What Should You Know Before Becoming Homeless?

Somebody posted this question on the site called Quora over the weekend.   I figured I might be able to answer it.  I was homeless for a long, long time.   

You should know that people will not treat you as a full human being with needs, rights, and sensibilities akin to those of the rest of the human race. You will be continually dehumanized in ways that will confuse you, anger you, and seriously affect your self-esteem and your sense of dignity. By and large, you will either be faced with severe judgment by those who assume they are innately superior to you, or with a pathetic show of feigned empathy that will come across more like condescension than true compassion. You will often be lectured by those who have never been in your shoes and have no idea what your life is actually like. These people also will never listen to you, because they assume that you have nothing to say to them that is meaningful.

no humanityYou will be kicked out of your beauty sleep by cops, security guards, property owners, business owners, and worst of all, other homeless people. You might as well divest yourself of all remnant of worldly possessions — cell phones and laptops included — because they are all going to be stolen anyway. At food services and “feeds” you will be herded around like cattle, and orders will be barked at you as though you were a criminal in a jailhouse. Your 1st and 4th Amendment rights will routinely be violated by rookie cops who wake you up in the middle of the night and immediately search your backpack for drugs. During these violations, the cops will also run your “criminal record,” since it is also assumed that you are a criminal.

They will be surprised to find out that you are not a criminal, since obviously anyone who loses their house in a foreclosure or their rental in a California Owner Move In Eviction must be a criminal. After they do find out you are not a criminal, they will callously tell you to “move on” and sleep somewhere else. When you ask them, “where else can I sleep?” they will of course provide no answer, since obviously there isn’t one. Severe sleep deprivation will eventually set in, and it is likely you will become a bit delusional in your thinking. Your confusion will constantly disguise what your true issues are. Tired of harsh judgment, tired of false sympathy, you will rack your brains out trying to figure out what is wrong with the way people approach you, and what is lacking in their attitude toward you.

Finally, you will realize that what is lacking is respect. They will not respect you; they will not treat you as an equal; they will ask you inane questions that do not pertain to your situation at all, and then will not bother to listen to your answers. You will get tired of hearing people ask you about the weather, because the weather will be the least of your worries. You will ultimately conclude that the worst thing about being homeless has nothing to do with hygiene, sleeplessness, malnutrition, weather conditions, difficulty sustaining basic needs, difficulty focusing on anything at all other than your day to day survival, or any of the other things that make homelessness miserable for most people.

The worst thing about being homeless, you will undoubtedly conclude, is the way that you are treated. Good luck.

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A Rain Like You

A couple mornings ago, I awoke a bit later than usual.   After a brief period of reflection, I decided to forego my morning shower, gather up my things, and set forth into the world.

A gentle rain proceeded to plop upon me. 

“Funny,” I thought.  “This reminds me of all those times when I was homeless, and a shower was hard to come by.   I would feel a rain like this, and I’d suddenly be really grateful.   At least my clothes were getting washed, and I was getting a bit of a badly needed shower.”

For another block or so, I continued to enjoy the heavenly feeling of water from above gifting my body with a “courtesy rinse” – no strings attached, free of charge.   After a while, though, the thrill wore off.   I began to brood.

“Somehow,” I mused, “the gratitude that I feel is not so huge as it once might have been.   Sure I’m getting rained on rather nicely.   Of course this is quite pleasant.   But — did I really need to evoke the rain for this purpose?”

I paused to wipe off the back of my neck, where a large drop had leaped down upon me from somewhere within the branches of a tall tree overhead. As the cold water slipped down my back beneath my shirt, I grimaced.

“I have my own shower, you know!” I cried aloud, as though needing to remind myself.  “I could have given myself an extra ten or fifteen minutes.   Of course, the rain would still be tossed upon my back, but at least I wouldn’t be thinking of it as my shower substitute.”

I pulled a part of my corduroy blazer up toward my nose.

“Seems a bit ratty, if you ask me.” I frowned.  “In fact, the whole outfit could use a wash.  When was the last time I did the laundry?”

It wasn’t long before the previously pleasant memory of free showers past had faded completely from my consciousness.

“There’s no excuse for this!” I shouted at a large, looming cloud of darkness. “The days when I needed a rain like you are long past.  I have my own shower — I even have my own tub.  I could have easily waited another ten minutes to clean myself up if I had known this was going to happen.”

teaching like rainBut the rain continued, more-or-less treacherously, more-or-less cynically — as though my frivolous complaint meant nothing in the face of such cosmic inevitability.  

