Sixth Column Published on Religious News Site

My sixth column, concerning how the coronavirus has been impacting homeless populations, has now been published on Spokane Faith and Values, thanks to editor-in-chief Tracy Simmons.   The column includes interviews with a number of people currently experiencing homelessness in very different parts of the country.  

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HOMELESSNESS DURING COVID-19

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Tuesday Tuneup 67

Q. What’s going on inside?

A. Depends on where inside.

Q. How about your stomach?

A. Not much acid.  More alkaline.

Q. Your heart?

A. Steady and strong.

Q. Your brain?

A. I was afraid you’d mention that one.

Q. What’s wrong with that one?

A. Oh, I’d say it’s probably damaged by now.

Q. Damaged where?

A. The hull of the skull.  I’ve got holes in my head.

Q. Like leaks in a roof?

A. Very much so.

Q. And the rain’s getting in?

A. Rain?  More like cosmic storms.   Bolts of supernatural lightning.   Fiery darts from the second heavens.  All kinds of random data from the Universe.  Hopes mixed with fears.  Love mixed with hate.  I’m all over the map.  I’m a wreck.

Q. Do you feel as though thoughts are flying to your brain from multiple external sources?

A. You took the words right out of my mouth.

Q. Then what?

A. The thoughts formed in external realms of the Mind are now confined in my own little mini-brain, trapped as it were, bouncing off the walls of my cerebral cortex, struggling to interact and make sense of each other.

Q. But the thoughts did not originate in your brain?

A. No, they did not. The brain is only a processor for thoughts that have their origin in mysterious realms of Non-Incarnate Mind.

Q. Realms of the Spirit?

A. Indeed. If I think any of my thoughts are original, I imagine I only deceive myself.  Surely they have all been thought before.

Q. Are you sure about that?

A. No.

Q. Why not?

A. Because the incompatibility of multiple thoughts in my own little brain bespeaks a greater incompatibility with these kinds of thoughts in the Universe at large.   I doubt these thoughts want to think too closely to each other, for they repel each other by nature.

Q. And now?

A. And now, though they repel each other, they do so in such an infinitesimally small habitat, they cannot help but bounce off the walls of this badly battered brain of mine, and by and by collide.

Q. What happens then?

A. Well naturally, they’re forced to coalesce with each other, living together in such close quarters, and so they combine themselves into new thoughts full of contradictions.  These contradictory thoughts are certainly formed in my own mind — not in the Universe at large.  For in the Universe at large, where they succeed at avoiding each other, no such combinations would be possible.

Q. How does it feel when this happens?

A. It feels as though war is waging within me.   Uncertain, endless war, with many sides at enmity with each other, and no clear or concrete alliances.

Q. Is there a way to stop the war?   To bring peace to your overloaded brain?

A. Only by reconciling all the myriad differences that entail among these different forms of thought, and thus inaugurating a new age of greater understanding and harmony within me.

Q. How can this be achieved?

A. Only by persistence in mediation on my part, until the thoughts are able to live with each other’s differences, and cease to fly about the brain as though bats in a belfry.

Q. How likely is this?

A. About as likely as achieving peace on Earth.

Q. Is that unlikely?

A. Not if we persist.  Not if we never abandon hope.   We can all do it together — if we try.

Describe who you are in 3 words. - December 19th, 2016 - Daily Challenge - MeYou Health

The Questioner is silent.

 

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Paralyzed

Meant to get this to you earlier.  It was first published in the October “special issue” of Street Spirit and subsequently submitted to the International Network of Street Papers, where it has been published elsewhere.   And now, here as well.   Hope you enjoy it.  

Paralyzed: The Demons That Prey on the Homeless
by Andy Pope

When one is homeless, one is by definition exposed to all kinds of elements that escape the confines of one who lives indoors.  Weather is only one such element.  There are also predatorial elements — people who invade the space of someone who has no physical barrier to separate them from intruders of the night.

