In the Greater Picture

It was a few weeks ago when I told Ashley Peterson of Mental Health at Home that I’d have this blog post ready soon, and just yesterday that I got it done. It still only says about one-third of what I’ve felt is needed. But that’s a good thing. There will probably be a couple sequels. 

Much as I hesitate to draw from immediate personal experience in order to support any greater social theories of mine, I can’t help but have noticed how the events surrounding my difficulty in getting my thyroid medication point to a larger phenomenon.   In this case, I’m going to forego my usual hesitations, on the basis of reasonable suspicion that my hesitation could be lifelong if I don’t speak up at some point.

Besides, the “larger phenomenon” to which I allude may have a lot more to do with my personal development than with anything universal.  So if I focus on how I personally have been affected by certain perceptions and expectations of the medical industry, I can only speak my truth at this time.  How my personal truth may reflect a greater reality is a matter for one’s searching.  I can’t claim to know – only to search.

The Story

When I received my retirement income, I noticed a very nice package combining two forms of insurance: MediCare and MediCaid. At the time, I was also somewhat disappointed with the treatment from the local low income clinic (where the doctor I had was only a P.A. – a Physician Assistant – not a full-fledged M.D.)  It occurred to me a while later that the low income clinic was geared toward those who may not have any insurance at all, and that maybe now that I was more fully insured, I ought to find a small family practice center, and hopefully a more knowledgeable doctor.

While I believe I did find an extremely knowledgeable, experienced doctor, I have noticed over the past few months that the people at the small family practice center seem more stressed in general.   Waits are much longer, which one might think would be the other way around.   While they still smile and try to comport themselves professionally, one does not get the feeling that they enjoy what they are doing.

Often I waited a very long time, and sometimes the doctor himself seemed hurried when he did see me.  But when it seemed to take a lot longer than it should have been taking for me to receive my levothyroxine, I returned to the low income clinic to see if I could get a quick scrip from the previous doctor.

As I entered the clinic, I was immediately greeted with the warmth of familial recognition.  They shouted out: “Hey Andy!  How’s it going?”  There was something distinctly genuine and caring in their vibration.   They weren’t just smiling because that’s the professional thing to do.

I quickly got a hold of the doctor there, who wrote me a prescription after a single meeting.  Then, ironically, when I went to pick up the prescription, it was blocked because the doctor at the family practice center had finally filled the prescription two days beforehand.   I not only had received no notice from either the pharmacy or the doctor’s office, but how was I supposed to believe that the prescription would even be filled at all, if this had been going on for over two weeks?

While the wait at the low income clinic’s pharmacy would have been less than five seconds, the wait at the Walgreens where I had been getting meds from the family practice center was well over an hour.   Also consonant with this theme is that no one at the family practice center other than my doctor himself ever learned my name, even though I’d been going there for months.   The people at the low income clinic remembered me even though I haven’t been going there at all, and in fact went there as infrequently as possible, when I did go there.

Throwback to Homelessness

What this all flashes me back to is an experience I had when I was homeless, which recently has been on my mind because of developments in the musical — things that Kelsey and I have been trying to illuminate in the weekly podcasts.   The experience was that of having found a nice “wellness center” in a low income district in Oakland CA where almost all the patients were African-American and where I was treated very kindly — with true caring — despite long waits and a generally congested staff.

At the same time, if I showed up in the Emergency Room in the hospital in Berkeley, and it was known or determined that I was a homeless person, I was given distinctly less preferential treatment than the person who lived indoors.  Sometimes, the medical problem I came to Emergency for was overlooked completely, as they proceeded to give me all kinds of printed information on where the shelters and services were — as if I wouldn’t have known all of that stuff already.

So naturally, my mind has drawn a parallel.  I’m not homeless now, but I am low income.   My insurance isn’t exactly Blue Shield – it’s the kind people have who are elderly or disabled.  Family practice?  I wondered if I even belonged there.  My mind began to imagine what they might be saying about me:

“We’re a respectable family practice!!  This guy doesn’t have a family, he’s just a transient, there’s substance abuse on his medical chart, he’s probably just passing through town . . .” 

Of course, they probably weren’t thinking that.  The point is that my experiences would be such that I would even think that they would be thinking it!

A Theory in the Making

It seems that there are institutions populated by people who are naturally compassionate and even empathetic towards those who are down and out.   There are also institutions where such people are given lower priority.   This present situation may or may not exemplify this phenomenon, because it could easily be a function of the two individual organizations I have described.   That specific family practice center may be particularly understaffed or otherwise swamped due to the pandemic, and this particular low income clinic may happen to be expanding, and gaining more personnel, and apparently State funds of some kind.

Still, the thing that intrigues me is that, whether or not the recent experience exemplifies a larger phenomenon, it was brought to mind in my interactions with the people involved.   There could have been a kind of confirmation bias going on.   But if so, what exactly is the theory I am trying to confirm?

Only bits and pieces of this “theory” are in place.  That’s why I haven’t been writing.   But I am beginning to believe that my intellect alone is insufficient to piece the entire theory together.  And that’s why (if this makes sense) I finally am writing.

What is being brought to light in the podcasts is how, when we were homeless, we were not in the position to be able to distinguish, among all the authority figures and “pseudo-authorities” in our midst, who were the ones who represented benign agencies whose role it was to assist us, and who were the ones who represented more-or-less adversarial institutions designed to investigate and incriminate us.  All these “higher ups” were relegated into the box of our “observers from inside” – and thus it was difficult to distinguish them, one from another.

In a corresponding way, it was difficult for those who lived indoors to discern from among those who were outside who was a legitimate candidate for genuine assistance, and who was of a criminal bent.   Those in the latter camp often feigned a need for assistance in order to gain benefits.   They were also often very good at it.  Whatever the case, I can assure you that I didn’t look much different than any other person on the streets — at least not at first glance.

Unfortunately, that first glance often seemed to be the only glance I got.   Even if the glance became a stare, or a series of stares, I felt like I was being observed with an ulterior motive.   I felt as though people were watching me, just waiting for me to somehow screw up and incriminate myself.    Years of living with that feeling seem to have led to years of trying to find a feeling to replace it.

So I still resort to ways of dealing with feelings that don’t differ widely from how we approached the matter when we were homeless.   How does one, after all, deal with the inner feeling of being dismissed, overlooked, disregarded?   On the other side of the coin, how does one deal with the feeling of being embraced, respected, and accepted — especially if one is not accustomed to it?

When we were homeless, we lived with eyes in the backs of our heads.  We couldn’t drop our guard long enough to process difficult personal feelings.  So instead, we looked for the larger phenomena that they might represent — and we analyzed, and drew conclusions about society.    We conducted such conversations vocally, publicly — encouraging others nearby to join in.  We were a lot more powerful that way, and much less vulnerable, or at risk.

In a way, this doesn’t seem like all that bad a thing to have been doing — in the greater picture.

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From the Outside Looking In

This, the final column in a five-week series, was first published on Spokane Faith and Values on Wednesday the 17th of this month.   Reprinting it here (with significant edits).   I hope you like my work.     

In keeping with the imbalance of all of these inequities, this is perhaps the most profound.

It was often assumed that people who lived inside had a lot to teach those of us who were outside.  It was rarely supposed that we who lived outside had a lot to teach people who never had done so. 

When you stop to think about it, this one isn’t even a logical assumption. If someone were to have seen me flying a sign in 2016, they would have seen somebody who had lived inside for the first 51 years of his life, and was largely outside for the next twelve. Naturally, I knew what it was like to live both inside and out.  But the person approaching me, having always lived indoors, lacked a good half of that knowledge base.

How the outsider is perceived

This led to a serious cognitive dissonance in how the outsider was to be perceived. On the one hand, they were in an ostensibly superior position; that is, a position from which one might feel qualified to render assistance. On the other hand, they were in what was actually a foreign position. No matter how much better one’s lot in life may seem, if the variables of that life were utterly foreign, then how can one presume to be of help?

“How could they possibly be telling us anything we don’t already know?” we would query amongst ourselves. “Or worse, how can they advise us on matters we do know something about, that they don’t?”

They should be listening to us!” we eventually concluded. It was such an inescapable conclusion that we marveled at those who would persist in its denial.

But persist they did. People would relentlessly assault us with bits and pieces of perfectly impertinent, irrelevant information. They would tell us where the feeds and services were, as if we did not already know. They would present us with fliers that any one of us could receive daily at the doors to any of those events. Even when I was busking, even with my own guitar, they would tell me what I should have been doing instead.

Granted, not all passersby were of this predilection. But the saturation was severe enough that those who were not really stood out. How great it felt when my friend Neil and I were busking, and someone simply put a $5 bill into the jar and shouted: “You guys sound great, keep it up!” At least our street craft was acknowledged for what it was meant to be — not for something else.

Given that the disparity in perception was so huge between those who observed us, and we who were being observed, how best could our own aggregate head-space be described?

While attitudes varied from one outdoor dweller to another, there was naturally a thread of common interest in the details of outdoor living that, for some reason, most of those who approached us from inside were not interested in.

Seeking Self-Protection

For one thing, talk of self-protection was very common. We all felt vulnerable — so much so that talk of vulnerability as it was experienced in the relative safety of indoor seclusion often seemed empty and meaningless. We were concerned with getting through the next night, with not being found by assailants in our sleep, with having the semblance of a visible weapon for self-defense, with having those nearby who could watch out for us.

In trying to get on in the wilds, I felt drawn toward guides from the past, bodies of knowledge I never thought I would ever revisit. The Boy Scout Handbook was one such book of knowledge.  Even knowing the right kinds of knots to use to secure my tent was a great bit of useful information, not to mention all kinds of things long forgotten: carving paths, leaving landmarks,  telling which way was North, starting campfires, and making them last.

I found myself also referring to more mystical works that had influenced my youth. “The Castaneda Series” came to mind. Principles from The Yaqui Way of Knowledge that clearly pertained to outdoor living surfaced in my psyche.  There was the principle of finding my place–or “spot”–wherever I decided to stay and sit, and thus maximizing my energy there. There was also the principle of disrupting the routines of life. These are skills that, while they seemed inapplicable to the workaday mainstream, were very useful in the new life that where I had found myself.

It was not uncommon for us to marvel in how separate this new existence seemed from the world to which we’d been accustomed all our lives. Indeed, those who still inhabited the previous mode of existence appeared to be strangers, and alien to us, even though they had once been our kith and kin.

The perception that even friends and family should in this fashion seem suddenly alien, combined with that of an unusually strong bond we who were outside together all shared one with another, further served to illuminate just how much we all looked to be outsiders. Indeed, we were but “strangers and pilgrims on the Earth,” similar to the identification of the sojourners among our progenitors, those who in Hebrews 11:13 lived by faith.

Turning to Scripture

As a believer, I found myself taking to certain Scriptures that, while they had always seemed true to me in a way that transcended the tedium of regular workaday life, now they took on even stronger, more glaring meaning.

I heard people talk about how the people who were still inside were unaware of how there was no hope in the “mainstream” — that meaning the vast social entity from which we felt we had been expelled and flung full-force into this new realm of being. We knew there was no hope in the mainstream, and we were thankful for having been released from it. In my case, I likened it to the “world” as used in the Scripture, Romans 12:2: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”

When I was still in the mainstream, struggling to fit in and to function, I was unable to see how it failed to form a foundation from which a healthy spiritual life might spring. It was more accurately the case that it rather replicated the world system to which we are not to be conformed. And now that I was outside, I saw this clearly.

Not only this, but the Lord himself positioned himself as an outsider, much the same as we living outside now experienced ourselves to be.

“So Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood. Therefore let us go to him outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured. For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come.” — Hebrews 13:12-14

So it was inevitable that we who believed and who were left outside discovered a deeper identification with our Lord and Master, at the same time as letting go of a much shallower identification with the world.

“Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.” — Philippians 2:5-7

Here was the sense in which our New Testament identification in Christ was made so much more accessible through the nature of the situation in which we all found ourselves, and its being opposed to the world.

“And Jesus said to him, ‘The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere He might lay the head.’” — Luke 9:58

This became our experience.  It wasn’t just His being a model or example.  It was we ourselves living out His life in that manner through ourselves and our present-day experience.  We felt it night after night, day after day.

For we brought nothing into the world, so we cannot carry anything out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these.” — 1 Timothy 6:7-8

It was interesting also in reading these time-honored words anew, how the author does not refer to “food and shelter.” We are to be content with “food and clothing.” Many people lived nomadically in those days, without shelter. Shelter is not a necessity in the sense that food is. This is one of the first things we learned, that we all came to accept, in order to cope with the radically different details of life outside.

“For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.”  — 2 Corinthians 5:1

Our Reality

While earlier in life I could see in this Scripture a note of hope, I now was able to embrace it as a living reality. For these indoor dwellings with which we used to be content were not our true homes. Rather, our true home is in the indescribable realm of the heavens, of which we, being freed from our indoor dwelling places, were now granted an ephemeral glimpse.

So, with all this naturally going on in one’s mind, as one continues to face the wildly unpredictable vicissitudes of life outside, do you see how much of the narrative we were made privy to, on the part of whoever had always lived inside, seemed frivolous and trivial in comparison? So complete was our absorption in this new kind of life, it came to baffle us that others, ensnared in physical boxes much like those we had already shed, still thought them to be containers of life.

For us, they were not, and really never could be, quite again.  For it was so often thought that those who lived therein had something to teach us about life.  It was rarely if ever thought that for those of us who lived outside, our lives had just begun.   

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A Hand Up

The fourth column in my five-week series on homelessness was published yesterday on the religion-related site Spokane Faith and Values.  Below is a transcript of the piece.  

It was when Nadine Woodward was running for Mayor of Spokane that I first heard Tracy Simmons speak. When I heard Ms. Woodward’s campaign slogan, “a hand up, not a hand out,” I felt compelled to comment. A handout to the homeless, she claimed, has a way of “enabling them.”

“It does enable them,” I blurted out.

Suddenly, I felt as though everybody in the room was looking at me.

“I was homeless for years in the San Francisco Bay Area,” I explained. “All that a constant string of handouts did for me was to keep me homeless.

Now perhaps that sentiment is misleading. We all need to eat. Jesus fed the hungry without qualification. Does anyone say, “All Jesus did was give them a hand-out?” That’s usually not the way it’s framed.

On the other hand, for five years I watched as a plethora of self-care items was freely distributed to whoever figured out where to find them. There were socks on Mondays, a laundry room on Tuesdays, and razors on Wednesdays. There were 35 free meals a week in the city where I slept outdoors. Many people took continual advantage of these services.

In fact, it began to look as though the same people were showing up for all these events, year after year. There was a noticeable tribe in the making, whose members were a mixed bag.

First, there were those who were disabled, who showed up with caregivers–those for whom the community meal was a part of their planned itinerary. A second group was of a criminal bent, in and out of jail, and discussing their adventures openly. Still others had merely fallen upon hard times. But by and large, the bulk of those who frequented homeless services were clearly sane, competent, and able to work.

So why did they remain there?

For one thing, it isn’t easy for a person who lives outdoors to find a job. Homeless people are disadvantaged. I recall how one of my applications was rejected because I didn’t own a cell phone. Another time, I couldn’t afford the fingerprint check. There was a $35 fee, and I wasn’t able to come up with the money fast enough. It isn’t easy for a homeless person to impress a prospective employer.

