,
I will now arise,” says the Lord.
“I will protect them from those who malign them.”
And the words of the Lord are flawless,
like silver purified in a crucible,
like gold refined seven times.

You, Lord, will keep the needy safe
and will protect us forever from the wicked,
who freely strut about
when what is vile is honored by the human race.

– Psalm 12

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The Homeless Monologue

This is in response to a Quora question, to the effect of one’s wondering why so many homeless people seem to be talking to themselves quite a bit.  I didn’t contest this perception.  I did my best to explain the phenomenon, and also referenced another writer who had done the same.  

I appreciated the answer of Adora Myers because this is a side not often seen in the homeless equation.

It is true that a person suffering from paranoid schizophrenia will often believe that s(he) is talking with those who are not actually there. It is also true that many schizophrenics, as well as people suffering from severe PTSD and other mental illnesses, are too ill to effectively access treatment, or else they lack privilege which would render treatment more accessible to them. So they wind up on the streets, more-or-less by default. This is a very sad state of affairs.

invisibleHowever, it is also true that people who have become homeless in large urban areas, especially where there is a sizable concentration of other homeless people, will feign or play-act the known symptoms of these mental disorders in order to protect themselves by making themselves more frightening to would-be assailants and thieves.

I know this to be true, because I did it myself. When I was homeless, I walked around a city that contained over a thousand visible homeless people. As I did so, I composed music in my head. This meant playing drums on my pants legs, guitars and keyboards in the air, and singing tell-tale syllabic sounds such as “Bop Bop Bop” in a manner that conceivably could be construed to be obnoxious.  

People frequently told me to “shut the f—k up” but they also had a way of keeping a distance from me. So this “act” worked in my favor.

Incidentally, I would guess that only about 30% of onlookers realized that I was actually a serious musician in the process of composing music. The other 70% shrugged and said, if they knew me by name: “That’s just Andy. He’s one of the local wingnuts.” If they did not know me by name that was reduced to: “Wingnut.”

Of the 30% who perceived I was writing music, I would say that probably 20% of them appreciated what I was doing. The other 10% frequently showed up with smartphones facing me and grim expressions on their faces, giving me the distinct idea they were out to steal my stuff.

So much for life in the Big City. Glad to be indoors — and far away from all that particular noise.

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Homeless in the USA

On the site Quora, where I am considered to be a “Most Viewed Writer” on the subject of Homelessness, somebody recently posed the question: “How do people become homeless in the USA?”  I answered it quickly according to my experience, and later noticed that it had received over 3,500 views and 73 “upvotes.”  So I figured I’d share it here.  I hope you gain from it.

Having lived in a community of over 1,000 homeless people for five years, and having been homeless and borderline-homeless in other areas for seven additional years, I think I might be qualified to answer this question.

There are many ways that a person can become homeless in America. Let me list four that seem most prevalent:

(1) A sudden medical problem or family crisis that costs a person an unexpected amount of money, making it impossible for them to continue paying rent or mortgage.

(2) Socio-economic factors beyond the scope of individual control; e.g., a persistent rent increase over a period of time that far exceeds any increase in the renter’s income.

(3) A drug or alcohol problem resulting in job loss, eviction, and/or general inability to make rational decisions over the long haul.

(4) A mental health condition that goes untreated or is (as in my own case) misdiagnosed, resulting in one’s taking medications that work to one’s detriment rather than one’s benefit.

My experience is that, in larger urban areas, there is a greater percentage of people who became homeless as a result of socio-economic factors or circumstances beyond their control.

evictionIn smaller, more rural areas, such as the small college town where I now live in Northern Idaho, it is much more difficult to become homeless without sort of “asking for it” by displaying a serious drug or alcohol problem.

I do know that in the two years that I have now successfully rented apartments in my present city – first, a studio, then a one-bedroom, I have done every thing that would have “made me homeless” in situations that arose in the San Francisco Bay Area, where rents are on the average four times as high, but where my fixed income from Social Security has not varied.

