The Prosperity of the Wicked

For I envied the arrogant
when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.

They have no struggles;
their bodies are healthy and strong.
They are free from common human burdens;
they are not plagued by human ills.
Therefore pride is their necklace;
they clothe themselves with violence.
From their callous hearts comes iniquity;
their evil imaginations have no limits.
They scoff, and speak with malice;
with arrogance they threaten oppression.
Their mouths lay claim to heaven,
and their tongues take possession of the earth.
Therefore their people turn to them
and drink up waters in abundance.
They say, “How would God know?
Does the Most High know anything?”

This is what the wicked are like—
always free of care, they go on amassing wealth.

–Psalm 73:3-12

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The Homeless Buzzwords

There were a number of words used predominantly by those who lived indoors that had a precarious ring in the ears of those of us who lived outside.   These words often had a way of revealing our homelessness in a situation where it would have been wiser to conceal it — for example, when one was seeking a place of residence among numerous applicants.   

homeless still humanEven if the situation were such that there was no reason why our homelessness couldn’t  remain  “out in the open” (so to speak), these words still had a way of making us feel that we were in some way distinctly set apart from the rest of the human race.  At times, the words suggested that possibly we were not even truly human.  After all, the humans who lived inside never used these words in reference to them. 

So let me list four of them.  Conveniently, the first two are what I will call the two “s-words.”  The last two will be the two “h-words.”  And I assure you — we who have been forced to live outdoors for prolonged periods of time could easily  come up with numerous similar “buzzwords,” possibly one for every letter of the alphabet.  But these four will suffice — for now.

1. SHELTER

Once on Facebook, a friend of mine announced on his timeline that “Andy was looking for shelter.”  Now, of all the friends on his timeline, how many of them would have known that I was homeless?  Probably only him, his wife maybe, and his kids.   Does a person who isn’t homeless ever look for “shelter?”  No, they don’t.  They look for a place to live.

I asked him to remove the post.  Although he was trying to help, he didn’t realize that the revelation of homelessness in this fashion would work against me in trying to secure residence.  I knew from experience that if there were ten applicants on a rental application, and one of them put down that he had been homeless, there would soon be only nine applicants on that application.

2. SERVICES

This one wasn’t nearly so bad as the other “s-word.”  But it still pointed to certain stigmata associated with poverty and disability culture that could conceivably work against us in many circumstances.  A person trying to find residence, for example, is generally reluctant to say that he or she has had to have access to “services.”  A prospective landlord would much rather hear about “gainful employment” than “services.”

Even in the context where no discrimination would be involved, there was still the inner sting of feeling that we somehow weren’t employable, able, or competent.  Nobody likes to think of themselves as incompetent.  We all want to think that we are at least capable of earning our own way in life, even if circumstances — personal, medical, or financial – are temporarily preventing us from doing so.

As I wrote in an earlier post, in all the years when I flew a sign on a Berkeley city sidewalk, only once did a person walk by and shout: “Get a job!”

It was just about the most refreshing thing I’d ever heard.   It was very common for passersby to point me to where all the services were — as if I didn’t know already — and the overall effect, after a number of years, was to drill deeper and deeper down into the depths of my psyche the disconcerting notion that I was somehow “less than” all the more worthy sorts of people — those who were capable of holding down jobs.

And I’m pretty sure that I speak, if not for all of the middle-aged homeless men and women in my position at the time, then certainly for a vast majority of them.

3. HOUSING

The first of the two “h-words” is akin to that of the two “s-words.”  Who needs to be “housed?”  A person who doesn’t already have a house, of course.   So when a social worker would refer to finding us “housing,” it only served to remind us of the essential difference between us and that other kind of human being, the one who was so privileged to be living indoors, who could conceivably delight in having moved to another place — a place of their choice, and more to their liking.