Numerous obstacles stand in the way of a homeless person arriving at an interview. They may not be able to shower in time, or obtain decent clothing. They may not be able to manage the public transit to get them there. Even if they succeed at showing up on time and looking sharp, the interviewer may notice that they lost a job three years ago, and haven’t landed one since.

Their credit score may not be pristine. Worse yet, their mailing address may only be a Post Office Box. Why are they not providing their home address? Could they possibly be homeless? How can a homeless person be trusted with a responsible position? Aren’t they all lazy, and perennially unemployed?

“On to the next applicant,” the interviewer frowns.

Ironically, the fallacy that all homeless people are lazy is often what prevents them from being hired. This leads to the sixth inequity that I have wanted to discuss:

It was often thought that because we were homeless, our lives were consigned to a countless string of handouts. It was seldom considered that our lives might be changed through a single hand-up instead.

Here’s How a Hand Up Works

Consider my own experience. Over a period of twelve years, how much money do you think went into feeding me and occasionally providing me with temporary lodging? Easily, thousands upon thousands of dollars, subsidized by the taxpayers of America.

How much money went into ending twelve years of homelessness in the Bay Area?

Exactly $600.

Seriously! That’s all it took. Once I was finally ready to get inside, I found someone who believed in me enough to front me $200 for a one way ticket to a brand new life. Shortly later, that person spotted me $200 for a deposit on my first place of residence. Granted, the place was an old, run-down hotel whose rooms had been converted to “apartments.” But it was still a roof over my head–with a decent mailing address, to boot.

On July 27, 2016, I arrived in the State of Idaho. On September 1st, I signed a one-year-lease. On September 6, I interviewed for a church job. Shortly later, I was hired. This was after years of being considered “unemployable” in California — only because I lived outdoors.

Over the next few weeks, I received four $50 loans from my benefactor. The money went to necessities such as clothing, toiletries, and a photo ID. He and I stayed in touch for a while, and then, by and by, parted ways.

Would it be too much to ask the privileged people of America to walk up and down the sidewalks, talk to the people who sit there daily, get to know them, and decide for themselves who would benefit from a $600 hand-up?

To be sure, many would decline. And even those who accepted would face a rather daunting task. It isn’t easy to discern who would put the hand-up to good use. It takes time to get to know people – and homeless people are no exception. The hand-up I’ve described did not take place in a single day.

But it did take place — and it did work. The role of a single benefactor cannot be discounted. But the main factor in my success was that I left all of my homeless stigma behind.

Think About It

I am not alone. There are millions of people scattered about the streets of North American cities. People who once were your next-door neighbors — who once looked very much like you. And now, due to the pandemic, a new upsurge in homelessness is on the rise. This consists largely of people who, just over a year ago, were working and faithfully keeping up on their rents and mortgages.

How logical is it to assume that all of them are “losers” and “lazy bums?”

How compassionate is it to turn a cold shoulder? To shrug and say: “There are services for people like you!”

How realistic is it to suppose that “services” will suffice to do what must be done?

How courageous is it to wash your hands of the matter, and refuse to associate with people who don’t look like me and you?

How open-minded is it to shun the homeless on the streets, and walk past them as though they were things — and not human beings?

The Answer Begins with You

I challenge anyone who has $600 to spare — and granted, that may not be many — to walk up and down the streets of Spokane and talk to homeless people, as you would talk to any other human being.

Talk about the ball game. Talk about the concert. Talk about your relationship hassles. Get to know these human beings who are no less human than you are. Find out their interests, their passions, their fields of expertise. Find out how much you have in common with these people who are just like you.

And if you have $6000 to spare, you know what to do. I guarantee you there are a lot more than ten people on those streets who don’t need to be there. If you have $60,000 to spare, you know where to spare it.

I’m not saying it will be easy. But the solution to the homeless problem in America does not lie in programs and institutions. It lies in removing the veil of stigma from the picture of the homeless individual.

Shelters and services may play a part, but they will never work effectively until this one thing has been secured. Just as I said in my very first column, we need to strengthen our weakest link. We need to see in every homeless person the book of humanity that we have judged by its cover. And our common humanity, one to another, must be revealed.

That book of humanity is a far more informative document than you might think. And that’s what my next column will be all about.

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Further Inequities

The third column in my five-week series on homelessness was published yesterday on the religion-related site Spokane Faith and Values.  Below is a transcript of the piece.  

Since this series began, I have been observing the nature of comments and reactions to my words.  As a result, it strikes me that a few things may need to be clarified.

When I use the word “we” in reference to my experience, I refer specifically to the Berkeley-based homeless community in which I participated between the years 2011 and 2016.  But I have also found that my statements generally hold true for those who have experienced long-term homelessness in other urban areas. 

Also, when I speak in past tense, I refer to specific events that took place throughout the entire 12-year period when I struggled with homelessness.  But again, I believe it stands to reason that the nature of such events is universal.

I am not here to discuss shelters and services. Such discussions can take place anywhere.  I am here to issue a call that we accept and respect those who continue to live outdoors — at a time when more and more people are beginning to do so. 

That said, I’m going to breeze through the next three inequities, to further fortify my statement.

There Are Other Topics of Conversation

If was often thought that homeless people should discuss only homelessness, at the expense of other topics.  It was seldom thought that homeless people, like all other people, should be permitted to discuss any topic they please.

A young person said to me once: “I would have no idea what to say to a homeless person.”

“That’s easy,” I replied.  “Talk to them about anything except homelessness.

You have no idea how refreshing it was when somebody approached me and began to discuss the ball game, the concert, or their most recent argument with their partner.  Conversations in which we were treated as human beings, not as homeless people, were a breath of fresh air. 

It was alarming how many people seemed to think that the only thing that should have been on our minds was our homelessness. Can you imagine if your new neighbor were Black or Hispanic, and the first thing you did was to approach them and discuss their ethnicity?  That’s the way it felt when people insisted on discussing our homelessness with us. 

So, if like my young friend, you are uncertain what to say in the presence of a person who is experiencing homelessness, consider my advice. Unless they bring it up first, talk about anything other than homelessness. Try it – you just might make their day. 

A Homeless Person Has a Need for Privacy

It was often thought that because one was homeless, one had sacrificed their “right to privacy.” It was seldom considered that homeless people need as much privacy as people who live behind closed doors.  

While it is debatable that our right to privacy is guaranteed in the 4th Amendment, I will assert that the 4th Amendment ought to apply equally to homeless citizens as well as to those who live indoors. The problem with a homeless person’s “right to privacy” stems from the fact that, living outdoors, most of the time there simply isn’t any. 

Yet homeless people need to relieve themselves, just like any other kind of person. But indoor bathrooms are often inaccessible. I remember walking the streets of Berkeley for an hour and a half once, trying to find a public bathroom that wasn’t locked. When I finally sneaked behind a bush to do the job, can you imagine how it felt to be viewed with suspicion?

Of course I was viewed with suspicion! Why does somebody sneak behind a bush? Doesn’t everybody have a bathroom? Surely the homeless person was bugging out to “do some drugs.” If a homeless person sneaks into an alleyway, that person probably needs to urinate. But how often is this the public perception? People are more likely to think that the homeless person is sneaking off to “do a drug deal.” And then, once found urinating, they risk getting a scolding, if not an indecent exposure charge.

The fact of the matter is that those who live outside do not have easy access to bathrooms. Those who live inside generally do.  

As for the cops who often woke me in the middle of the night, in order to “search my backpack for drugs” and “run my criminal record,” I can truthfully attest that there were never any drugs in my backpack, nor did I have a criminal record.  But if searching my backpack against my will was not a violation of my 4th Amendment Rights, I’m not sure what it was. 

Many Homeless People Have Jobs

It was often thought that because a person was homeless, their homelessness would be cured if they got a job. It was seldom considered that if a person were homeless, their homelessness would be cured if they found a place to live.  

It was also often assumed that a homeless person didn’t already have a job.  Yet, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless,  40 – 60% of people experiencing homelessness move in and out of jobs. It is also estimated that about 25% of homeless people are working at any given time. I myself took at least four jobs in my field when I was homeless — temporary contracts as a musical director or accompanist at places like Children’s Musical Theatre San Jose and Peninsula Teen Opera. 

While 25% might seem a relatively low figure, it actually testifies tremendously to the fact that homeless people generally want to be working. When we consider the obstacles that homeless people face toward becoming employed — many of which are listed in this excellent article, the figure begins to look quite high.  Moreover, while it is often thought that people become homeless due to “drug addiction,” it is factually evident that most people become homeless due to having lost their jobs.  

There was a common catch-22 that abounded in the realm of outdoor living: “I can’t get a job until I have a place to live, and I can’t get a place to live without a job.” 

But because of rising costs of rents, many of us would rather avoid rentals entirely, and focus on making enough money to survive. It wasn’t the most pleasant use of our energies, but often it was the most essential.

All five of the inequities I have thus far delineated stem from a single evil.  That evil is in the dehumanization of the homeless individual. We were not regarded, in general, as people who were equal to others. It was not considered that we were human beings having inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It was instead believed that we had to sacrifice our rights — only because we lived outdoors.

Many of us were unwilling to make that sacrifice. And this leads to the inequity that will be discussed in my next column. You may expect it to validate everything I’ve been trying to express since this series began.

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Talking Shop, Part Two

In this sequel to Talking Shop, Part One, the character of Winston Greene — the protagonist in the new musical Eden in Babylon — is explored.   Three of us involved in our ongoing workshop of this production express how Winston acts as a “shield of protection” for those of his chosen tribe.

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Tuesday Tuneup 104

Q. Where are you coming from?

A. The very beginning.

Q. The beginning?  As though nothing else has ever happened before?

A. It doesn’t matter what’s happened before.   This is still the beginning.

Q. The beginning of what?

A. Of a brand new life, of course.  

Q. What happened to the old life?

A. It no longer exists.

Q. All gone?

A. Past.

Q. What about memories?

A. Oh, memories may indeed persist.   And one may learn from those memories, so long as they are not overly indulged.   But no matter how much I may learn from the past, my hope rests entirely in the future.

Q. Isn’t that the essence of hope?

A. I suppose so, by definition.   But all too often, we place our hope in the past.   And there is no hope in the past.  We can learn from the past — but there’s no hope there.

Q. How do we place our hope in the past?  Isn’t that twisted?

A. It is twisted indeed.  And indeed, we are often quite twisted.  But to answer your question, the ways in which we place our hope in the past are manifold.  

Q, Manifold?

A. Yeah.  We do it lots of ways.

Q. Like what?

A. We try to go back to old relationships and mend them.   We try to make mutual amends unilaterally.  But this is pointless.  It takes two to tango.  If one person in a twofold cord has broken that cord, then the other person has no power to bind it together again.

Q. Have you tried to do this recently?

A. I have indeed.

Q. Care to elaborate?

A. Not on the theme of the one-to-one intimate relationship.   But I wouldn’t mind discussing friendships for a while.

Q. Then what about friendships?   

A. We go back to friendships that we feel we botched up.  We flew off the handle, when their attitudes began to baffles us, and their values conflicted with our own.   And yet, we cannot mend these broken friendships all by our own selves.  If they don’t want to talk to us anymore, they won’t.  And there’s not a darn thing we can do about it.

Q. Can’t we apologize?

A. Many times over!  But I guarantee you, if it’s not meant to be, it won’t happen.  In fact, the many apologies issued may even be taken as intrusions.

Q. Intrusions?

A. Certainly!   Would not a single apology have sufficed?   And if they still don’t want to talk to you, no amount of further apology will change their minds.  If anything, they’ll be annoyed at your persistence.   It would be as though you’re trying to find the “magic words” that will win them back.  But let’s face it — there are no magic words.   If they ain’t comin’ back, they ain’t comin’ back.  

Q. What about business relationships?

A. Perhaps a professional relationship was damaged.  Maybe you thought somebody was on your side, but then they hit a nerve.   And you hit them back again!  You hit them even harder, because you were so pissed off.  And back and forth the two of you jousted, taking pot shots at each other whenever possible.  Finally one day, you hit them below the belt — right where it hurt.    

Q. What happened then?

A. What happened then, you ask?   Well I’ll tell you what happened!   They ghosted you.  They simply disappeared.   But this is all for the good, you see.   If they see things differently than you, so be it.   One cannot expect to convert everyone to one’s own way of thinking.   

Q, So how does this all relate to your having arrived at the very beginning?

A. It relates because I’m just not going to bother anymore!  These people are not that important.   Some of them haven’t talked to me in years.

Q. Yet you have persisted in trying to win them back?

A. Yes, I have.

Q. Why?

A. Because of fallacy for which I fell.   You see, I was certain that the only reason these associates had shunned me, was because I was homeless.   So naturally, I thought that once I finally escaped homelessness, they would breath a sigh of relief, and come my way again.   Foolishly, I expected our associations to pick up right where they left off.

Q. Did none of them come your way again?

A. Well – one of them did.  In an area that perhaps I should not discuss.  For it didn’t really work out, and they again went their way.   I took it kinda hard, but it helped to learn a hard lesson.

Q. Have you truly learned that lesson?

A. Perhaps not.  Does anyone ever learn lessons regarding the affairs of the heart?

Q. I don’t know.  Do they?

A. Beats me, pal.  But what I do know is this:

When I was becoming homeless, I lived in a cold cruel world.   I apologized to everyone I knew, all the way down to that gutter.   In that world of coldness and cruelty, the ones who got ahead were the ones who received the most apologies, and gave the least.   The ones who fell the furthest down were the ones who did the most apologizing.   The non-apologizers played one-up on the apologizers – to keep the apologizers in their place.

And the ones who were good at feeling guilty got beat out by the ones who were good at making them feel that way.  The ones who were good at laying on the guilt trips climbed up the corporate ladders, and often made it all the way up to the top.

Q. Wow – may I quote you on that?

A. Spell my name right, please.

Q. But you don’t live in that world anymore, do you?

A. Not at all.

Q. Where do you live?

A. In the emerging world of new beginnings.   Where people trust each other.   Where people respect each other.  Where people still treat each other with good old-fashioned common courtesy.   Where people believe in each other, and try to bring out the best in each other.  Where you have to try to get yourselves into trouble — and where the good guys make it all the way to the top!

Q. To the top?

A. The sky’s the limit.

Q. Shoot for the moon?

A. Consider it shot.

Q. And what will you do when you make it all the way to the top, Andy?

A. What do you think I’m going to do?  I’m going live frugally and simply, with very few possessions, like a minimalist — just like I live right now.   I’ll take all the extra money I’ve made and feed the hungry and give shelter to those who are without.   And I won’t feed them that junk food they dish out at the food banks — as though to tell them that “beggars can’t be choosers” – as though to punish them for the crime of being poor.   And I won’t put them up in flop houses on Skid Row either.  They’ll be staying at the Ritz Carlton, if I have any say in the matter.   And you won’t catch me flying to Bermuda and back!   The price of that ticket would put a married homeless couple up for three months, in the right situation.  And I’ll stay right here, where I’ve landed, till the day I die.  