Had I not moved to this small college town in the middle of the country, I would have died a meaningless death on the Berkeley city streets. I simply would never have been able to pay the rent. And because I was largely regarded as unemployable due to my mental health condition, I found it difficult to cut through that stigma in order to find a job.

After almost two years of successfully paying my rent every month, I am living a very meaningful and happy life.

All it took was a $200 Greyhound bus ticket to a distant State, and a loan on an apartment deposit, to end twelve years of seemingly inescapable homelessness in the Bay Area. I applied for a part-time job three weeks after I arrived in Idaho, and was hired. I even managed to keep the job for ten months before aspects of my condition caused them to ask me to resign. But by that time, I was established in the community with a church and a solid support group, and I knew how to make ends meet.

I hope this information has been helpful, and of particular use to someone who may be in need.

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The Eye of a Needle

A man came up to Jesus and asked:
“Teacher, what good thing must I do
to get eternal life?”

“Why do you ask me
about what is good?”
 Jesus replied. 

“There is only One who is good.
If you want to enter life,
keep the commandments.”

“Which ones?” he inquired.

Jesus replied, “ ‘You shall not murder,
you shall not commit adultery,
you shall not steal,
you shall not give false testimony,
 

honor your father and mother,’
and ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’ ”

All these I have kept,”
the young man said.
“What do I still lack?”

Jesus answered: 
“If you want to be perfect,
go, sell your possessions
and give to the poor,
and you will have treasure in heaven.
Then come, follow me.”

When the young man heard this,
he went away sad,
because he had great wealth.

Then Jesus said to his disciples, 
“Truly I tell you,
it is hard for someone who is rich
to enter the kingdom of heaven.
 

Again I tell you,
it is easier for a camel
to go through the eye of a needle
than for someone who is rich
to enter the kingdom of God.”

Matthew 19:16-23

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The Missing Homeless Person

A few days ago, this question was posed on the site Quora: “If a homeless person I see on a regular basis suddenly disappears (and no dead body is found), what would police do if I reported him missing?”  I could not speak on the behalf of law enforcement.  But since I was twice the subject of a Missing Persons Report, I did my best to speak on my own behalf.

Twice, during the 12 year period when I was homeless, a person concerned about my whereabouts filed a Missing Persons Report.

The first time, I received a mysterious message from “Joe” on my Facebook that read: “Welfare Check.” The person named Joe identified himself as a Marin County detective.

I did not understand what a “welfare check” was. I told him, quite naively, that I was not on General Assistance (i.e., “welfare”) and that I received no such check.

He explained that a young woman whom I had been working with had been concerned about my whereabouts after having received an alarming email stating I was alone in Golden Gate Park in inclement weather. (This is true, because I sent the email to her and others from a cafe that was near G.G.Park.)

Once I put the twos and twos together, I was able to tell him I was fine and staying temporarily in a motel, and that I was sorry I had caused anyone any consternation.

flying empty signThe second time was a bit different, and actually was more of an inconvenience than anything else. I had been in a halfway house, and I left before the two week term was up. I left because I couldn’t stand being around all the strangers, and I wanted to be alone, and sleep alone outside. (This was always my preference, during the years when I was homeless.)

Again, it came back to me — through Facebook, of all places — that an MPR had been filed and that police were looking for me.

Because I felt I had left the halfway house responsibly, informing the case workers there that I was leaving, I was incensed. I called them up and said:

“How on earth can anyone file a Missing Persons Report on a homeless person? Missing from where?”

Everybody at the North Berkeley Senior Center who had surrounded me at the moment thought this was very amusing, but of course the social worker on the other end of the line failed to see the humor.

So – again this is only my experience. It does show that the police did care, and that part’s good. But it also shows part of the reason why I no longer use Facebook. I value my privacy. If you ever become homeless — if you haven’t been already — I suggest you value yours as well.