There is also another kind of predator sometimes encountered in the darkness.  This is the supernatural predator, often colloquially referred to as a “demon” — an entity that invades one’s dream states, or states of half-sleep.

Homeless friends of mine reported being “hassled” or “attacked” by malevolent entities that seemed to hover over various outdoor spots where we tried to sleep.  I sometimes sensed these invasions as well.  Typically, I would become paralyzed, and suddenly feel as though an invisible hostile creature was grabbing me and rubbing or scratching me with things that felt like paws or claws.  Sometimes I would feel as though I were being pounded on.  I would hear abusive voices as this happened: “Andy, you scum bag!! You are a total piece of shit!!!!”

Whether these were truly alien invaders from outer space, or merely the subconscious reflection of my own low self-esteem, I cannot say.

I learned that these attacks have a name: sleep paralysis.  Sleep paralysis is a condition where one is awake to one’s surroundings but lacks motor control.  In other words, you’re not awake enough to move your body, but awake enough to know what’s going on.  It often strikes during times when the usual patterns of sleep have been disrupted.  In my experience, very few things have disrupted my normal sleep patterns as much as the overall conditions of homelessness.

As a person who has had sleep paralysis since the age of 14, I am among the 8 percent of the population for whom this condition is commonplace.  When I was homeless, I noticed that these intrusions would be different depending on when and where they occurred.  For example, intrusions in Ohlone Park were different than those that took place on the steps of St. Joseph the Worker church or outside the Rubicon building.  I always sensed that I was being assaulted by some kind of invisible entity, but the nature of the entity would differ according to where it was that I was trying (unsuccessfully) to sleep.

If I were to take a daytime nap on Bart, however, I noticed that I was free of these mysterious assailants.  However, when the train would stop, sometimes they would attack.  This gave rise to the theory that they lived in a reality that intersected the normal Earth-based reality at certain spots, but that they were unable to traverse the surface of the Earth — at least not at speeds corresponding to those of rapid transit.   This theory is reminiscent of the concept of the “tesseract” expounded in the book A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine l’Engel.  

Another theory had to do with the veracity of these demon-riddled reports.  How plausible were they really?   How credible were those who reported them?   And most of all, who was most likely to believe them?  I could not help but notice that those who were impoverished, homeless, on disability, working poor, or low-wage blue collar or assembly line workers were the quickest to embrace and believe my reports of sleep paralysis.  Often, people in the lower socio-economic brackets would share their own similar experiences of encounters with “demons.”  But people in the scientific community, upper level academicians, white collar workers, and corporate business people seemed often to scoff at our accounts, writing them off the same way that they wrote off all of our statements.  To be sure, this is another type of paralysis — one that is relentless, and occurs in broad daylight.

Whatever the cause or effect of these widespread stories, one thing seemed most disturbingly clear.  There were legions of demons haunting the realm of the disadvantaged, the underprivileged, the unprotected, and the abandoned.  Whether they meet us in dream states or in harsh reality, there are far more homeless demons than meet the eye.

Andy Pope is a freelance writer who lives in the Pacific Northwest, and the author of Eden in Babylon, a musical about youth homelessness in urban America.   

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Fourth Column Published

At some point, I slacked on getting these Street Spirit columns posted on Thursdays in a timely fashion.   Here’s my 4th column, as it was published in the November issue.  More to come.   

The Homeless Habits that Followed Me Indoors
by Andy Pope

One of the many unexpected challenges that arose during my transition from homelessness to indoor living stemmed from the fact that I had simply gotten used to living outdoors. This caused many of the practices that worked for me when I was homeless to be carried over into the context of indoor living. While some of these lingering habits clearly didn’t apply indoors, others of them worked fairly well, both inside and out. In any case, all of them were surprisingly hard to shake. These hard-to shake habits fell into four main categories: Sleeping, eating, livelihood, and self-esteem.