Q. Really?

A. Mmm . . . give or take a few details.  I’m still contemplating a Trump-dodge up to Canada.  Not entirely sure we’ve gotten rid of the monster yet.  

Q. What about the past?

A. Kaput.  Finito.  

Q. And the future?

A. It’s the kingdom of heaven, man.   North Idaho is just a step along the way.   

The Questioner is silent.   

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Bridging the Gap

In case anybody caught yesterday’s podcast, I had a weird realization when I got up this morning.  The Kids of course know my story — and I’ve told my story elsewhere on this blog.   But if you didn’t know that story, there’s a big gap in the information provided on that particular, spontaneous podcast.  It seems I never really explain how I got from living in that big mansion to being homeless on the California streets so quickly.    It then occurred to me, perhaps you would like to have that information as well.

So I dug up this talk I gave into my then-partner’s Motorola smartphone on July 3, 2018.  It tells the story, and then some.   Seems I was a lot more patriotic in those days, and I also knew a lot less about psychiatric conditions.  But the essence of the talk is neither my patriotism nor my lack of savvy.  It’s about classism in America, and social stigma, and the hope that one day, we will bridge the ever-widening gap between the super-rich and the super-poor in our society.   We are, after all, all human – and only human – each and every one.

Andy tells his story on July 3, 2018
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A Homeless Person Has a Life

The second column in my five-week series on homelessness was published yesterday on the religion-oriented site Spokane Faith and Values, where I have been writing throughout the pandemic.  Below is a verbatim transcript of the piece.  

I recently raised a public objection to the notion that I ought to change my phraseology from “homeless” to “houseless” in everything I write. I felt a bit miffed that the person who made this suggestion had never actually lived outdoors.  

But I am someone who has lived outdoors — not just for a while, but for years on end. During those years, I associated largely with others who were in the same boat. I learned how such people generally speak of themselves.   As a result, I use the words “outside” and “outdoors” more than either of the other two–and I feel compelled to explain why.

In a way, I have the same motive as those who wish to replace “homeless” with “houseless.” The word “homeless” has a lot of pejorative connotations.  But both of these words end with “less.” They still suggest that the person who lives outdoors is necessarily lacking something. But this is not always the case.

In my case, after struggling in and out of untenable living situations in the San Francisco Bay Area for seven years, I made a conscious choice on April 15, 2011 to join an intentional homeless community. While most of us had experienced a crisis that led to a loss of residence, we unanimously believed that to live outdoors was the lesser of evils. For one thing, we found it preferable to live outside rather than to pay exorbitant rental fees for acceptable living situations (not to mention paying decent rent for unacceptable situations). 

In short, we had a heck of a time finding living situations in the Bay Area that were both affordable and acceptable. So for the time being, we were content to stay outdoors. 

It was there that I found the language most prevalent among all who shared my predicament. This was a simple exchange between the words “inside” and “outside.” If someone had a roof over their head, we said they were “inside.” If they didn’t, they were “outside.” This is how homeless people speak of themselves in the Bay Area. It’s also how they speak of themselves in Moscow, Idaho. And while I have never been homeless in Spokane, I wouldn’t doubt that this parlance is common there as well.

Is there a reason for this linguistic preference? I think there is. It speaks to the essential difference between two disparate camps. Some people have roofs over their heads, and some people don’t. Furthermore, there is nothing morally wrong with sleeping outside — so long as one is not sleeping on someone else’s property.  The landmark decision in Martin v. Boise would seem to support this.

This leads nicely into the second of the seven inequities I have wanted to discuss.

A Homeless Person Does Have a Life 

It was often assumed that, because we had wound up homeless, all of the conclusions we had drawn throughout our entire life span were in need of revision.

This led to an amusing observation. If a person had been a lifelong conservative, and they became homeless, that person was supposed to “become a liberal.” Why? Because the liberal social workers were feeding them.

If a person had been a liberal all their lives, and they became homeless, they were often told that they should “become a conservative.” Why?   Because the Salvation Army was feeding them. 

How many people in those days approached me in order to proselytize their particular version of Christianity? Very many. How many people asked me first if I already knew Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior? Very few. 

This imbalance appears to have evolved from some of the preconceptions I discussed last week. It was rarely considered that someone might have become homeless due to a lack of tenable housing. It was almost universally assumed that they became homeless because there was something wrong with them.

Homelessness is Not a Disease

In the rooms of 12-step programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous, there are many “clichés” or sayings intended to assist people who have hit huge “bottoms” in their lives. One of these is: “Your best thinking got you here.”  That statement is then followed by suggestions as to how the recovering addict or alcoholic might change their way of thinking, in accordance with the 12 steps.

I can understand how this would apply to the enormous losses one might incur through drug addiction or alcoholism. People do “drink themselves out of house and home.” Many people with drug problems wind up alienating friends and family, as well as landlords. Many do wind up outdoors. This cannot be denied.

But here I found myself having consciously chosen homelessness as the lesser of evils in a precarious life-situation that had yet to be resolved.  Numerous people approached me saying, in effect:”Your best thinking got you into this position. I have suggestions how you might change your way of thinking.”

I felt like saying: “I agree that my best thinking got me into this position.  But you have never been in this position; therefore you cannot advise me as to how to get out of it.” 

This is how the details of homelessness differ radically from the details of drug addiction or alcoholism. The A.A. member who makes that suggestion is a recovering alcoholic and does have valuable information to share.  But the person who, having always living indoors, makes such a suggestion to a homeless person, has no relevant personal experience. Therefore their suggestions, however well-intended, are not often useful.

This disparity — or inequity or imbalance — is something that can be solved through better communication. But before we can even begin to make that effort, we need to dignify, not only the homeless human being, but the homeless experience itself.

In short, there is nothing wrong with being homeless.

We need to understand this simple truth, and to have it acknowledged far and wide. Look how many people are on the streets! Despite the best efforts of all involved, that number is only bound to increase — especially now, when more people than ever are losing their homes.

We need to stop moralizing, and start accepting. We need to stop obligating people who sleep outside toward quick entries into undignified indoor living situations.  Homelessness is neither a crime nor a disease. We need to stop criminalizing the homeless, and we need to stop treating them as though they are sick. 

If we cannot truly help them to get inside, let us please make it easier for them to live outdoors.

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Talking Shop, Part One

This Wednesday’s podcast is an excerpt from a long conversation involving myself, Kelsey Chapman our Artistic Director, and Cooper Knutson our male lead in the ongoing workshop of my new musical Eden in Babylon.   If you’re interested in my personal story involving wealth, poverty, and homelessness, you probably don’t want to miss this one.   Toward the end, it fades after revealing the connection between my own story and that of the main character in the musical drama, whose name is Winston Greene.  

The song referenced by Cooper, called “Hunted,” involves Winston’s arrest in the second Act, which precedes his attempted assassination.  An instrumental version of it may be found here.   

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Tuesday Tuneup 103

Q. Where are you coming from?

A. Why do you ask?

Q. Aren’t you a little quiet this morning?

A. Didn’t sleep well enough.

Q. Can you get more sleep?

A. Maybe a nap, maybe later.

Q. Anything going on that you want to talk about this morning?

A. Well, I’m a bit down.   But I think it’s the kind of thing that more sleep will eliminate.

Q. Down about anything in particular?

A. My personality, I suppose, as usual.

Q. Down on yourself?

A. Yes and no.  I’m not down on my achievements, or my work.   But some of the dumb things I do kinda get to me every now and then.

Q. Like what?

A. We discussed it earlier.   I put my foot in my mouth sometimes.  It’s awkward.

Q. Is this that thing of “jumping the gun” again?

A. Yeah, that’s it.  Jumping the gun.   Speaking before I think.

Q. When was the last time you did that?

A. Oh, maybe last night.

Q. What was the context?

A. Talking to somebody from California.  I mentioned a great compliment I had received.   But it wasn’t to highlight the fact that I was complimented.  It was to illustrate a point.

Q. What was the point?

A. A parallel between the protagonist in my musical and my own personality, me being the one who wrote the musical.

Q. Somebody compared you to the main character in your musical?

A. Yes.

Q. In a good way, or in a bad way?

A. Oh – a very good way.  It was highly complimentary.  But the point is — it was a factual comparison.

Q. Factual?

A. Yes – it illustrated an intriguing parallel.   So I was hoping that the person from California would catch the parallel.  Instead, they only caught the fact that somebody had “said something sweet” to me.  The way they said it — “Ah, how sweet!” — indicated that they didn’t understand or appreciate the parallel.  They related to the fact that I was complimented — not to the substance of the complimentary statement.  They could have said it about somebody saying something nice about my shirt.

Q. So how did you put your foot in your mouth?

A. By calling attention to the fact that someone had complimented me, rather than to the dynamics of the intriguing psychological parallel in the first place.

Q. So the focus was on the fact that you were complimented, not on the essence of the complimentary statement?

A. You heard me!  It’s like I just said.  It was as though I spoke out of ego — out of wanting the Californian to know that I had been complimented — kinda like I would have done when I was still down in California.  But in so doing, I missed the opportunity to get an intriguing psychological phenomenon across to them.  In fact, I could have left myself out of the picture entirely, and it would have been a much more meaningful interaction.

Q. Why did you not do so?   Why did you call attention to the fact that someone had flattered you, rather than to the intellectual dynamics of an interesting topic in the first place?

A. Because I was talking with a Californian.

Q. But – but — why does it matter whether they were a Californian or not?

A. Because in California, everybody was either always very critical of me, or else they were feeding my ego with inordinate praise.

Q. So you inordinately praised yourself, in order to defray their criticisms?

A. Exactly.  I defended myself — even though I had not yet been attacked.

Q. Why do you stigmatize Californians?

A. I think “stereotype” would be a better word.

Q. So why stereotype them?   Why stereotype anybody?

A. I don’t know.   It took years for me to realize that my best possible solution in life was to simply leave the State of California.  Since then, I’ve basically been raving to old friends of mine how great it is up here in Idaho.   But they never receive the positive.   They just think I’m down on Californians for some reason.

Q. Are you?

A. Well — I can count the number of Californians I still talk to on one hand.

Q. What is it about California?

A. You got me, man.  They have this attitude — and I don’t like to stereotype people or box them in — I hate it when people do that to me — but it’s this glaring generalization that I can’t escape.   They somehow — in general — put forth the attitude that they’re better than the rest of us, simply because they live in California.  And it’s like whoop-de-doo.   For all the problems that California has, you’d think they’d stop telling everybody in all the other States how we’re supposed to live.

Q. Are you sure you want to post these words online, where everybody can see them?

A. Not really.

Q. Then why are you doing it?

A. Because of my personality.  I stick my foot in my mouth.  I don’t think before I speak.  I jump the gun.

Q. Can you get better at this?

A. Maybe.   Gradually over time, I suppose.

Q. Say — I just thought of something — were you hurt by the way you were treated in California?

A. Hurt doesn’t even say it.   I was  only as though I was a piece of garbage for about twelve years, while I and a bunch of other so-called pieces of garbage were struggling to survive.

Q. You mean, when you were homeless?

A. Yes.   When I was homeless.   When we were homeless.

Q. But nobody’s treating you like garbage now, are they?

A. Not that I can tell.

Q. Then why bemoan the past?

A. Because I have no guard against becoming homeless again.   I’m just a check or two away.   One single emergency, and I’m probably out on the streets.

Q. And then what?

A. Then we’ll see how all these people who seem to like me so much will treat me.

Q. But they’re not Californians, are they?

A. No – but they’re people.   And people have their ideas about homeless people.   They usually don’t change them — until they themselves become homeless.

The Questioner is silent. 

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The Challenge They Overlooked

I’m doing a five-week series on homelessness for Spokane Faith and Values.   While I don’t like to work on the Sabbath, I figure it’s not too much work to paste each column in the series here on five successive Saturdays.  The first column was published last Wednesday on this page, and a verbatim transcript of it follows below.   

I recently came out and identified myself as a person who lived largely outdoors throughout a 12-year period of time in the San Francisco Bay Area. Being as I was fortunate enough to escape the situation where a one-bedroom apartment rents for up to $3,000, and alight upon beautiful Moscow, Idaho where my current one-bedroom apartment rents for $481, I consider myself to be in the ideal position to express what homelessness is actually like. That is, from the perspective of those of us who have lived it.

Being an introverted artist-type, I was naturally overjoyed to find myself in the year 2016 to be a person who had now attained to quiet enjoyment of residence.  One of the first items of indoor convenience that I found myself extremely thankful for was something you might not expect:

Finally, I had my own power outlet. In fact, I had several. 

When I lived outdoors, it was a constant struggle to find a power outlet where I could plug in my laptop. Outdoor power outlets were scarce, and when I found one, I dared not use it very long. The thieves and vandals who roam the outdoors would have eventually found me. In fact, five laptops were stolen from me in a three year period of time in Berkeley and Oakland alone. Two of those thefts were the results of strong-armed robbery.

No longer did I have to worry about any of that. Nor did I have to be worried about being kicked out of coffeeshops, either because of a two-hour time limit in the crowded Bay Area, or because I was “one of them.” No longer did I have to face the situation of somebody refusing to serve me because I was a homeless person.  Though often they let me in, at other times they did not. There being many thieves on the streets, I can’t say that I entirely blamed them. On the other hand, I was not one of those thieves.  I was only an artist, trying to do his art.

“A false balance is an abomination to the LORD, but a just weight is His delight.”
— Proverbs 11:1

All of this points to a “false balance” — what I call an inequity. There was an unusual schism between those of us who lived outdoors, and those who did not. So, when I finally achieved the power outlet that I had been praying for, I set about to delineate these inequities for the good of those who still live inside. I did this in a spirit of conviction, knowing that many are losing their homes these days, and even more so during the current economic crunch.

I pinpointed seven inequities — instance of imbalance, or of injustice.   Seven disparities between the way the world is seen by those who live outside, and those who live indoors.

The first of these is couched within every word I have thus far written in this column. We who lived outside knew that our main day-to-day challenge was to deal with all the unusual features of outdoor living. Those who had not yet lived outdoors invariably thought that our challenge was something else.

In other words, people wanted to know what had made us homeless. In the process, the reality that we simply were homeless was often swept aside.

I can assure you that in the past five years in Idaho, I have done everything that would have “made me homeless” in California. And guess what? None of them ever made me homeless.

This stigma interfered with all our efforts to find dignified, indoor living. It was assumed that we were criminals. Surely we must be drug addicts or alcoholics. Or simply losers, with no work ethic.

At best, we were thought to have serious mental health disorders. If so, the stigma against those with mental health conditions also came into play. We found ourselves morally judged for internal mental conditions over which we had no control.

As a result, we were often directed toward living situations that we found worse than staying outdoors. Since we “couldn’t take care of ourselves,” we were referred to board-and-care homes. Since we were “drug addicts,” we were referred to rehabs. Since we were “crazy,” we were referred to psychiatric facilities. And since we were “criminals,” we were handcuffed and thrown into jails, often at the slightest of pretexts.

By no means am I trying to suggest that those elements do not entail within the realm of the many different sorts of people who live and sleep outside.  The National Coalition for the Homeless has estimated that roughly one out of every four people experiencing homelessness is drug-addicted. That’s a pretty high count — but what about the other three-fourth?