“I can also wash my own clothes without your assistance,” I added.  “It’s a minor hassle trying to make sure I have the right change, but for three bucks in quarters, the laundry room isn’t very much further than the shower.   It used to be . . . “

At around this point, I stopped and slowed somewhat.   For one thing, I realized that I had been talking to myself.  The clouds weren’t listening, and the rain seemed almost stoic in its indifference to my plight.   For another thing, I had begun to sense a strange poignancy couched within the mundane.   Despite the apathy of the unfeeling elements, there was a sense of great caring and concern emerging.   Wherever it came from, I wasn’t sure.  But it was real.

“It used to be,” I continued, “that if I needed clean clothing, I might as well just get a whole new outfit at the thrift shop, and leave the dirty clothes behind.   It only cost a few pennies more than having to do everything in a laundromat, and besides I had no explaining to do after stripping down to my running shorts in public, just to make sure I still had something on while all the rest of my clothes were tumbling.  Easier just to buy new duds once a week or so.  No matter how many times I washed my clothes or showered anyway, it would still be pretty much assumed that I hadn’t.   

“It used to be, people would walk past my Spot and hold their noses in a gesture of scorn.  Funny, though — I hung around homeless people all the time, and unless the guy was drunk or something, I never smelled anything.   Then again, I wasn’t looking for it.  Funny how we often find whatever it is we’re looking for — even when it isn’t there.

“It used to be, no matter how much I tried to make my presence more palatable to passersby, I could not escape the scorn, the ridicule — I remember once how a man walked by and shouted: ‘Take a shower!’  This was literally less than fifteen minutes after I’d just stepped out of the shower at the Multi Agency Service Center.   Made me feel as though the three hours I’d spent waiting in the line for the shower that morning had all been for naught.   

“It used to be, they treated me like I wasn’t even human.  Just a piece of garbage, littering the sidewalk with my being.   But now . . . “

The clouds moved more quickly for a spell.  

“But now, they treat me like — one of the gang.   One of the crowd.   A person worth smiling at.   A person whose smile is meaningful . . . is safe . . . 

“Yeah!”  I laughed.   “When was the last time I had the experience of being treated as though I were not even human?”   

The sun slipped very nicely between a couple of passing clouds.  My gait lightened, as the Latah Recovery Center loomed in the distance.  I like to say a prayer before I step in the door to begin my shift.   My prayer, this time, was thus:

There was a time when I slept on my back in a thunderstorm
in a church parking lot, having no blanket,
and looking up at the howling night sky,
having no choice but to shout: “Bring it on!”
I was stormed on for years, Lord.
I want you to know how thankful I am
to be rained on
by a Rain like You.

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Good News

For the past week or so, I’ve been sitting on some pretty majorly good news as far as the progress of my musical project is concerned.   That I haven’t even brought myself to blog about it may seem a bit hard to believe.  But the news came out of the blue, and it shocked me — and I basically haven’t quite known what to say.

Friday before last, I was approached by a very reputable figure in the local Arts scene, someone who has his hand in a lot of different activities, and who is also a respected sound engineer.   Long story short, he offered me full use of his studio and his services in order for me to put together a demo recording featuring songs from my musical.   

singerHe also comes connected to specific singers and voice professionals in the field of musical theatre.  So he’s confident he can find the singers for me that my own less informed efforts have not been able to find.   The singers of course will need to be paid, but his own services will be provided as a gesture of one theatre Artist helping out another, for the overall sake of the Arts.

Since this has long been an important goal of mine, one would think I’d be overjoyed.  However, any elation I might have originally felt was quickly consumed by the awareness of how much professional preparation lay ahead of me.   Now I have to select three songs that will best demonstrate the musical score, and prepare the vocal parts for the specific singers involved, both in terms of written music, and of mp3’s for them to listen to.  In addition, I have to make sure that the instrumental tracks for the three songs are perfectly polished, so as to provide compelling accompaniment for the singers on the demo.

Once I have all that stuff prepared, I am to send it to the engineer, so that he can distribute it all among the singers.   Then the singers in turn do their homework, so that once we finally get into the studio, everybody knows their stuff, and the engineer’s time is optimized.  So – this could be a really great thing.