Sleeping

When I was homeless, I got used to sleeping on two or three layers of cardboard placed over a hard surface.  I often slept on sidewalks, stairways, ramps, and cement alcoves positioned beneath awnings.   To off-set the hardness of such surfaces, I would pile on layers of cardboard until it simulated the effect of a mattress.

The problem with this, as far as my transition is concerned, was that I found I needed to use the same set-up in order to functionally sleep inside.  I tried sleeping in the bed that was provided in my first indoor room, but it just didn’t feel right.  I wasn’t used to sleeping in a bed.  So I set up three layers of cardboard on the hardwood floor, piled on an ample amount of blankets, and found I went right to sleep.  In fact, I slept much better than I’d ever slept outdoors.  I had combined the comfort of my preferred set-up with the added security of sleeping inside, where I was no longer vulnerable to the numerous assailants that roam the outdoor nights.  So I got the best of both worlds.

Another thing: Even though I had moved far away from Berkeley to a place where the temperatures were often below freezing in the winter, I found that I had to leave my window wide open at all times.  I had gotten so used to sleeping in the open air, I felt suffocated if I wasn’t getting a huge blast of fresh air in my face.  Also, for a long time I had to visualize one of my former outdoor sleeping spots in order to calm my mind enough to get to sleep at night.  This eventually faded with time, but evidenced an overall nostalgia for the homeless experience that flew in the face of reason.

Eating

My ideas around food, its availability, and one’s ability to feed oneself also changed radically as a result of my years of homelessness.  When food came my way while I was on the streets, I cheerfully shared it with those in my midst, assured that others would do the same for me.   Generally, I was right.  This is one of the small ways in which people on the streets take care of each other.

But without a street community to share resources with, managing my grocery shopping and eating habits was a struggle.  Having a kitchen for the first time in years, and being on a fixed income from Social Security, I naturally stocked up on food after I had paid rent and other bills.  But with this surplus of food available to me, I found myself overeating, using up my food supply long before the month was over, and thus gaining weight.   It took some time for me to become comfortable with stretching my groceries to last all month.

Livelihood 

I had also become accustomed to flying a sign on a sidewalk in order to accumulate pocket change to get through the day, as well as an occasional sandwich or other form of foodstuffs.  But in my current situation, there weren’t any panhandlers, let alone “silent sign-flyers” as I would have characterized myself.  Had I showed up on Main Street with my sign, I’d have stuck out like a sore thumb.  The local cops would have been on me in a heartbeat.  But I missed flying a sign for many reasons, not the least of which is that I simply was used to that means of livelihood.

In fact, I so missed flying my sign that on two occasions I invested over $50 on a round trip bus ticket to the nearest large city, when I hooked up with the homeless people who hung out by the station, and flew my sign until it was time for the bus to leave.   Unfortunately, I made less than $50 each time, so it as not even a cost-effective venture.  But it did satisfy my enormous urge to earn money in my customary fashion, if only for a day or two.

The overall inability to panhandle in a small rural community resulted in a form of food insecurity I had not at all anticipated.  After all, it was difficult to experience true food insecurity in Berkeley, where there were up to four free community meals each day.  Now, without community meals or the ability to fly a sign, I found myself suffering midway through each month.  I scrambled to make more money without the option of having a “street hustle,” and found that my job-related skills had suffered greatly as a result of years of unemployment.

Seeing the people in my midst who seemed not to have a problem feeding themselves, jealousy burned within me.  Whereas before, I had been jealous of practically anyone who had a roof over their head, I now found myself jealous of homeless people who were able to feed themselves more readily than I was, such as many of the homeless people in the city of Berkeley, where so much free food is abundant.

low self-esteem.png

Self-esteem 

By far, however, the most difficult transition to navigate was in the area of my self-esteem.  As much as I despised seeing the way that privileged people who lived indoors treated homeless people who were suffering, I had simply gotten used to being treated like a piece of shit.  Unbelievably, when people began to treat me humanely, as though I were “one of them,” I found I couldn’t handle it.  