It is also estimated that about one-third of people enduring homelessness have serious mental health disorders. That’s a lot of people struggling — but what about the other two-thirds?

Not to mention, what proportion of criminals live inside? White-collar criminals who get away with it?  Employers who screw their workers out of wages? Addicts who can afford the designer drugs, and use those substances quietly behind closed doors?  All of these play into the biggest difficulty that we had in communicating with those who tried to help us.

It was very often thought that if we could solve all those other problems, we could solve the much huger problem that is homelessness. It was very seldom thought that if we were to solve homelessness, we would be in a better position to solve all those other problems. And it was rarely thought that few of those problems even applied.

I have six other inequities to describe before this series, God willing, is over. But first and foremost, the biggest inequity was this: It was often thought that we were homeless because we had failed in some other area. It was rarely thought that we were homeless because we had failed to sustain a home.  

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Hobo, Homeless or Houseless

Submitted this morning to Tracy Simmons, editor-in-chief of Spokane Faith and Values.  

I recently learned that the word “homeless” is no longer considered politically correct among many people currently working in related services. It has been replaced by “houseless” because the word “homeless” has developed “pejorative connotations.”

Arguably, the word “homeless” replaced the word “hobo” because the latter had developed pejorative connotations.  Logically, it is only a matter of time before the word “houseless” develops pejorative connotations.

But I am not here to lambaste the concept of political correctness.   Personally, I think P.C. is a great idea in theory, but in practice it burns more bridges than it builds.

If this offends my lefter-leaning friends, so be it.  I find myself often wishing I could be seen as a person who cares about World Peace and social justice without having to get crammed into the liberal “box” — and this is one reason why I am not comfortable identifying as a “liberal” — even though I am more than happy to identify as a “progressive.”

(Another reason is because the word “liberal” has connotations that may suggest a permissive lifestyle, which as a Christ follower is not my bag.  “Progressive” works because I’d definitely like to see us build a better, more solid, less divided society.)

To the point, I am not about to change my language.  For the past five years, I have been writing profusely and passionately about the homeless experience. My writings include a full-length musical about youth homelessness in urban America, as well as numerous blogs, essays, and published articles. The idea that I need to change my language is almost Orwellian. It is not as though I can pretend that we are suddenly at war with “Eurasia” and not “Europia.”

Also, in case it hasn’t been clear, my homeless rights advocacy is not the result of an unusual and unfounded compassion for those experiencing the homeless condition. I myself was homeless for years in the San Francisco Bay Area. I know whereof I speak from personal experience, and I network with others who have shared that experience. I have been trying to contact my friends from Berkeley, California who have also experienced homelessness, one of whom I have interviewed on this site. Though no one there has gotten back to me yet, I seriously doubt that this fix was effected by a homeless person, or by anyone who has ever experienced that condition.

I did learn in discussing the matter with the graveyard shift worker at the corner store that she had been homeless for several years as well. She told me she knows of no homeless or formerly homeless friend who would identify themselves as “houseless.” She also made the interesting analogy that, although she identifies as “queer,” people who do not share her orientation object to her identification. Of course, having been homeless herself, she knew as well as I do that one of the worst things about living outdoors is that people who lived indoors often told us how we were supposed to identify ourselves.

And yet, when we pleaded with them not to use words like “housed” and “shelter’ in reference to us when we were seeking residence — but to please say “found a place” or “place to live” instead – it fell on deaf ears. Why? Because we were not people. We were homeless people. A person can look can look for a place to live. A homeless person has to look for shelter.

Do you think for one moment than when I left twelve years of homeless and borderline-homelessness in the San Francisco Bay Area, and I finally moved to Moscow Idaho in a successful search for dignified, indoor residence, I told the prospective landlord that I had been homeless? Or that I was looking for “shelter?” Of course not! Think about it! He’d have moved on to the next applicant.

In fact, when I later tried to help an elderly man experiencing homelessness get an apartment in that same complex, the landlord told me: “I’m sorry, Andy. If I let him in, I’ll have to let them all in.”

While the conversation with the woman in the store was somewhat comforting, it did little to assuage my concerns. In fact, I couldn’t sleep till three in the morning, and woke up at 5:30 feeling nauseous.

That nausea persists to this moment. But I do want to make a statement in closing. That statement is simply this:

The day when we learn that it is more important to listen to the words of people who have experienced something that we have not, and that it is more important to raise awareness of that condition, than it is to label it with words that we find less offensive or pejorative, that will truly be a very great day.

The problem with political correctness in this instance is that it bi-passes the need to actually decriminalize and rehumanize the homeless individual, by choosing a different term that will be “less pejorative” rather than by dealing with the pejorative discriminations and prejudices themselves.

I’m in a lot of pain. What a sorrowful turn of events for Homeless Rights Activism.

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Homeless at the Piano

The other day I was leafing through old WordPress posts, after Ashley Peterson submitted an intriguing post around the concept of editing past material. It didn’t come as much of a surprise that many of my older posts reflected a different spirit or attitude than I have today. Therefore, outside of minor edits (spelling, grammatical, etc.), I decided not to edit my content. It would seem hypocritical of me to do so, even if I disagree today with what I wrote back then.

One thing that glared was how much black-and-white thinking there was back in those days, and how I would often hyperbolize for the sake of emphasis, in a way that could easily have belied my statements. For example, at one point I wrote something to this effect:

“Here in my new life, lots of people like to listen to me play the piano. When I was homeless, the only people who ever cared about my music were other homeless people.”

This is both black-and-white and hyperbolic. While it is true that most of the people who cared about my music were homeless, it is not true that nobody who lived indoors didn’t care to listen. Also, it’s natural that most of my listeners were homeless, simply because I myself was homeless, and I mostly hung out with homeless people.

Let me tell you a story that exemplifies this.

Piano Key- Middle C In Grunge Stock Image - Image of black ...

We who were over 55 had the privilege of hanging out at the Senior Center, where there happened to be three pianos. In the morning, I would sign in, and head for the Baldwin upright in a distant room in the corner of the building. I did this for the sake of privacy, because I was afraid of making too much of a scene at the other two pianos, where I could more easily heard. I didn’t want somebody to tell me to stop playing, because I might have been making too much noise.

Next to the little room on the corner was a room with a number of pool tables. Early in the morning, a group of people who happened to be almost entirely African-American homeless men would congregate to play pool.

Naturally, they would hear the piano, and sometimes come into the room to listen. I remember playing the jazz break in the song Skylark, and looking up and a man was smiling, snapping his fingers. Another time, I looked up after the song, and five Black men were clapping wildly outside the door.

Of course, this was gratifying. Every musician loves an audience.

But one day, I went to the piano at eight in the morning as usual, and there was a sign on the door of the adjacent room, to the effect that it was closed for repairs. But something seemed odd. It didn’t really seem like anything needed repair, nor was anyone repairing the room.

Disgruntled, I approached the front desk and spoke with one of the administrative aides, whose name was Laura.

“Why is the pool room closed?”

“Uh – the guys were making quite a ruckus, and they kinda smelled of alcohol, and they were starting to get a little loose with our property – and you know, we had to shut it down.”

“But Laura, you guys just took my audience away!”

“What do you mean, Andy?”

“Those guys were always clapping for me, and cheering, and all that! Now I don’t have anyone listening!”

“Well Andy, why you just play the Yamaha in the auditorium near thhe main dining area?”

Puzzled, I replied: “But then you guys are all gonna hear me.”

“But Andy – we want to hear you!!”

“Oh,” I replied, feeling strangely enlightened. “Well, in that case, I guess I’ll play.”

Long story short, it wasn’t too much longer before a number of Senior Center employees were sitting in the auditorium with their smartphones and tripods, filming a concert that I performed at the North Berkeley Senior Center. In fact, I played the music to Turns Toward Dawn at that concert, though the lyrics were not written till 2018, when I was already in Moscow.

I believe I still have the videos to that concert in storage somewhere. I might fish them out at a later time. But I gotta be honest with you — when I look at the man who played that concert, he does not look like the man people look at today. I easily looked ten years older than I do now. (Why my posture was better, I have no idea.)

All vanity aside, what is your take on all this? I mean, sociologically? Psychologically? It seems a bit unusual that I would have restricted my musical offerings to other homeless people. I have my theories, but it would be interesting to hear yours.

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No – NOT on Drugs . . .

One day I was sitting at my Spot on the corner of Shattuck & Allston in Berkeley, California, leaning my back against the red brick wall of the Downtown Berkeley BART station, as usual.   A young man approached, conversed with me casually for a few minutes, then asked me a question.

“You seem to be a pretty bright guy,” he began.  “What is it about being on drugs that makes a person not want to eat?”

“Do you mean, physiologically?” I asked.

“Yeah,” he said. “Do they do something to the body that takes away the appetite?”

“Why do you ask?”

“I just asked a homeless guy across the street if he wanted a sandwich, and he said no.”

Something didn’t seem quite right.  So I asked him: “Well, what drug do you think he was on?”

“I don’t know.  I don’t know much about drugs.”

“Did he seem intoxicated?” I asked.  “Or dopey?  Or more like, spun?  I mean, were his eyes darting around to and fro, back and forth?  Did he seem paranoid?”

“No, none of those things.”

“Then how do you know he was on drugs?”

“Well, he must have been on drugs.  Why else would he have turned down the sandwich?”

“Did it ever occur to you that he might not have been hungry?”

“Well, no I hadn’t thought of that.”

“How did he respond when you offered to give him a sandwich?”

“He just kinda smiled and said ‘No thank you.'”

“Well then, I would say, he simply wasn’t hungry.   That’s all there is to it.”

“Yeah, but you guys are here suffering all the time, having a hard time finding food.  Couldn’t he have just saved the sandwich for later?”

Teens Give Back - SA - Home

“I suppose he could have.  But around here a person who isn’t hungry usually says no, in the expectation that you’ll go give somebody else the sandwich — someone who actually is hungry.”

“That’s what I did.”

“Good for you.”

I remember looking away and smiling at passersby, in what was I suppose a none-too-subtle way of conveying that it might be a good place to end the conversation.

“But it’s been bugging me,” he went on.  “I felt like he wasn’t grateful.  He should have been thankful.  I mean, I was offering him food, wasn’t I?”

“Well, he smiled, didn’t he?   He had probably just eaten something.   But I’m interested in why you thought he was on drugs, when he didn’t particularly seem to be.”

“Aren’t homeless people on drugs?”

“Some,” I said slowly.  “Not all.”

“Yeah,” he nodded.  “You don’t seem to be on drugs.”

“But that guy didn’t seem like he was on drugs either, right?”

“That’s right.”

“So how do you know I’m not on drugs?

“Good point,” he replied.  “I guess I don’t.”

“Say, let me ask you something.  Do you think that if a person is homeless, it must be because they’re a drug addict?”

“Well, isn’t that true?”

“No, not really.  Homelessness and drug addiction are not synonymous, you know.   There are drug addicts who live in big mansions, and there are people experiencing homelessness who have never used drugs in their lives.”

At around that point, he took out a dollar bill and tossed it in my hat.

“Thank you,” he said.  “I think I just learned something.”

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A Parallel and Opposing Culture

I’ve been thinking throughout 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, when I lived indoors, and I had a job and 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 often finds it maddening when it is 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 useful 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.   I call upon people not to 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, but rather inanimate objects in their way.   They spoke about us in third person with impunity when we sat right there before them, without directly speaking to us at all — even though we were right there.  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?   Here – have a bagel!  We know you’ll never be able to take care of yourself, but have no 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 to your head!   I’m surprised I’m alive.  I saw a lot of people die.  Good people — people who shouldn’t have died.   They died for lack of two bucks 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 wildly 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 myself 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 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 view 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?

A Parallel and Opposing Culture

Maybe I need to listen to the words I spoke above – in the year 2013 — when I was still 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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Health Before Wealth

At around eleven o’clock yesterday morning, numerous members of a right-wing group called “De-Mask Moscow” barged into the large TriState Outfitters sporting goods store in Moscow, Idaho, refusing to wear masks in compliance with store policy and the city-wide mandate.   Also included in the barrage were members of ChristChurch, a cultish megachurch here in town that gives a bad name to the Reformed Christian doctrine and I and others endeavor to embrace.

According to Doug Wilson, the pastor of the church, this stunt was carried out in order to “bless the business” that no doubt was “caught between the demands of the city government and the realities of keeping a business open.”

I have a few problems with this.   Apparently, Joe Power, the President of TriState Outfitters, did too.

“We were not asked,” wrote Power, “if we felt we were caught between the demands of the city government and the financial realities of keeping a business open.”

To the contrary, the employee-owned company had decided to put “health before wealth” this year.  “The risk to our employees’ health this year is far more important than putting a few extra dollars in the registers,” said Power.

As the anti-maskers insisted on remaining maskless, TriState responded by closing the store and demanding they leave the premises.  The police were called in case they did not comply.   Mask-wearing customers were allowed to complete their purchases, and a half hour later, once the anti-maskers had dispersed, the store was reopened.  However, doors were kept locked for several hours, and a number of employees stationed at the entrances made sure that no one would enter the premises without a mask.  

Apparently, this unfortunate event resulted from a memo that Wilson had sent first to his congregation and later forwarded to De-Mask Moscow.  “If you are out Christmas shopping today (without a mask),” wrote Wilson, “I would like to ask you to hit Tri-State between the hours of 11am and 1pm.”  (Note usage of the word “hit.”  Italics mine.)

Fortunately, the event was aborted shortly after eleven, before who knows how many unmasked citizens would have invaded the store property with a flagrant show of unwillingness to abide by the ordinance that our Mayor had established for the sake of the health of the community.

That this is microcosmic of a greater ill in our society is obvious.  It is not Christian love to flaunt one’s affection for “freedom” in such a way that it infringes upon the free rights of others.   Mask-wearing shoppers obeying store rules were inconvenienced, and the store itself probably lost thousands of dollars in the process.

The Apostle Paul makes it clear throughout his letters that we are to abide the laws of the land except in the event that these laws directly contradict the laws of God.

“Let every person be subject to the ruling authorities, for the powers that be are ordained by God.”  _ Romans 13:1

Now you tell me — does the simple act of wearing a mask violate a law of God?   If so, I would certainly like to see that law.  And if Jesus Christ made the supreme sacrifice of his entire life during hours of grueling torture suffering on a Cross — that we might have everlasting life —  why can some Christians not see that the simple sacrifice of complying with a city ordinance is trivial in comparison?

For Doug Wilson and his congregation to regard the lawfully rendered mask mandate as “demands of the city government” is to ignore the fact that this ordinance is being followed by the vast majority of the Moscow community who do not regard it as a “demand.”

This present day issue dividing maskers from anti-maskers has nothing to do with “left-wing government oppression.”  If you want to see government oppression coming from the Left, look at the likes of Joseph Stalin.  That we in America should feel so inordinately entitled that the simple concession to wear a mask is seen as a restriction of our freedoms is frankly ludicrous.   Moreover, if people believe that we all should be perfectly free, then why are they going about obstructing the freedoms of others?

This is not Christianity.  It is anarchy.  And this act of reactionary pseudo-Christian impudence has nothing to do with Jesus Christ — with His Spirit, His ministry, His teachings, His life, or His love.