We could take no such delight.  The homeless person, even when told to move (which we very often were told to do), doesn’t really get to move to a new place.  Wherever we “moved” to, we were still homeless.  If a homeless person did find a place to live, it was because we had been “housed.”  It almost felt like we were animals being assigned to cages.  Compare that feeling to that of a person who had lived in a rental and who then succeeds in buying a house.   Possibly he moves out into the suburbs, or even into a gated community.  He gets to do what he wants to do, and take his pick of places of residence until he finds the one he likes.  That’s the sort of person who actually gets to move, and gets to move up in the world. 

Homeless people only need to be housed – and quickly.  It was a huge obsession of many of the indoor-dwellers in our midsts, especially of the ones who were trying to help us.  Something had to be done with us — hopefully as soon as possible  — and our own personal say-so in the matter was of limited importance in their minds.

And that says nothing of the kind of indoor dweller who didn’t even care if we were ever “housed.”  They only wanted us out of their neighborhood – and fast.  

4. HOMELESS  

Now for the big one.

I have probably used the word “homeless” ten times as much in the past two years indoors than for the past twelve years outdoors.  Even now, I prefer to use words like “outside” or “outdoors,” rather than “homeless,” whenever possible.  Partly this is because I feel called upon to emphasize that the main difference between those who are homeless and those who are not is that the homeless person lives outdoors — exposed and vulnerable to all kinds of external influences, human or inhuman, foul or fair.  Whoever is not homeless lives inside and is as such protected from the vast array of such external elements.

But the word “homeless” for some reason carries a number of unrelated connotations that obscure the real issues of those who live outdoors.   For this reason, many homeless people do everything they can to conceal their homelessness from those who live indoors.  The word “homeless” carries so much stigma, it drives the average homeless person into the realm of invisibility.

These kinds of homeless people, though far from the most conspicuous, are undoubtedly in the vast majority.  When I was homeless, any amount of money I was able to secure at in excess of my usual $17/day quota was considered to be license for me to take a bus or a BART train to someplace far away from places where I typically slept and attempted to earn my keep.  I did this so that I would not have to deal with the annoying barrage of repeated questions and irrelevant information that was sent my way as soon as someone figured out that I was “homeless,” or heard that word used in the context of my person.

Typical connotations on the word “homeless” include”drug addict,” “alcoholic,” “nut case,” “loser,” “lazy bum,” and a whole plethora of stigmatic labels that serve amazingly well to obscure the more essential information about the homeless condition.  As I said, these labels are unrelated to the real issues of those who live outdoors.  Plenty of people who live indoors could easily have any one of these labels attributed to them, and the homeless person may in fact have none of them attributable to his or her identity.  Even if these attributes are part of the homeless person’s experience, it serves no purpose to dwell upon them, other than to create a diversion from dealing with their true top-priority issue; that is, to find a place to live.  A dignified place to live.  A place to call their own, just as an indoor person buying a house can call their house their own. 

So to avoid having to cut through the quagmire of all this unrelated labeling, I had to start by avoiding the label of “homeless” in the first place.  For it would be from that label that all the other distracting labels would spring.  If instead I somehow managed to be seen only as a fellow human being, in as many situations as possible, and not as a “homeless” person, then my chances of attaining a place to call my own were greatly enhanced.  And in the end of my homeless sojourn, that was exactly how I found a place I could finally call my own — by leaving all trace of “homeless” out of my persona, and finding a landlord who had no reason to see me as anyone other than a fellow human being.

Perhaps you saw the episode of Northern Exposure in which the character Maurice approached a disadvantaged man on the street and asked: “Are you homeless?”

The man replied: “I prefer the term hobo.”

And before I had gained more savvy in the realm of outdoor living, I once asked a man if he were “homeless.”  He replied: “Homeless is just a word.”

Not to mention, when somebody asked me recently, after I’d been living inside for almost two years, “Are you homeless?” — my reply was published in the post that bears that name.  