For example, I had been quietly hanging out out at a local coffee house for a couple of weeks before one of the baristas extended her hand and asked what my name was.  Afterwards, I literally had to go into the bathroom and cry.  I could not believe that an employee in a public business establishment cared what my name was. I had gotten so used to being viewed with suspicion, as though it were assumed I could only be a troublemaker, that the experience of having an employee actually treat me with dignity was almost too much for me. While I soaked it all in with a natural delight, it also caused me to wonder why on earth I and my homeless brothers and sisters had put up with such pejorative treatment to begin with. 

The closest I’ve come to an answer is that we all simply got used to it. We didn’t think things would ever be any different or any better. The overall message that society gave us was that we would always be homeless, and that we were without hope in a world where an uncrossable gulf was fixed between those who were within and those who were without. We even got the feeling that we should always remain homeless – that we belonged, not in the privileged world of renters and homeowners – but in the leprous realm of the ostracized, the abandoned, and the untouchable. For we were not such as were worthy of dignified indoor living.

When such a bombardment of dehumanizing messages is blasted at a person day in and day out, it messes fairly severely with one’s head. Had I not known the amazing community that existed between me and my fellow homeless people, I would never have found the strength to come out alive.

Homeless No More is a column that features the stories of people making the transition from homelessness to housing.  Andy Pope is a freelance writer who lives in the Pacific Northwest, and the author of Eden in Babylon, a musical about youth homelessness in urban America.   

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A little bit goes a long, long way.  

 

The Homeless Link

Below is a verbatim transcript of my column Rebuilding Trust by Strengthening the “Homeless Link” as it was recently published on the independent news site, Spokane Faith and Values, under the editorship of Tracy Simmons.   

When asked to write about our need to address the erosion of trust in our national consciousness, the first thing that crossed my mind is that I’ve never fully succeeded at rebuilding trust on a personal level. But I don’t think this failure is unique to me alone.

In today’s society, when friendships or business relationships go sour, it is much more likely that one will simply “move on” than that a person will expend the energy needed to repair a broken relationship. After all, such an energy expense is often painful, and people don’t like to endure pain unless it’s absolutely necessary. And with so many options for replacing unfavorable associations with more promising ones, why should one concern oneself with mending fences?

Through increased mobility and the phenomenal interactive potential of social media, it’s more accurate to depict people as jumping several fences in succession – more-or-less like hurdles in a track meet – than going back to mend any of them. The unusual ease with which people sever their personal contacts these days is assisted by the fact that through electronic communications and social media, one is able to block, delete, or ignore someone completely unilaterally. People take advantage of this convenience, often without prior word of warning or common courtesy.

Though social media has the potential to build bridges, it also helps us to burn them. Our worlds have become increasingly fragmented, and it is common on instant messengers for people to drop out of conversations abruptly and leap over to a new conversation without answering the last question or even saying goodbye. How can trust possibly be built when so many interactions are left incomplete?

Moreover, busy people may receive 500 emails a day and not have time to answer five of them. We have come to accept non-response as a response, but what does that response say? We have no idea, really. We only know that they won’t talk to us, we don’t know why, and the mass phenomenon of all this electronic dismissal, one of another, has eaten away at the morale of an entire nation.

If we’re going to think about rebuilding trust, we need first to consider that there will never be trust at the expense of communication. This applies not only to personal relationships, but to human associations at all levels of society. We don’t trust our educational system, we don’t trust our clergy, we don’t trust the politicians whom we have elected to represent us, and we certainly don’t trust corporate officers. While I would be the last to advocate a reactionary return to a less inclusive era, I will be the first to propose that a revival of misplaced values such as common courtesy and mutual respect would be a good place to start if we are to go about rebuilding trust on a grander scale.