Do I need to put a “thus saith the Lord” after this one?  Or is this message not obvious to anyone who truly endeavors to follow Christ?

Submitted to Spokane Faith and Values, December 11, 2020.

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An Interview with Matt Perez

This Wednesday’s audio presentation is an interview with Matt Perez, who is currently playing the part of John James — a street hustler, drug dealer type — in our current workshop of my musical, Eden in Babylon. I know that not all of my followers take the time to listen to these talks, but if you can manage to fit this one in, I think it’s unusually strong. Then, if you feel like backtracking for further info, all six of the interviews have been posted on this playlist.

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Tuesday Tuneup 92

Q. What’s happening now?

A. You again?

Q. Why do you ask?

A. You left me alone last Tuesday. Why couldn’t you leave me alone now?

Q. Am I that much of a bother?

A. Never mind.

Q. What’s on your mind? Why are you being so weird?

A. You know what Tuesdays are like.

Q. Aren’t they usually your busiest, most stressful day?

A. Usually.

Q. Then why aren’t you always so weird, every single Tuesday?

A. You know the answer to that.

Q. Something about the election?

A. That, and a general sense of powerlessness.

Q. What do you do when you feel powerless?

A. Me? Well, ordinarily, I think of positive things.

Q. Can you think of any?

A. On this day? I’m hard-pressed. Within forty-eight hours, irrespective of the outcome of the election, it will be end of life as we know it.

Q. May I quote you on that?

A. Please spell my name right.

Q. Where have we heard this before?

A. Heard what before? About spelling my name right?

Q. No no – where have we heard you say your quote about the outcome of the election?

A. Oh – I said it once before. I said it earlier this morning.

Q. To whom?

A. I believe it was to Sally Hindman, the director of Youth Spirit Artworks.

Q. What had she said to you?

A. She said “We will get through this.”

Q. And then what did you say?

A. I said: “Within forty-eight hours, irrespective of the outcome of the election, it will be the end of life as we know it.”

Q. Is that all you said?

A. No – I added something else.

Q. What?

A. I said: “But you’re right. We will get through this. For we are the Human Race.”

Q. Do you believe that?

A. We’ve gotten through everything so far. The Human Race has an uncanny ability to pull itself together just in the nick of time. We’ve done it throughout history. We may bicker and procrastinate until it’s down to the wire — but when we need to, we pull together.

Q. What about now?

A. What about it?

The Questioner is silent.

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Re: “She Called Me Dad”

I have a Tuesday Tuneup planned but am foregoing it – and all other things — until this piece of social activism has been submitted. This may be a trigger for some people.

Something happened yesterday by surprise that was so emotionally wrenching, I burst into tears in the midst of all else that is going on at this time.

A few days ago I heard from Alastair (the Street Spirit editor) that they’d received a letter at the Spirit Office that was for me. They said a man had walked the letter into the office, unaddressed, and asked if they could please get it to Andy Pope.

Me being me, I naturally was fairly convinced that it was from some street hustler whom I’d offended, possibly with a threat against my life, or else contained some horrible blackmail attempt such as a photograph of the time I practically defecated in public I couldn’t hold it any longer. In fact, one of any number of high-profile formerly private activities could have been filmed or photographed — the privileges that one sacrifices when one gives up all privacy by living on the streets.

Instead, it was a handwritten letter from a dear friend named Mike. Mike and I had been homeless together for years down there, and we had a mutual friend whom I shall call “Maria.” Mike said that he had been reading my columns for “a few years” and that he especially appreciated the one I wrote about Maria.

Of course, I had been hesitant to write about a real person, and I changed her name to “Maria” when I wrote the story. I wrote nothing bad about her, but still feared it would embarrass her if it got back to her, or anger some of her friends. Still, I was moved to write a column called She Called Me Dad because this young Hispanic woman with a severe mental health condition — possibly Dissociative Identity Disorder — sat across from me where I had my spot where I flew my sign, and pretended I was her Dad so as to protect her.

As a severely disabled young woman alone on the streets, she was very vulnerable. Tweakers took advantage of her all the time, and Berkeley cops could have cared less, because people with conspicuous mental health disorders were generally lumped into the same bag as the other “losers and dirt bags” who appeared to populate the streets.

So Mike sent me two pictures of her — I wish I could scan them and show them to you — but of course I can’t do so without her consent. And like as not, I will never see her again, let alone do I know how to reach her.

In one picture she is seen holding one of two newborns in her arms, obviously caring for her baby as any mother would. In the other, she is seen at the Spot we shared, though of course without me.

He related that she had again been raped (I have no idea how many times she had been raped previously), went through with the pregnancy, and gave birth to twins. The twins of course were immediately taken from her by Child Protective Services.

I stared at the words and the pictures, and tears flooded my face. I’m not a crier, you know. That is, I don’t cry readily or easily. But it was too much for my heart not to be softened and touched.

Mike also shared that “Peaches” had died — which I had already learned from Kathy Kitzman, who was the Admin of Homeless Lives Matter at the time — and that my friend “Lillian” who had had three strokes and suffered from psychomotor impairment had come back for a while and then disappeared again. His reports brought back a panorama of a Berkeley that I’d forgotten about.

I usually think of Berkeley as this horrible place in time where a number of us did our best to look after each other while being routinely treated like shit by practically anybody who lived inside, and by at least half of the people who lived outside. I usually think of Berkeley as this horrible world. What I forget is how much LOVE there was among the decent people who had wound up homeless.

In a way, I’ve lost a lot of that love because life hasn’t been hard – I even get bored these days — which for me is inexcusable. Did I ever get bored on the streets? I remember how when we were homeless, if someone managed to score a hotel room for a week, it was a joke to say: “Wow – you might even get bored!”

Homelessness in Berkeley was a lot of hard things and a lot of good things, a lot of pain and fear and anger, and a lot of fun too. But it was never boring.

“What right have I?” I asked myself when I saw the two pictures of Maria and the vulnerable look in her eyes, “to be bored?”

I have a calling, I have a purpose. I better get on the ball.

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Anything Helps
God Bless!

Somebody Can’t Breathe

My tenth column has been published on Spokane Faith & Values, thanks to Tracy Simmons.

Somebody Can’t Breathe

Has anyone noticed how many impressions the Universe has been sending forth, to the effect that somebody, somewhere cannot breathe? I can think of four for starts:

1. The Covid-19 pandemic strikes the planet Earth, bringing on a deadly disease that attacks the lungs, restricting the breathing of many of the earth’s inhabitants.

2. As Dr. Anthony Fauci and other knowledgeable health officials rise up to emphasize the benefits of wearing masks, a movement of “anti-maskers” rises up in return. We often hear them proclaiming that to wear a mask restricts their breathing, as well as other freedoms associated with being an American. 

Although I do not identify as an anti-masker (and I do, by the way, identify as an American), I have also felt the restriction of breathing that we all certainly notice – however slight or negligible – when wearing a mask.

3. The world watches as a group of callous cops casually sap the life out of George Floyd throughout nearly nine minutes of brutal torture. During this time, Floyd repeatedly shouts: “I can’t breathe!” 

Then, similar stories emerge. Many are the accounts of people of color who have been treated in a similarly heinous fashion. Many of them also uttered the words: “I can’t breathe.”

4. Wildfires have engulfed the Pacific Northwest.  A few days ago when I stepped outside my house, I literally saw smoke emerging from the two big breaths that I took without thinking. After 10 minutes of a phone call with a friend, I went back inside the house, because my breathing had been affected by the sheer force of the fire that rages throughout the present day.

What does all this mean?  I am no prophet, nor do I claim to know the answer.  But one cannot help but have noticed the eerie commonality in all these events. 

Are we allowing each other to breathe? Or are we virtually choking each other to death, in the ongoing Internet shouting match that is promulgated through social media?  Are we giving grace and peace to those with whom we differ? Or are we, as the Scripture says, “biting and devouring” each other, in light of our unwillingness to love?

“The entire law is fulfilled in a single decree: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’  But if you keep on biting and devouring one another, watch out, or you will be consumed by one another.”                             Galatians 5:14-15

The time-honored words of St. Paul are no less true today than they were two thousand years ago. But included in that warning is a note of hope. No matter how hard we may have wielded the power of hate in the first century A.D., we did not succeed in destroying ourselves altogether.  Nor need we destroy ourselves now, if we but heed the call. The antidote to hateful behavior is the fulfillment of the law — in Love. 

The words of Jesus have rarely rung more clear: ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for Me.’ (Matthew 25:45).  If we make it difficult for any of us to breathe — literally or figuratively — then how can the Spirit of Christ breathe freely among us?  Let us cease to restrict the breathing of the Lord and Giver of Life!  

That man hung on a Cross and endured torture for hours on end, in order to spare a fallen humanity the fate that arguably, we all deserve. We need to come to realize, as a people, as a planet, that God is Love. We need to remember what this nation has all but forgotten. We are to love one another, rather than bicker with each other in mean-spirited pettiness — propelled by social media and especially by Facebook. In doing so, it as as though we seek to put Jesus Christ to death for a second time. We need not do so, nor is it humanly possible. He will always live and show Himself in this world, despite our efforts to eradicate Him. He will always be the sovereign source of life. But do we allow Him to live in our hearts?

Jesus gave his last human breath that we might live forever. We need to honor that act of sacrificial love, if His spirit is truly to live and breathe throughout our land.

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When We Were Homeless

When we were homeless, we did not feel we had the prerogative to process difficult feelings. If something happened that was hurtful to us, and we showed our hurt, it would have been seen as a sign of weakness. And somebody on the streets would have taken advantage of that weakness.

What we did instead was to intellectualize. What we did instead was to analyze. We would get together, four or five of us who had not only fallen on hard times, but had ceased to believe that things would ever get any better. Then, instead of facing our feelings, we made an effort to determine what factors in our society were feeding this unacceptable phenomenon called homelessness.

Since we thought of ourselves as intelligent, decent people, we hoped that these sociological analyses would one day be utilized for the benefit of humanity.

Once I found myself in the Emergency Room, again hoping for a three day stay in a psychiatric facility, for the sole purpose that I was tired of being rained on. The E.T. technicians, believing me to be a sane but manipulative man — that is to say, a scammer – saw through my none-too-subtle ploy. As they dismissed me, I asked for a blanket, that I might have covering whilst I slept in the rain.

I was given a garbage bag, as the medical personnel and security guards on the graveyard shift burst into callous laughter.

Who inhabits a garbage bag?

A piece of garbage.

Now more than ever, when 40,000,000 Americans have lost their jobs in the past three months, and the streets will be brimming with naive newbies, we really need to do something about this unacceptable phenomenon.

I have even come close to petitioning those who have escaped homelessness to consider returning, at least temporarily, to that realm. You and I might be blessed, but half of those newbies wouldn’t last five days on the more treacherous of the urban city streets. They need our guidance and counsel.

But there is a greater need than that. I hope I don’t have to tell you what it is.

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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.  

Capture

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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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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Inequity (Part Four)

Apparently, some people don’t think I know how to spell.   I’m referring to my recent use of the word “inequity.”  Some think I am referring to “iniquity.”  Others believe I am talking about “inequality.”   Neither is the case.  The truth is that I have spelled the word correctly: “inequity.”

inequity.JPG

Of the three nouns cited, the second one corresponds to the usage of the word as it pertains to this series.   The first “instance of injustice or unfairness” has to do with how homeless people are assumed to have done something terribly wrong in order to have become homeless, and that therefore homelessness is their due.  The second has to do with the notion that the homeless person is not qualified to engage in normal conversations or activities that people who live indoors are permitted to indulge.   The third has to do with privacy — how homeless people are deprived access to it, and regarded with suspicion if they seek it.

Today I would like to discuss a fourth inequity: how it is assumed that the homeless person does not have a job.  In some cases, it is even assumed that he could not have a job, and in other cases, that he should not have a job.  This is all part of the Overall Homeless Inequity.

A 2017 report by the Washington Council of Governments concluded that 22% of single homeless people, and 25% of homeless people in families, are employed.   These figures are remarkably similar to a report citing that 22% of homeless people are drug-addicted.  While it is often supposed that nearly all homeless people are drug-addicted (and no homeless people are working), the two statistics have a striking commonality.  Both of them equate homelessness with something that homelessness is not.

Homelessness is not the same thing as drug addiction.  Yet many people assume that a homeless person is an addict.   It is not the same thing as unemployment either.  Yet people will pass a homeless person on the street, and shout: Get a job!   Having been homeless for a number of years, I can tell you why I think people are content with these misconceptions.   Simply put, they justify the idea that the person is homeless because of some factor that that they can control; and that therefore, homelessness is their choice.  These comfortable fallacies free people from having to sympathize with the homeless person’s plight.

Now when I became homeless by choice, it was a choice made after seven years of struggling in and out of homeless and borderline-homeless situations, all the while finding my entire set of options for personal progress completely negated by the detrimental effects of any living situation I was able to afford.   While people assumed my main problem was something other than this, the fact of the matter is that I was making $50,000 a year and doing quite well before circumstances led to homelessness.  I then found homelessness nearly impossible to escape.

Many people have no idea how deep the hole of homelessness is dug.  Again and again, I tried my hardest to climb out of it.  But in the urban Bay Area reality, where studio apartments often rent for $2500/mo. or more, I could not get back on my feet.  The situations I could afford were limited to shelters, halfway houses, board-and-care homes, and (if I got desperate) psych wards and rehab facilities.  All of these resorts were undignifying, the last two were downright dehumanizing and criminalizing, and every one of them wound up leading me back to the streets.   Finally, I figured I better start learning how to be a functional homeless person, since that is where I continually found myself landing.  So on April 15, 2011, I left the last of numerous lousy living situations in order to join an intentional homeless community in Berkeley, California.

In Berkeley, where there were over one thousand visible homeless people on the streets, it wasn’t generally supposed that any of us were capable of working.  Combine that with a “progressive” quasi-socialist climate, and one was more likely to be encouraged to seek government aid through mental health disability than to get a job.  In short, it was assumed that I was unemployable.  This is another facet of this inequity.

Only once did someone shout at me: “Get a job!”  And when he did, I was damn near ready to go to the Social Security Office and ask them to cancel my disability paychecks.  It was so rare that someone believed I could work that what was intended to be a demeaning insult was actually refreshing.

Then, when I left Berkeley and moved to low-rent district in the Pacific Northwest, I found that within five days, I was able to secure a one year lease on a studio room, within three weeks, had secured a job, and was employed part-time shortly thereafter.  This was after being considered unemployable for years in Berkeley!   And as I always am quick to say, despite what many of my old associates in California believed, I did not change at all on a 48 hour one way bus trip.

What this points to is that when dealing with homeless people, we need to consider the socio-economic factors first and foremost, before we make judgments as to their personal character and choices.   The exact same person who secured a lease and a job as soon as he moved to Idaho was the one who flew a sign on a sidewalk for five years in California.

To those who still think people generally become homeless because they are drug addicts, alcoholics, nut cases, losers, or lazy bums, I say, please think again.   While this is sometimes the case, it is more often true that prolonged homelessness brings about any or all of those factors.  Please think a lot.   This culture gone awry needs the best thinking of us all.