So when I finally succeeded in achieving the dignified dwelling place I had long sought, how many times do you think I used any of those four words, the two s-words and the two h-words?   Of course, the answer is zero.  I avoided all four of these words completely.  I hope that by now, you understand why.  

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It Is What It Is

There was this sense, when I was homeless, that my personal achievements were not as important as the achievements of those who lived indoors.   On the other side of the coin, my misfortunes were not as worthy of sympathy as those of people who lived inside.  If I achieved something wonderful, it was dismissed as irrelevant.  If I suffered something horrible, it was shrugged off as unimportant.  Yet if the same wonderful thing had happened to someone who lived inside, people would have smiled and offered their congratulations.  And if the same horrible thing had happened to someone who lived indoors, they would have received due sympathy.

I’ll never forget how, when I was house-sitting for a friend of mine, I took a twenty-five mile bus trip to a homeless feed, and I left my wallet on the bus.  I was more than inconvenienced by this.  It threw me into a completely discouraged state.  The house-sitting had enabled me to replace my stolen photo I.D and a lost debit card, obtain a library card, and (last but not least) store needed cash in a single place.  In this case, the dollar I needed to get back to my friend’s place on the bus was a critical component of that cash.

Naively, I figured that that the social workers at the feed might have helped me with a dollar to get back to my friend’s house.  Instead, what followed was a demeaning event, in which one by one, every single person I asked for a dollar bill assumed I was a hustler working a sophisticated con.  Not one of them believed I had actually lost my wallet.  

When I told one of them how I had lost my wallet, my cards, and all my money, she replied by saying: 

“It is what it is.”

At that point, I finally exploded.  

“How would you like it if you had lost your keys, and couldn’t get into your car, and couldn’t get into your house, and were desperate for help and support, and somebody responded by saying: ‘It is what it is?'”

I guess I had raised my voice a little too loudly with that question, for it was then that the security guard approached me to inform me that I was no longer welcome at the feed.

A far worse assault is something I find myself reluctant to share, for fear I might relive the trauma.  It happened at about four in the morning, when I stopped to ask a buddy of mine for change to get onto the BART train from the Downtown Berkeley station.   While my friend and I were counting the change, I casually set my backpack down behind me.  My backpack, at the time, contained a Mac PowerBook, two years worth of CD’s of music I’d written, headphones, and various and sundry life-aids, survival devices, and creature comforts.  In other words, it contained everything I owned.

While I was not looking, a nearby kid poured lighter fluid all over my backpack and set it on fire.

My friends saw it first, and started to scream: “What the hell are you doing!?  This guy’s a friend of mine!”

But the kid, apparently having been up for five or six days on crystal methamphetamine, only laughed.  He thought it was funny and fun.

Badly shaken, I forgot all about my BART trip and began to seek the emotional support of friends.  First, I called my best female friend in Georgia.  When she heard what had happened, of course she gasped, and cried: “That’s horrible!”

But when I approached a certain fellowship in the vicinity, and I related the story to a member who was standing outside, she only said: 

“Aw, who cares?”

This triggered a chain reaction involving a number of the members dismissing my trauma as irrelevant.  The message I received was essentially: “Well, if you weren’t homeless, these kinds of things wouldn’t happen to you.”

I was upset enough that I later approached the president of the church council, only to hear:

“Well, how did you expect them to react?”

I wanted to tell him that I’d expected them to say something similar to what my friend in Georgia had said; i.e., “that’s horrible!”  I wanted to tell him that I had expected there to be some sympathy for the condition of a guy who had just watched all his possessions burnt down by arson before his eyes.  But instead, grasping the incredulity of the scenario, all I could say to the council president was: “That’s a good question.”

seeking_human_kindness-homeless-hub-york-uniA better question would have been: “Why didn’t they react with normal human sympathy for a person who had just been so violated and traumatized?

The answer is simple.  My friend in Georgia was treating me like a human being.  The people at the fellowship were treating me like a homeless person.   Apparently, in a lot of people’s minds, there’s a big difference.