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Tuesday Tuneup Six

Q. Do you know who I am?

A. I really wish you would stop asking me that.

Q. Why have you summoned me?

A. Because today’s the Big Day.

Q. You mean, Tuesday?

A. Well – that, too.  But it’s not just any Tuesday.   Barring the catastrophic, I will finally be with my daughter for the first time in two years, and with my ex-wife for the first time in 16 years.   And my ex and I will be sleeping under the same roof for the first time in 28 years.

Q. How did all this come about?

A. I believe you asked me that already, two or three Tuesdays ago.

Q. Can you run it by me again, please?

A. Whew – I barely know where to start.   And I disdain to unveil personal information about my family here.  Let’s just say that I’m a person who was on the streets for about twelve years in the San Francisco Bay Area.  I learned a lot about people during those twelve years, and a lot about life.  Of course times were hard, and moments were miserable.  But I was given valuable information during that period of time that I have since been compelled to share.

sacrificesI have noticed, however, that not everyone wants to hear this information.  They would rather cling to old stereotypes that make them feel comfortable, because the truth would cause them to look inward, into places within themselves of which they are afraid.

Of course this has been disturbing to me.  When I was homeless, I watched as old friends of mine, people with whom I had thought I would be friends forever, began to reject me one by one.  They didn’t return emails or phone calls.  They got all bent out of shape over relatively little things that gave me the feeling that, if any of these people had landed on the streets, they wouldn’t have lasted more than a week or two.

Before too long, I realized that most of these people were never my friends at all.  In fact, there were times when I thought I had never made a friend in my life — until I had become homeless.

While people of privilege were blowing me off left and right with half-truths and transparent forms of Mainstream Doublespeak, homeless people were telling it like it is.  Sure, there were scoundrels among us.  Of course there were those it is best off to avoid, and yet the streets made it next-to-impossible to do so.

I was hit on the head with guns.  I was pistol-whipped.  I was raped.  I watched all my possessions being burnt to bits before my eyes.  Not one person in my former life who professed to believe that Jesus Christ died for my sins lifted a finger to help me.  The only Christian who continued to believe in me, who treated me as a Christian, is a woman who knew me from the Internet, in a distant State, who never ceased to treat me as an equal, as a friend.  And she is among my best friends to this day.   But as far as people from the church I used to attend when I still was making money in this world?

They told me to go to counseling, to see a psychiatrist, to go into some kind of live-in program of some sort, or to merely “check in” to a shelter – as if they had any clue what bureaucracy would be involved, or what atrocities I would be subjected to in that so-called “shelter.”  The shelters in my world were little more than glorified jailhouses, and I far preferred to sleep in seclusion, absolutely alone.

Did any of those Pontius Pilates actually help me?  If you want to call an occasional lunch date at the price of a lecture “help,” I suppose they did.  Believe me, I was grateful enough for the lunch to put up with the lecture, however irrelevant that lecture may have been.

The continual experience of condescension, dismissal, and disrespect that I received from so-called Christians was such a far cry from the acceptance, dignity, and love that I was receiving from my homeless friends, I would become infuriated at the thought that these “Christians” actually thought they were doing the will of God, when they continually treated a man who was suffering like a bag of dirt.

Even to this day, I have difficulty getting my own eyes to see the naked truth.  Even in the last week, I appealed to former friends of mine, thinking surely they would express some happiness or joy over this reconciliation — when all they did was continue to raise their eyebrows and write me off as “crazy.”

But when the mother of my only daughter reappeared in my life, and I had learned that she had been through trials very similar to that which I and others endure on the streets, she didn’t write me off as crazy.

And the Lord Himself seeks such to worship Him.

Q. John?  Chapter Four?

A. John.  Chapter Four.  The day will come when those who worship God will worship Him neither in Jerusalem nor on the mountain – but the true worshipers will worship Him in Spirit and in Truth.

The Questioner is silent.

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