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The Unforgiven in the Eyes of Man

I found this “plea” in my Zoho Docs folder, a folder I rarely open.  I had long ago forgotten writing this on March 18, 2016.   I was homeless at the time, and had been homeless for quite a few years.   Little did I know that my exact plea was to be answered, four months and nine days later.   Not only did I receive the “lock on the door, window, and power outlet” for which I was pleading;  I even received the “community of like-minded Artists and visionaries”  that I was hoping would replace my homeless community.   So I cannot help but post this plea — verbatim and unaltered, in all its raw and fervent appeal.  The only thing that has been changed is that the words now appearing in italics were once in caps, since it was written on a Facebook timeline.  

I apologize for my recent mania. Although — I’m thinking. What exactly is wrong with mania? What is there to apologize for? People tell me I “exhaust” them. But to me, almost everybody else seems to be moving in slow motion. Is it morally wrong that I think and move so quickly? Of course not.  But I begin to develop a chip on my shoulder. I do not know how to express this dynamic clearly or articulately, or in a manner that would be persuasive of my case. My “apology” — such as it is — is placed before your eyes in order that it may be held distinct from the mania that was placed in another venue. I am banking on your objectivity to help me to believe that I can find words to express my position in such a way that will incur the empathy of the powerful.

This is because I, despite an empathic nature, despite an articulate presence, have been robbed of my natural power by a set of conditions and circumstances that have persisted far past the point of the conscious choices that initially set them into motion. That set of conditions and circumstances is called, in a word, homelessness. It has been going on for eleven years now. I do not know how I have made it this far. But I do know that I am not going to make it much farther without real help from someone who has the power to help and who cares to help.  So: let’s get real.  

I cannot live outdoors any longer. I mean – I can, but we may expect my life to end within the next two years at best. From eleven years of Homelessness I am finally breaking down. I, even I. No one can take the overwhelming conditions of homelessness for long without breaking in some way at some point. That I have endured this long is miraculous — especially in combination with the fact that every single person who is homeless understands my issue completely – whether they can articulate it or not – and every single person who lives indoors believes that my issue is something other than what it is.

Initially, this dynamic fascinated me. It fascinated me on an academic level, sociologically, as an item of analysis.  But it has grown to disgust me. Not on an emotional level — but on a revolutionary level. Let me articulate my issue as clearly as I can. I know you love me – and I know you have had your own overwhelming issues. And I am proud of you. But please hear what my issue is. Every homeless person I know will echo this issue. I might as well speak in the editorial “we.” I speak on behalf of the Homeless People of the United States of America.

Our issue is that we feel unloved.

Much as I know that you love me, much as I know that my brother loves me, much as I know that my best female friend loves me – and if I have a remaining male friend who has not rejected me totally, he probably loves me too, whoever he is — I do not feel loved. None of us do. We feel unloved because it is not possible for us to grasp the disparity between the love that we see in the eyes of those who profess it – the love that I hear in your voice and in the voice of my brother and of my best female friend – and the other side of that dynamic, which is that none of the people who love us so will let us into their homes, much less agree to rent rooms to us, even in exchange for good money that we promise to pay. This is a universal homeless phenomenon.

Apparently, it is thought that we do not bathe. That our clothes are filthy. That we cannot manage. We will do something horrible in your house. If this were not the case, then why are we not in houses of our own? Although we know that the demand for affordable housing far exceeds the supply – in America – we still feel somehow blamed for the fact that we are the one who got left without residence.  It’s as though we’re all in a competition, we are the ones who lost the game, and the booby prize is homelessness.

Rather than look at us as “losers,” why not view us according to reason?   Because of high demand and low supply, somebody had to get left. It just happened to be us. We feel like lepers. We are the ostracized, the rejected, the pariahs, the untouchables. We are the perennial round pegs who did not fit, despite ourselves, into the square holes of the society that has discarded us.

We feel unloved because we do not understand how all these people who love us are permitting us to persist in a pattern of life that we have pleaded with them to help us to escape.  For some of us, those pleas have been sent out for years.  In my case, for eleven years.  During that time there have been brief oases of residence that have lasted in some cases as long as six or seven months or more, before — before what? Something happened, and we are out in the wilderness once more.

What is that happened?  Why did we lose those short-lived residential sites?  It is because we didn’t want to sell used cars for our landlords, nor trim their marijuana plants. The housemates didn’t like the way that we paced the floors, or perhaps we were possessed of an annoying tick or snore that kept them awake at night. When asked to put something in the microwave, we who were absent-minded put it in the broiler oven instead. When it was discovered that we had been homeless, that somehow explained everything in the eyes of the potential landlord, and those eyes moved on to the next applicant — the one who had references and a credit rating, the one who either had not been homeless, or else was remarkably good at hiding the fact that they had. If the latter were the case, and one would possess that depth of discretion (I, by the way, do not), then one would probably have been shrewd enough to have avoided homelessness altogether in the first place.

In my case, after seven years of struggling, I finally became homeless by choice. That choice was made long ago.  Made gladly, as you know. The problem is that it is no longer my choice. But I am having the devil of the time acting on the new choice – which is not to be homeless – because the stigmata that is Homelessness radiates from my forehead like a scarlet letter, as though warning everyone who crosses my path that I, like the others, having dabbled in the darkness that is homelessness, am thereby marked and branded. I differ from Cain only in that I have not yet killed a man. But I am just as marked, living in the awful place of confusion wherein the love of God so fills my heart that I know I am forgiven, and yet I know not what it is for which one must forgive me. I know that only God has forgiven me, and suspect that only God can.  For we are those whom Man cannot forgive: The Unforgiven in the Eyes of Man. Not only that, but we do not know what we did that they won’t forgive us for. Ask ten people, we get ten different answers.

Homeless? You must be lazy. You’re not? Then you’re a loser. You’re not? Then you’re a dead beat. You’re not? Well then, shall we say, scum bag? Dirt bag? Piece of shit – that’s it! You must be a piece of shit. No doubt you are seriously drug-addicted. Hard drugs, the kind that ought never be discussed, much less indulged. You must be an alcoholic. Or severely mentally unhealthy – yes, that’s it. You’re a wing nut. Homeless? What do you mean by homeless? There’s got to be a reason for it.

Well, yes there is a reason. By definition, a person is homeless because he does not have a home. Whatever those other problems are – and believe me, if you’re homeless for long enough, you’ll encounter them all- they certainly cannot be solved until the problem of Homelessness that preempted them is solved. Otherwise, they will only recur again and again, because Homelessness feeds them. They come with the territory. We not only are homeless, but we will always be homeless, and we should always be homeless. We not only will never have a place to live indoors again, but we should not ever have a place to live again.  Through the impaired vision of America, homelessness is seen not as a temporary state of affairs, but as a permanent and insoluble, incurable condition of the soul.

It is not that I happen to be able to withstand cold temperatures and inclement weather. It is not that I sleep in thunderstorms without a bedroll, shouting “Bring it On!” and exerting mighty pelvic thrusts toward the stars with each successive lightning bolt or thunderclap. It is not that I have not worn a jacket since 1985, or that I ran my half-marathon PR in 35 mph gales high on LSD flanked by local city cops. It is not that I am gonzo. True – I got exactly what I asked for, and if my book on the subject, the book that has needed to be written for years now, the book that explains the conditions from homelessness according to an author who actually is homeless and not according to some detached liberal social worker or socio-economist or some other form of clueless ivory tower bleeding heart do-gooder – but from the card-carrying, gun-toting homeless bro in dick mode, the real homeless man, AKA Yours Truly. That book is being written faster than these words are being penned, however spontaneously. And people tell me I exhaust them?  Ha!  They ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

That I have pleaded persistently with people who do have the power to terminate this way of living for me and help me into dignified indoor situation  – not a “shelter” – nothing to do with “services” – nothing to do with a “program” – nothing to do with agencies, facilities, or institutions, but an actual living situation that entails outside the realm of homelessness, that (unlike the others) does not simply lead the homeless back to homelessness.   A dignified living situation, where it will not be assumed that I am a criminal, that I plot crimes when so visibly preoccupied – I do not – where my writings of music and text and script on all levels will actually be met with a supportive environment of like-minded Artists and visionaries,  rather than with further attempts to transform the vibrancy of this particularly uniquely gifted Child of the Most High into an impassive robot clone who serves the purposes of a sterile society consisting of those whose claim to fame is neither to threaten, not to make waves, not to cause wrinkles in time or similar anomalies that would disrupt the deluded flow of a culture gone awry.  I refuse to join the ranks of those whose brains have been suspended until further notice so that they no longer can think for themselves but only serve the purposes of the State and of spiritual wickedness in high places when I AM A CHILD OF GOD! I AM A CHILD OF THE MOST HIGH KING! I AM BORN OF THE UNIVERSE THAT IS UNFOLDING ACCORDING TO DIVINE DESIGN, and I HAVE A RIGHT TO BE WHO I AM!

And I’m tired. Believe it or not, I — even I — tire. I exhaust even myself. So I close.

These could be the words of an asshole. But they are not.  They are the words of a person who has been chosen to receive a message that he will articulate with precision and persuasive power. It is a message that America needs to hear – and that the nation, yea the world, has not yet heard. It is not that the message has not been delivered. On the contrary, it has been submitted en masse. It is that those to whom it has been spoken either have not listened, or they have not needed to hear it. Who has not listened to the message? Those of you live indoors. Who does not need to hear it? The homeless people of America who, ironically, are the only ones listening to it.

I can no longer abide the fact that only other homeless people are hearing the message that needs to be heard by those who are not. Somebody somewhere please grant me a place to live indoors that contains three prerequisites:

(1) It must have a window. I will probably need air from the outdoors at all times.

(2) It must have a lock on a single door, and a hide-a-key under a stone outside.

(3) It must have at least one power outlet.

I will provide the rest. I will pay up to $460 a month. But no more, because I will need to have a grocery chain like Safeway deliver food to my door. If somebody wants to kick down a new pair of Size 11 1/2 New Balance running shoes, it will be greatly appreciated, but not necessary to the task. I need – obviously- to write.

To write – the Homeless Message to the Mainstream of Modern American Life. What we want – is to be heard. What we want – is to be understood. What we want – is to be believed. What we want – is to be respected. We could care less if you say you “love” us — because, we cannot believe that you love us, and yet never let us in your home to so much as take a shower in exchange for money. We will believe that you love us when you begin to listen to what we have to say.  

It will take me approximately five months to finish the book which currently is outlined in a 12 – page single space outline in standard outline form which I will submit to anyone interested.

My daughter, I love you. And I am proud of you. My brother, my sister, all of you — I love you.  But I have something to say and I am going to get myself into the position where I will be physically and technically able to say it. Somebody get me out of the situation where I have to spend 90% of my time searching either for outdoor power outlets or chump change for North Berkeley coffeehouses with attitudes.

Here is the ninth and of last of my speeches on the Homeless Phenomenon in America. It is called “A Parallel and Opposing Culture.” Please – don’t just listen to it. Believe it.

And whoever happens to have gotten to the bottom of this, if there’s a God in Heaven or Beyond, that Power will bless you richly.

AMEN.

Andy Pope
Berkeley, California
March 18, 2016

A Parallel and Opposing Culture

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The Least of These My Brothers

Then the King will tell those on his right hand, ‘Come, blessed of my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry, and you gave me food to eat. I was thirsty, and you gave me drink. I was a stranger, and you took me in. I was naked, and you clothed me. I was sick, and you visited me. I was in prison, and you came to me.’

“Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry, and feed you; or thirsty, and give you a drink? When did we see you as a stranger, and take you in; or naked, and clothe you? When did we see you sick, or in prison, and come to you?’

“The King will answer them, ‘Most certainly I tell you, because you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’ Then he will say also to those on the left hand, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire which is prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry, and you didn’t give me food to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave me no drink; I was a stranger, and you didn’t take me in; naked, and you didn’t clothe me; sick, and in prison, and you didn’t visit me.’

“Then they will also answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and didn’t help you?’

“Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Most certainly I tell you, because you didn’t do it to one of the least of these, you didn’t do it to Me.’

–Matthew 25:34-45

Inequity (Part Two)

Another function of long-term homelessness — at least of the kind of homelessness that I and others experienced in an urban environment as part of an intentional homeless community — was that it was hell trying to get off the subject.   Of homelessness, that is.

Phrased positively, it was always refreshing when I found myself engaged in happy small talk, say at a McDonald’s or a Starbucks early in the morning.  These were spots where those of us who were homeless would eagerly gather come daybreak, these being the two places that opened the earliest.   Of course, our motive was to get out of wandering mode and become situated within a seemingly normal context.   If we were lucky, we might even blend with the early risers having themselves emerged from the indoors.   After all, what was to distinguish us from those who dwelt inside?   Maybe an unkempt appearance, possibly a smell.  But we were usually pretty good about taking care of that stuff.  And in a college town?   You didn’t really expect everyone to be doing the three-piece business suits.

Now, the Starbucks was a different scene than the McDonald’s.  I needed more money to get in, and it opened a half hour earlier (at five in the morning, rather than 5:30.)   There was no such thing as a Senior Cup for 65 cents.  I had to at least get a tall coffee, and probably spend $1.75 at the time.   But there was also the advantage that, once I had consumed the coffee, they were in no particular hurry to kick me out.  The McDonald’s, however, had a twenty minute sit-down limit — obviously targeting the myriad homeless people seeming to invade the joint upon opening.   And while others were permitted refills, they had an unwritten policy not to give a refill to a homeless person.   So obviously, the MacDonald’s was the less savory — though less expensive — of the two options.

At times, I had the advantage of owning a laptop I could plug in at the Starbucks.  Once I was working away, I differed in no discernible way from an older student, or perhaps a professor.   If I happened to be at the counter, and no one was around to “out” me, I stood a good chance of blending.   I recall once a fellow sat near me on the counter with a newspaper.  He nodded at me, “Good morning!”  I did the same.  I liked that feeling.  No wall had yet been erected between us.   We were just two human beings, and the homelessness of one of the two human beings had not yet been so imposing as to have erected one.

“You following the Warriors?” the man asked casually, looking up from his paper.

“Not a big basketball fan,” I replied.  “I hear they’re having an unusually good season.”

“Yup.”

So far so good, I thought.   Waiting a moment or two, I decided to comment on the music being piped through the Starbucks speakers.

“I love this Wagner, Symphony in C Major.   Seems to match my mood swings somehow.”

“Oh really.  How so?”

“Well you hear it — it’s almost dissonant, then lands on these big blasts of major chords — you enjoy classical music?”

“Not so much.  The wife always gets me to go to the San Francisco Symphony.”

“Ah, Michael Tilson Thomas.”

“I guess,” he replied softly, looking back down at the paper.

Returning to my work, I felt a clear sense of satisfaction.   Almost ten minutes had gone by.  I hadn’t managed to out myself, and nobody else had come by to — uh, oh here comes Hunter, I thought, literally worried that I was thinking too loud.

“Hey Andy, do you have any change?”

“Am I going to change?” I replied, dodging the question.  “No, I wasn’t planning on it.”

“No, I mean, do you have any change?  Have you even been at your Spot yet?  Oh, never mind.”