This is to say nothing about the achievements I managed to accomplish when I was homeless.  When I lived outdoors in Berkeley between 2013 and 2016,  I composed all of the music on the Berkeley Page of this web site without the aid of a laptop or music notation software.  I walked about town like a madman, singing “bop bop bop” and playing drums on my pants legs.   And when I was able to get inside with a laptop in 2016, I scored and sequenced all of that music with Finale music notation software.

The total strangers in the cafe here in town where I scored all that music recognized it as an achievement.  But what kind of response did I get from the townspeople?

“Shut the f–k up, you wingnut!”

And from church people?


“So what?
You act as though your music is more important than your God.”

But do you know who did appreciate the songs I was writing?

The homeless people.  They clapped whenever I found a piano to play it on, or when a homeless friend and I sang harmonies, while he strummed on his guitar.

And you know why?

Because homeless people see each other as human beings.   People who live indoors, by and large, see homeless people as homeless people.

There’s a big difference, you see — and don’t you forget it.

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(Talks 2018) – Talk No. 5

In this talk, I try to show how the dynamics of outdoor living provoke the dehumanization of homeless people, consciously or unconsciously, by those who have always lived indoors, and how this phenomenon is a biproduct of a much larger spiritual malaise that, in one way or another, has affected us all.  

Homeless and Human 

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Restorer of Streets with Dwellings

Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
and your healing will quickly appear;
then your righteousness will go before you,
and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.
Then you will call, and the Lord will answer;
you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.

“If you do away with the yoke of oppression,
with the pointing finger and malicious talk,
and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
then your light will rise in the darkness,
and your night will become like the noonday.
The Lord will guide you always;
he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land
and will strengthen your frame.
You will be like a well-watered garden,
like a spring whose waters never fail.
Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins
and will raise up the age-old foundations;
you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls,
Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.”

–Isaiah 58:6-12

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Gratitude List 869

(1) I was able to finish the remake of my new speech last night, even though it kept me up till 4:30 in the morning.  Grateful for the space and privacy to do such things without disturbing others, or being disturbed.

(2) Jan loves me.

(3) A great way to overcome the bitterness of a troubled past is to indulge the blessings of a promising present.

(4) Somebody made a nice, detailed comment on my piano playing over the weekend.  Grateful to have been trusted enough to be given a key to a church building with a Baldwin grand piano.   There was a time where any effort to play a church piano was met only with concern over “insurance issues” — implying, of course, that I was the type of guy that would do damage to the property.

(5) Nice strong coffee.  Grateful to have my own place of residence and my own coffee-maker.  There was a time when the only reason I went to a 7am A.A. meeting was because it was the only way I could figure out how to get a cup of coffee in the morning.

(6) It was suggested last night that every morning when I wake up, I can “dedicate the day to God.”  It took a while, but I’m thankful to have done so.

(7) Glad to hear that the heat wave will be over on Thursday, which is great timing, since I get paid on Friday.  Thankful for the promise of double blessings, back to back.

(8) Happy to have heard from Alistair Boone, the new Editor-in-Chief of Street Spirit, with the news that I’ll be kept on as a regular montly contributor, in the wake of Terry Messman’s retirement.  

(9) Extremely grateful to no longer be homeless in the San Francisco Bay Area.   I honestly thought I would never be able to live indoors again.

(10) Extremely thankful for the State of Idaho, where my experience has been that people treat each other decently and respectfully — like equals.   Thankful no longer to have to be lectured, ridiculed, dimissed, ostracized, vilified, and looked down upon as though I were not even fully human.  It is incredible to no longer be regarded as a piece of worthless homeless scum.   Thank God for my new and remarkably better life.  I never dreamed it possible — He loves me, after all. 

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The Eye of a Needle

As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

“Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.’ ”

“Teacher,” he declared, “all these I have kept since I was a boy.”

Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth.

Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!”

The disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

–Mark 10:17-24

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