Our devaluing of respectful communication is, to my view, a function of our inordinate love of personal pleasures. It is natural that in a culture so fraught with danger, we would seek escape in diversions that distract us from our troubles. But for many, it has become more important to feel good than to do good. When given a choice between feeling good and doing good, we often choose the former.

A man storms out of the house after an argument with his wife. Instead of returning to bless her with a surprise bouquet, he takes that money to a poker game and escapes into a night of male bonding with the boys. We take our ten dollar bills to the movie theater in order to entertain ourselves, and we ignore the beggar outside the theater whose life might end in the cold that night if he doesn’t get two dollars for an all-night bus pass. We justify our self-serving nature by rationalizing that the person on the other end of our avarice has made bad choices in their lives, and that they need to learn from their mistakes by being deprived of basic needs. But we are neither gods nor goddesses, and no human being is in the moral position to judge another for their station in life, especially when we have no idea what the conditions were that got them there.

As cities become more congested, and the rapid pace of life accelerates, we stigmatize. We hesitate to take the time to listen to the unique stories of those who cross our paths. Instead, we view people according to what “box” we can place them in. The box of leftie. The box of drug addict. The boxes of codependent, feminist, fundamentalist. The list goes on and on. We judge people according to their “boxes,” rather than recognize them as the unique individuals whom they are.

Nowhere is this stereotyping more flagrant than in typical attitudes toward the homeless. Every homeless person has their story, and I have found that these stories are generally told truthfully. But because of our fast-paced agendas and stigmatic notions as to what the homeless are about, we don’t stop to engage these fellow citizens, especially if we feel interrupted. People do not like to witness visible poverty in all its ugliness, so we turn our heads away from the very people who may need our attention the most.

In hearing any stranger’s story, of course we will have doubts as to its veracity. In the case of a homeless stranger’s story, one often suspects it is only a covert plea for financial assistance. But how do we know that if we don’t stop to hear them out? The fact is, unless the homeless person is visibly drunk or loaded, we have no idea how they are going to spend that money. A recent study by the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Addiction estimates that 27 percent of homeless people are drug-addicted. Yet I have lived in big cities where homelessness and drug addiction are thought to be synonymous in the eyes of passersby.

Well, we think, if we give the homeless person food, then we’re still doing good, and we’re on the safe side. So we drop some food off every now and then and wash our hands of the matter. What matter? The matter that we haven’t engaged them, we haven’t heard their voices. We haven’t made no effort to discern whether a hand-up might be more applicable than a hand-out.

I’m not suggesting we cease to feed the hungry. I’m suggesting we get to know the hungry. Talk to a homeless person about something other than their homelessness. Take the time to learn what kind of person they are. Do they want to remain homeless all their lives? Some do. Most don’t. The only way we come to find out is by involving them, by treating the homeless with dignity — as equals, with respect — and not as lesser sub-human mutants or inanimate objects to step over around and over whilst they sleep.

That is the core of the true homeless problem, and it also would be a great place to start in rebuilding trust within the society as a whole. If we want to restore unity in a divided culture, why don’t we first bring inclusion to those who have been the most abandoned? In doing so, we could conceivably inaugurate a chain reaction, and trust may be ignited all the way up the scale. A chain, after all, is only as strong as its weakest link. What link could possibly be weaker than that of the homeless?

I say we strengthen the Homeless Link. Provide for a homeless person neither pity nor judgment, but encouragement, hope, and respect. Maybe — just maybe — this is what it will take to renew the lost strength of an entire nation.

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The Homeless Inequities

Happy Thanksgiving — to those to whom it applies.   Here’s a little talk I created yesterday.  It’s about twenty-five minutes long, explaining how my recent “Inequity Series” came about, what it means, and what we probably should be doing about it.  I’d be happy if you gave it a listen.

The Homeless Inequities 

We who live indoors have a lot to be thankful for.  I say, let’s give a “hand up” to those who could use it.  God bless you — and God bless America.

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