Obviously having displayed some familiarity with me, my friend walked away quite randomly.  But it wasn’t random at all to the fellow with whom I’d been chit-chatting.

“You’re HOMELESS??!!” he cried out.  

“Well, uh, yeah,” I admitted, still trying to keep things “low key.”

“Aargh!” he barked.  “Well, here’s what you do.  You dial 2-1-1, you do know about 2-1-1, don’t you?”

Of course I knew about 2-1-1, but that’s beside the point.  The wall had been erected between us, that wall has proven to be virtually insurmountable, and it would be downhill from here.  I’d thought I’d been going to get away with having a normal conversation for once.  But I thought wrong.  As soon as I was outed, and my homeless credentials revealed, the subject reverted back to the usual topic of homelessness.   And it might have been very fresh for the one who picked up that ball, possibly even an exciting first-time conversation.  But to us it was one we’d heard all too often. It was one thing to be living it 24/7.  It was quite another to be expected to talk to every Tom, Dick & Harry about it, total strangers that we would literally meet off the streets, daily.

“You know, you don’t look homeless.  I’m having a hard time believing you’re really homeless.   It just seems like you don’t belong there, and there must be something you can do to get yourself out of it.  Ever think of that?”

Nope, never thought about it once at all!  I mean, really!  Can you imagine if I had been Black, or Hispanic, or any other easily recognized minority in such a context?   Would a stranger, on realizing my ethnicity, immediately launch into a monologue about my being Black or Hispanic, and what I ought to be doing about it?  Of course not!  But that’s the extent to which homelessness is unrecognized.   When one is homeless, one is not generally recognized as representing a legitimate minority in our culture.  This is why a stranger with no true knowledge of the homeless person’s individual circumstances will often feel qualified to lecture the homeless total stranger on how they are to go about living.  It stems from a lack of respect for the obvious human fact that the homeless person has a right to govern their own life, no more and no less than any other kind of person in society.

Until we honor this basic human fact, and respect each homeless individual’s right to have made choices that have seemed most prudent to them under the circumstances, no real progress will be made in solving the “homeless problem.”  This is because the essence of the problem is in the dehumanization of a massive group of human beings in our culture, those being they who are without homes in society.   If many of us extended to a homeless person the same courtesy and dignity we might extend to one of different race, gender, genetic culture, or sexual orientation, we might be surprised at the results.

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Inequity (Part One)

When I made the decision to join an intentional homeless community in the city of Berkeley on April 15, 2011, it was widely assumed that I had become homeless due to having lived a completely mistaken life for 58 years prior.

In this light, I noticed that if a person were a conservative, and they had become homeless in that community, they were often told that they should be a liberal “because the liberals were feeding them.”

However, if a person were a liberal, and they had become homeless in that same community, they were often told that they should become a conservative “because the Salvation Army was feeding them.”

dont judge etcIn general, no conclusions that any of us had drawn in all of our lifetimes prior to becoming homeless in Berkeley were regarded as being of value by anyone other than homeless people.   You don’t know how many people came up to me in an effort to proselytize their particular brand of Christianity, without even bothering to ask me if I identified as a Christian in the first place.

Why should a person change all the conclusions that they had drawn throughout 58 years of living, only because they had fallen on hard times?   If anything, my faith was needed more than ever.

The reason for this, simply put, is that it is widely assumed that a person becomes homeless due to some flaw in their character.   It is almost never supposed that the person might have become homeless because of a lack of affordable housing.  Yet, if that were not the case, I wouldn’t be sitting here today.   A renter in San Francisco might be paying $3000/mo. for a one bedroom apartment.  Here, I am paying $450/mo. for the same.

Yet the number of people who think that I experienced a total psychic change during a one way 48 hour bus trip to a low rent district in other State is staggering.  Some people even insist that it was then that I “found God.”  The fact of the matter is — and I hate to break to anybody — I did not change on that trip at all.  As for having “found God,” the notion is equally ludicrous.  I prayed more prayers to God when I was sleeping in that gutter than at any previous time in my life – and I’m fairly sure you would have too. 

What I found was an affordable place to live.  When will people listen to reason, and to the simple truth?

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Third Column Published

The third story in my Homeless No More column has now been published on Street Spirit.  A link to the September issue — by far the best issue since Alastair Boone took over as editor-in-chief is below.   Following that is a verbatim transcript of my article as it appears in the September paper.  

Capture.PNG

As the homelessness crisis worsens, cities all over the U.S. are desperately trying to come up with solutions. California, for example, is in a frenzy to build new homeless shelters that will fit thousands of new shelter beds. The state is so desperate to get more people inside that last month, Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg wrote an op-ed to the LA Times in which he said that “homeless people should have a legal right to shelter and an obligation to use it.”

Obligation?  To obligate homeless people to sleep in shelters would be a violation of their constitutional rights.  Where a person sleeps should be up to that individual, so long as they are not sleeping on private property without owner consent.

Now, it would definitely be a good thing to increase California’s shelter capacity.  But aside from the issue of human rights, there are many practical reasons why to force homeless people to sleep in shelters is not a good thing.  One of them is that there is no way that one shelter program will be able to fit the needs of the diverse group of individuals who make up California’s homeless community.

This seems to be a trend in how the general population thinks about “the homeless.”  Our society appears to be obsessed with putting people into boxes.  Rather than take the time to actually get to know an individual for who they are uniquely, we like to make snap judgments about them according to their appearance.  For example, if a man is seen flying a sign on a sidewalk, we think: “That guy’s a lazy bum.” Why a lazy bum?  Couldn’t that guy just be down on his luck?

In my personal experience, I have never been stigmatized more than when I was a homeless person. I was lumped into the same box as virtually every one of my fellow homeless people. And when solutions were offered to end my homelessness, I found there was an alarming “one size fits all” approach. My personal story, if even listened to, was disregarded completely.

“You’re homeless?” one would say. “Here’s what you do. I’ve got a lead on a live-in drug rehabilitation program.”

Now, there are a number of flaws with that kind of reasoning. First of all, it presupposes that homelessness and drug addiction are synonymous.  This is fallacious.  On the other hand, many people who live indoors are severely addicted to all kinds of drugs. They just don’t let anyone see it.

Secondly, suppose a person is a drug addict.  Is a “live-in drug rehabilitation program” necessarily the solution for them?  There are twelve-step programs, sober living environments, a program at Kaiser called LifeRing, and a program called Rational Recovery.  Similarly, if one is homeless, one might be directed toward a board-and-care home, a live-in psychiatric facility, a halfway house, or transitional housing.  And those options will work for many people.

I spoke with a formerly homeless woman who enrolled in in a transitional housing facility and spent seven months there, giving them a percentage of her disability check every month.  At the end of the seven months, she had enough money to pay the first and last months rent and security deposit on a studio apartment.  She seemed quite content with her situation the last time I saw her.

I myself received a call from someone at the Berkeley Food and Housing Administration shortly after I left Berkeley for another State.  It turned out that my name had come up on a list of senior housing options, and they were willing to offer me my own one-bedroom apartment near Lake Merritt.  While that might sound wonderful, it would also have kept me in a part of the world where I had developed far more detrimental associations than beneficial ones.  Although I was tempted to drop everything and move back to the East Bay for sentimental reasons, I knew deep down that it would be a step backward that could have landed me back on the streets.

This is just one example of two different situations that worked for two individual people.  If each of us had not taken care of our individual needs, the shelter we found may not have lasted.  Until, as a society, we slow ourselves down enough, and open ourselves up enough, to listen to the plethora of unique stories that homeless people generally tell truthfully, we will not come close to solving the “homeless problem.”

So, while transitional housing programs and halfway houses have their place, a true solution to the homeless predicament will never be reached until we recognize that the homeless person is an individual, endowed with rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness no more and no less than anyone else on the planet.  As long as the wall of division that separates a “person” from a “homeless person” still stands, no lasting solution will be attained.

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.

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Aliens

When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.
    –Leviticus 19:33

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Talks 2019 No. 2

I promised to get a new talk to you guys by 7:30 this morning, so here it is.  The purpose of this talk is to describe how the conditions of homelessness can easily lead to a PTSD diagnosis, and what the triggers can be like.   I hope you enjoy & gain from this. 

See the source image

The Perception of Inequality

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Is There Life After Homelessness?

Below the illustration is an excerpt from my personal diary.   

The Battle After the War – Homelessness and Housing

I’ve thought about almost nothing but homelessness in Berkeley throughout the past five days. It’s a disease; it’s a disorder; it’s PTSD; it’s been triggered.   So I thought I’d take the opposite tact as oft-advised. Rather than distract myself from the triggers, I would embrace the experience completely.

In that spirit, I created this talk, called It Can’t Be Forgotten. Later I judged this effort harshly. Not the fact that I did it — that I don’t mind at all. I was happy, thrilled, and thankful that I completed the spontaneously conceived task, exciting as it was to undertake it.

What I judged was its quality. Two glaring errors stood out. For one thing, while I spoke often of the “inequality” factor, I did very little, if anything, to back up how that sense experience was valid for those of us enduring the Homeless Experience. It could just as easily have been a reflection of my own individual inferiority complex as it was an alleged manifestation of a social injustice.

Secondly, when this issue of inequality arises in the speech, I adopt a tone of voice that seems excessively strident. This could make the listener uncomfortable. The stridency could be alternately interpreted as either anger or sarcasm, something of an almost bitter outrage enters into the vibration from time to time, and the whole thing can make one very uneasy. This is especially the case if one can only tune into the upset tone of voice, and figure this guy’s got some kind of ax to grind, and then never tune in to the actual content of the dissertation, due to the fact that the ostentatious style has stood in the way.

I just now listened to the whole thing for the first time this morning. I don’t find it nearly as objectionable as I did during yesterday’s listen, but that may be because as a listener, I’m simply getting addicted to the repetitive playing of an interesting piece, and I’m getting into the groove of it. But it also may mean that my original objections are not so objectionable, because to remove that element of anger as well as the component of vagueness as to what exactly made us all feel so unequal and so dehumanized when we were all together back then on the streets, would be in essence to assault the very concept of the piece. It is what it is. If it makes you uncomfortable, good. What does this say about you?

That question asked, the speech, on that level, succeeds.  What might be a distraction from that success, however, is if a certain kind of listener jumps to the conclusion, based on early, as yet undeveloped information, that the piece is “about” Internet trolling, trolls, etc.  But it’s not.  It’s about homelessness, inequality, and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.  The troll is only used as a device, to serve as a trigger.

8:06 a.m. – 2019-08-10

 

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Published in Berkeleyside

Good news.  Recently, as you may know, my work began appearing in a regular column called “Homeless No More,” published in the newspaper Street Spirit, which has a 25,000 monthly distribution in Berkeley and Santa Cruz, California.  As of yesterday morning at 8am, my first story in the column, entitled “How I Got Inside,” has now been taken up by Berkeleyside, the award-winning, independent news site covering Berkeley and the East Bay.  

How I Got Inside

Berkeleyside-1

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How I Got Inside

Attached is a verbatim transcript of the first story I had published in my new column in the new Street Spirit.  My column is called “Homeless No More,” and my story is entitled “How I Got Inside.”  This is based on a blog post called Bigger and Better than the Streets, also written on request of Alastair Boone, the new editor-in-chief of Street Spirit.    However, this version involves signature edits and additions.  As such, it stands on its own.

Note also the illustration provided.  The caption reads: “A drawing of Andy getting on a bus and leaving the Bay Area, soon to be housed elsewhere.”  Outside of being an outstanding illustration in its own rite, the work of one Inti Gonzalez, portions of it are charmingly telling.  Note how the homeless Andy is haggard, with a more unkempt beard, wearing a helmet, carrying a sack on a stick, eagerly boarding the bus for greener pastures.

And then, on his arrival!  Suddenly his beard is trim, his hair short and styled – he’s even wearing a Hawaiian shirt – as he bounds into his pristine new place of residence with a shit-eating grin on his face.  I see “white male privilege” reflected all over, which makes  sense in the context of my having moved to a largely all-White State.  But the white male couldn’t have felt too privileged a few weeks back, flying a sign on a Berkeley city sidewalk all those years.

In any event, here’s the text.  You can see for yourself what I wrote on the subject.

When I was homeless in the San Francisco Bay Area, I relied to a large degree on the moral support of lifelong friends and family who were not. For one reason or another, it was not feasible for any of them to let me stay in their homes for any substantial length of time. Still, they frequently provided me with encouragement, and on occasion sent me money. While I was often upset that nobody was “letting me in,” I nonetheless was dependent on their emotional and financial support in order to endure the ongoing conditions of homelessness.

One of the reasons why I delayed the decision to leave the Bay Area for so long was because I was attached to my support group. I felt that my old friends and family members were just about the only people who knew that I was a competent guy who had landed on the streets as the result of a costly medical misdiagnosis. They were the ones who knew that a mistreated health condition had led to a mental breakdown, as my inability to properly manage a health condition threw me into first-time homelessness at the age of 51. They were the ones who watched in horror, as one by one I lost all my accounts, and could no longer keep up with the high cost of living on the S.F. Bay Area Peninsula. But still, they believed in me, and they did what they could to help me get back on my feet. Of course I needed their support!

The only thing they didn’t do was to let me stay with them. Ironically, to have offered me housing, even temporarily, would have been the only thing that could possibly have helped me to get back on my feet.

But they could not do this. They had their own concerns. Meanwhile, I watched while the sordid conditions of homelessness gradually transformed me from a naïve, overweight singing teacher to a scrawny fraction of my former self. Gradually, I got to be half-crazed from protracted sleep deprivation. Often, I became fully crazed from feeling that I was treated like a sub-human mutant, rather than an equal. Passersby sneered at me in disgust.

In order to cope with this massive sense of ever-increasing dehumanization, I turned at first to marijuana, though I’d smoked no more than twice since the 80’s. Then, during the last three years of my homeless sojourn, I turned to a harder drug. I used speed to desensitize me from the cold—both the physical coldness of temperature, and the spiritual coldness of the condescending mockers in my midst. One by one, my old friends and family members, with rare exception, abandoned me. One of them recently told me: “We were all just waiting to read your obituary.”

Finally, in June of 2016, I picked up my social security check and walked out of the city of Berkeley without saying a word. “If the drugs won’t kill me,” I told myself, “the thugs who dispense them will.”

For a month I wandered the other side of the Bay in search of a permanent answer. But nothing seemed to work. In a shelter, I caught a flu, and was kicked out for that reason. The hospital wouldn’t let me in, because if they let me in, they’d have to let all of us in. I got kicked off of the all-night bus for fear of contaminating the other homeless people, who relied on the all-night bus as a shelter.

In desperation, I got down on my knees. I told the Universe that all I wanted was “a lock on a door, a window, and a power outlet.”

Then I took action. I began googling keywords until I found a place in the Pacific Northwest that rented for only $275/month—something that would easily have gone for $900/month in the Bay Area. It was a tiny room in a converted hotel—but it would do the job. I called an old associate, someone whom I’d worked with long ago when he was a music teacher at a middle school. Hearing my story, he agreed to front me $200 for a one-way Greyhound ticket to a new life. After that, I told my story to the prospective landlord, whom I called while still in San Francisco. To my amazement, he agreed to hold the place for me until I got there.

Forty-eight hours later, I was sleeping in my new room. It had a window, two power outlets, and three locks on the door. Four days after that, I signed a one-year lease. Three weeks later, after years of being considered unemployable in the San Francisco Bay Area, I landed a part-time job as a piano player at a small-town church.

A part of me wishes I had made the decision earlier. It would have spared me the last three years of psychic hell. But had I made the decision earlier, I would have abandoned the bulk of my support group. For me, leaving my support system and moving out of town was what it took to lead me to housing. However, it is a common misconception that the homeless crisis would be solved if homeless people just picked themselves up and moved out of town. This is not always the case, nor is it always readily possible.

I was lucky to have found a sympathetic person who would front me the money for a one-way-ticket to another state and help me with an apartment deposit and a few other odds and ends. Not everybody can find such a benefactor. Also, we cannot deny the obvious fact that I am a white male brimming with the semblance of “white privilege”even while living on the street—if only for the ability to decide to move to a state largely composed of other white people. While I obviously did not possess a whole lot of privilege per se, I looked as though I could conceivably be, or become, a privileged person. Let’s face it: Had I been Black or Hispanic, to show up in a largely white neighborhood would not have worked to my advantage.

So in a way, I had it easy. At the same time, however, I believe that there is a way out for everyone. Though the sheltered world does not know it, homelessness is not the same thing as alcoholism, drug addiction, or incompetence. It’s not the kind of thing where one needs to “change their ways” in order to overcome it. In order to overcome homelessness, what one needs is dignity. We are all created equal; we are all endowed by our Creator with inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We are all bigger and better than the streets.

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The Beautiful Gate

One afternoon Peter and John were going up to the temple at the hour of prayer, the ninth hour. And a man who was lame from birth was being carried to the temple gate called Beautiful, where he was put every day to beg from those entering the temple courts. When he saw Peter and John about to enter the temple, he asked them for money.

Peter looked directly at him, as did John. “Look at us!” said Peter. So the man gave them his attention, expecting to receive something from them. But Peter said, “Silver or gold I do not have, but what I have I give you: In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, get up and walk!”

Taking him by the right hand, Peter helped him up, and at once the man’s feet and ankles were strengthened. He sprang to his feet and began to walk. Then he went with them into the temple courts, walking and leaping and praising God.

When all the people saw him walking and praising God, they recognized him as the man who used to sit begging at the Beautiful Gate of the temple, and they were filled with wonder and amazement at what had happened to him.

— Acts 3:1-10

 

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Auditions Tonight

Auditions for Eden in Babylon begin tonight at 7pm at the Lionel Hampton School of Music.   There will be further auditions Monday at 7pm, with callbacks Tuesday at 7pm, at Moscow First Presbyterian Church.

I have waited seven years for this moment.  If you know what it means (or even if you don’t), please feel free to comment with the words “Break a Leg.”

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A little bit goes a long, long way.

 

Bigger and Better than the Streets

I wrote this, like the one last Thursday, on request from Alastair Boone, the editor-in-chief of Street Spirit.  There might be a similar entry next Thursday.  

When I was homeless in the San Francisco Bay Area, I relied to a large degree on the moral support of lifelong friends and family who were not. For one reason or another, it was not feasible for any of them to let me stay in their homes for any substantial length of time. Still, they frequently provided me with encouragement, and on occasion sent me money. While I was often upset that nobody was “letting me in,” I nonetheless was dependent on their emotional and financial support in order to endure the ongoing conditions of homelessness.

One of the reasons why I delayed the decision to leave the Bay Area for so long was because I was attached to my support group. I felt that my old friends and family members were just about the only people who knew that I was a competent guy who had landed on the streets as the result of a costly medical misdiagnosis. They were the ones who knew that a mistreated health condition had led to a mental breakdown, as my inability to properly manage a health condition threw me into first-time homelessness at the age of 51.

They were the ones who watched in horror, as one by one I lost all my accounts, and could no longer keep up with the high cost of living on the S.F. Bay Area Peninsula. But still, they believed in me, and they did what they could to help me get back on my feet. The only thing they didn’t do was to let me stay with them. Ironically, to have offered me housing, even temporarily, would probably have been the only thing that could have possibly helped me to get back on my feet. The depth of the gutter where the homeless are consigned to dwell is really that deep. For me, at the time, it seemed inescapable.

So I continued to live outdoors, where I found myself gathering with other homeless people at “feeds” and at places like the Multi-Agency Service Center (MASC) in Berkeley. Though I and my fellow homeless people had arrived at homelessness by a variety of different paths, we had one thing in common: we were homeless. To the social workers who tried to help us, there was no distinction between a man who had been an elementary school music teacher, and a man who had been brought up on the streets, taught by his parents to steal laptops from an early age. Graphic artist and con artist were one and the same. We were all in this boat together.

Related image

We were all homeless – and we indeed bonded together. After all, the laptop thief was my equal, no more or less endowed by the Creator with inalienable human rights like my own. But the only people who still saw me as a competent, employable human being were the ones who had known me prior to my “fall.” My fellow homeless people saw me as a homeless person — as one of them, an equal. Social workers and police officers saw me as a homeless person, though by and large they did not see me as equal, but as someone who was somehow below them in the hierarchy of human rights. My old friends and family members saw me as Andy, the guy they’d known and loved all their lives, whether homeless or not. Of course I needed their support!

But were they helping me with the one thing I needed? That is, to “get inside?” No – they were not. They had their own concerns. Meanwhile, I watched while the sordid conditions of homelessness gradually transformed me from a naive, overweight singing teacher to a scrawny fraction of my former self. Gradually, I got to be half-crazed from protracted sleep deprivation. Often, I became fully crazed from feeling that I was treated like a sub-human mutant, rather than an equal. Passersby sneered at me in disgust. They viewed my visible poverty as an unsightly blot on society, a piece of garbage to be swept off the streets, along with the rest of my fellow eyesores. Were it not for the bonding with my fellow homeless citizens, I’d have lost all shreds of human dignity.

In order to cope with this massive sense of ever-increasing dehumanization, I turned at first to marijuana, though I’d smoked no more than twice since the 80’s — certainly less than most of my friends who still lived indoors. Then, during the last three years of my homeless sojourn, I turned to a harder drug. I used speed to desensitize me from the cold – both the physical coldness of temperature, and the spiritual coldness of the condescending mockers in my midst. One by one, my old friends and family members, with rare exception, abandoned me. One of them recently told me: “We were all just waiting to read your obituary.”

Finally, in June of 2016, I picked up my check and walked out of the city of Berkeley without saying a word. “If the drugs won’t kill me,” I told myself, “the thugs who dispense them will.”

For a month I wandered the other side of the Bay in search of a permanent answer. But nothing seemed to work. In a shelter, I caught a flu, and was kicked out for that reason. The hospital wouldn’t let me in, because if they let me in, they’d have to let all of us in. They gave me some pills and told me to rest in bed for ten days. But I had no bed! I got kicked off of the all night bus for fear of contaminating the other homeless people, who relied on the all-night bus as a shelter.

Finally, in desperation, I got down on my knees. I told the Universe that all I wanted was “a lock on a door, a window, and a power outlet.”

Then I took action. I began googling keywords until I found a place in the Pacific Northwest that rented for only $275/mo. – something that would easily have gone for $900/mo. in the Bay Area. It was a tiny room in a converted hotel — but it would do the job. I called an old associate, someone whom I’d worked with long ago when he was a music teacher at a middle school. Hearing my story, he agreed to front me $200 for a one way Greyhound ticket to a new life. After that, I told my story to the prospective landlord, whom I called while still in San Francisco. To my amazement, he agreed to hold the place for me until I got there! Forty-eight hours later, I was sleeping in my new room — and it had a window, two power outlets, and three locks on the door. Four days after that, I signed a one year lease. Three weeks later, after years of being considered unemployable in the San Francisco Bay Area, I landed a part-time job as a piano player at a small town church.

A part of me still wishes I had made the decision earlier. It would have spared me the last three years of psychic hell, as the pain of my homelessness was doused with street drugs, and the combination threatened to plummet me toward an untimely death. But had I made the decision earlier, I would have abandoned the bulk of my support group. How thankful I am to have lost their support all the same! For at the moment when I finally decided to leave the Bay Area for a low rent district in a distant State, I had no one left to lose – and everything to gain.

Though the sheltered world does not know it, homelessness is not the same thing as alcoholism, drug addiction, or incompetence. It’s not the kind of thing where one needs to “change their ways” in order to overcome it. In order to overcome homelessness, what one needs is dignity. It doesn’t matter whether we were music teachers or laptop thieves. We are all created equal; we are all endowed by our Creator with inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We are all bigger and better than the streets.

Please donate to Eden in Babylon.
A little bit goes a long, long way.

 

My Life Has Just Begun

I wrote this on request from Alastair Boone, the editor-in-chief of Street Spirit.  


Shortly after I first became homeless in 2004, I was the victim of a sexual assault in a motel room. I had made a mistake I learned never to make again. I opened the door when someone knocked.

As one who had been sheltered his entire life, I didn’t know at the age of fifty some things that are common sense to people who are in the practice of renting cheap motel rooms in “red light districts.” One of them is that when you happen to land such a room — the kind where the owner might squeeze you in without proper identification — you never answer a knock on the door if you know what’s good for you. In this case, a large African-American man forced his way in and overpowered me. (I think he was looking for somebody else. In any case, I would suffice.)

Without going into horrific detail, the nature of the assault was such that it gave me a condition called Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, otherwise known as PTSD. While I did my best to deal healthfully with this ongoing condition, I found that its symptoms never truly subsided, but only worsened throughout twelve long years on the streets.

Being pistol-whipped, being hit on the head with guns, and watching someone set all my possessions on fire before my eyes were only isolated incidents. As such, they barely made a dent in the overall state of shock in which I lived throughout most of those years. Sleep deprivation, malnutrition, and forced overexercise were alone enough to induce serious mental health disorientation, without having to lace them with cognitive dissonance. My psyche felt as though it had been split into two. Half of me still clung to the fading memories of a former humanity — a humanity I never questioned when I was a complacent, overweight music teacher, driving a Corolla, making $50,000 a year. The other half began to believe that I was truly the piece of dog poop I was often considered to be, as people stepped over and around me whilst I slept, as though afraid to get my scent on their shoes.

homeless-man-sleeping-step-homeless-man-sleeping-step-people-walk-past-martin-place-sydney-january-nn-108120289

One look at me in those days was usually enough to convince most people that my condition was hopeless. Of course, medical treatment was difficult to access on any kind of regular basis. Once I finally escaped all that wretched homelessness, one would think I’d have needed even more medical help. After all, how can someone make a successful transition back into mainstream society when one has deteriorated so grossly?

But the facts are that even people who live indoors will go nuts when deprived of regular rest, proper nutrition, and moderate exercise. To exercise in moderation was never an option for me. Skin and bones though I was, I was forced by the details of homeless life to walk over ten miles a day on most days. If for no other reason than to get from one needed resource to another, this was my daily requirement. And there were plenty of other reasons to be denied proper rest and be forced to keep moving. None of the spots where we sat or lay down were secure. Cops would wake us up in the middle of the night, and tell us to get up and “move on.” Once we had found somewhere else to crash, who was to say that another cop wouldn’t come again and do the same thing? Homeless people like to say that they sleep with one eye open. Anything can happen at any time.

Suppose that people living indoors were placed under the same sort of psychic fire. Suppose a group of homeowners were daily reminded that they were somehow “less than” the rest of the human race. Suppose they were treated like inanimate objects while there were sleeping in their own beds at home. Suppose people were walking over them and around them all night long, making as much noise as they wanted to make, disturbing their sleep. Of course they too would develop serious issues with sleep deprivation, and serious issues with self-esteem. I daresay many of them would wind up landing on the streets as well.

On the other hand, consider how one would respond, if one had been enduring such demeaning assaults on his health and well-being for years on end, and then suddenly found themselves in a living situation that was manageable, affordable, sustainable — and dignified. Well, if you can imagine that kind of a paradigm shift, it’s exactly what happened to me.

In the first week of having found palatable residence, far away from the demeaning indignities that had characterized my previous life, I wrote to a pastor of my acquaintance. I told her: “This is the first time in twelve years that I haven’t been in a state of shock.”

If that was my experience in the very first week, can you imagine what I feel like nearly three years later? For almost three years now, I’ve been getting REM sleep on a regular basis. I’ve even been dreaming. And that’s something that never happened when I was “sleeping with one eye open.”

Not only am I sleeping better; but also, I’ve been cooking my own food, taking showers in my own bathroom, and lacing up my shoes when I want to get moving — not when I’m told to “move on.” If I walk, if I run, I am the one who determines the pathways that I will traverse. I am the one who decides how many miles I need to put in each day. Many of the things I did when I was homeless were determined by conditions beyond my control. The contrast between the empowerment of my present day world and the powerlessness of my previous life is enough alone to lay waste to the remnants of a formerly traumatized existence.

And yet, I hear people of wealth and privilege crying out like helpless victims over “trauma” that isn’t one tenth the magnitude of what homeless people deal with routinely. Recently I heard someone complaining at a 12-Step meeting that they had spent $15,000 on blinds for their mansion, and that the blinds weren’t working right. Hello? Talk about your “luxury problem!” I would guess that the blinds would be to their satisfaction – after all, they are keeping the Light from shining in their blinded eyes.

To whatever extent my PTSD worsened over all that time on the streets, to that same extent has it been increasingly alleviated, the longer I live indoors. If I need a doctor, it won’t be for that. At the age of sixty-six, many of my peers are retiring from jobs that they probably hated. They act as though they don’t know what to do with themselves. They act as though they’re headed for the grave. After twelve years on the streets where hatred ruled, my life has just begun.

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They Err in Vision

Ah, the proud crown of the drunkards of Ephraim,
       and the fading flower of its glorious beauty,
       which is on the head of the rich valley of those overcome with wine!
Behold, the Lord has one who is mighty and strong;
       like a storm of hail, a destroying tempest,
like a storm of mighty, overflowing waters,
       he casts down to the earth with his hand.
The proud crown of the drunkards of Ephraim
       will be trodden underfoot;
and the fading flower of its glorious beauty,
       which is on the head of the rich valley,
will be like a first-ripe fig before the summer:
       when someone sees it, he swallows it
       as soon as it is in his hand.

In that day the LORD of hosts will be a crown of glory,
       and a diadem of beauty, to the remnant of his people,
and a spirit of justice to him who sits in judgment,
       and strength to those who turn back the battle at the gate.

These also reel with wine
       and stagger with strong drink;
the priest and the prophet reel with strong drink,
       they are swallowed by wine,
       they stagger with strong drink,
       they err in vision,
       they stumble in giving judgment.
For all tables are full of filthy vomit,
       with no space left.

“To whom will he teach knowledge,
       and to whom will he explain the message?
Those who are weaned from the milk,
       those taken from the breast?
For it is precept upon precept, precept upon precept,
       line upon line, line upon line,
       here a little, there a little.”

For by people of strange lips
       and with a foreign tongue
the LORD will speak to this people,
       to whom he has said,
“This is rest;
       give rest to the weary;
and this is repose” —
       yet they would not listen.

Isaiah 28:1-12

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