As far as the pay factor, the price I quoted for the engineer was $125/ singer.   Earlier, I came up with a $700 budget to pay the singers and get the other odds and ends of the demo together.  Right now, there’s $325 in that fund.  I’m only using four singers, so $500 is all I need to pay them.  That means I need $175 more.  If seven people each were to contribute $25 to this cause today, I would have all the money I need for the singers, right there.   

I also got another article published in the March edition of Street Spirit and you can click on the link for that.  I want to do more writing along those lines, having to do with homelessness and classism, as dealt with in the musical as well.   But for the present time, the unexpected musical calling is consuming me.  It might be a while before I fully surface.

So once again, if you feel you can help at all towards the rest of what I need to produce this demo, now would be an excellent time for you to consider doing so.  In the meantime, I’ll keep cranking out these parts.  Maybe it will all time out just right.

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The Law of Respect

“I don’t have money or food,” said the man, smiling.  “But I’ve got something you’re gonna like even more.”

“What’s that?” I asked him, looking up from my spot.

“A pair of socks.”

I remember how happy the man looked when he saw the joy in my face.   After all, I came by food almost every day down there.  If I didn’t, there was something wrong with me.  It’s pretty easy to keep eating in a town where they offer thirty-free free meals a week to whoever’s willing to walk to the meal site and wait in a line. 

And money?   Seventeen dollars a day was my quota.   Barring the unforeseen, it met what I needed to get by from one day to the next fairly comfortably.  Everybody figures a beggar needs money or food.   But a pair of socks?  Was this guy psychic or something?

socksMaybe he’d just been around.  Or perhaps he was smart. If you stop to think about it, it won’t take long to figure out how difficult it can be for a homeless person to come up with a clean pair of socks on a regular basis.  Socks were like gold down there.  But people usually didn’t stop to think farther than the basics, if they even bothered to think about us at all. 

And I tell you honestly: shoelaces were the worst.  Wearing dirty socks from day to day was one thing.  Going two weeks without shoelaces was quite another.  I would essentially be immobilized.   Days on end would pass me by.  Somehow I could never squeeze the simple expenditure into my “shoestring budget” (no pun intended.)

I got tired of opening my mouth toward people who lived indoors.  We were in such incredibly opposite worlds, it seemed communication was impossible.   I wished we would talk about anything other than my problems, my difficulties in life.  Not that they didn’t care (although a lot of them didn’t.)  It was just that, they didn’t understand; and after a while, it seemed impossible trying to get anyone to understand — if they even listened (which a lot of them didn’t.)  Not to mention, in the rare event that someone “understood,” what could they do about it?   Let’s talk about something other than Andy’s problems, please.  Just once.  

“I wrote a song yesterday,” I would venture, meekly.  “Want to hear it?”

“A song?!  You must be out of your mind!   That’s your whole problem right there — that you would have let yourself deteriorate into this God-awful position, and there you go wasting your time writing music!  No wonder you’re still on the streets.”

Everything somehow would get turned around to the topic of my “problem.” Whatever my problem was, this elusive “thing” that had somehow “made me homeless” — it was all that was supposed to be on my mind, at any moment.  I suppose if I had been a sports fan it might have been easier.  Surely they’d let homeless people talk about the Super Bowl, wouldn’t they?  If not the San Francisco Symphony??  But somehow it never came about. 

Where was the respite I so wished for?  The breather for which I longed?   The break from having to dissect and devour myself over what could possibly be my “problem” — other than the obvious fact that I didn’t have a roof over my head — where was it?  That moment of oasis, that moment of reprieve, was as elusive as the inexplicable problem itself.   If I couldn’t get anyone to understand what the problem was, try making any headway toward its solution.  As soon as the subject of homelessness arose, unless I were talking with another homeless person, all bets were off.

I would speak my simple truth, and people would look at me quizzically, dumbfounded, as though the words I had just spoken were somehow verboten, somehow not to have been spoken, and not to be addressed.  But if I had said the same words to another homeless person, their response would be more like this:

“Yeah, I know what you mean.  Same thing happened to me the other day, only it was with Officer Forbes.  But I was sitting there, same thing as you, same exact scenario.”  

It got to where I felt as though a homeless person could recognize me two blocks down the road, somehow sensing in my emanating vibration a kind of kinship or partnership that didn’t just emanate from every guy on the block.   On the other hand, I’d be sitting with a non-homeless person in a McDonald’s on a rainy morning; and if I were lucky enough to be talking about Ravel or Debussy rather than how hard the weather must be on all the homeless people right now, chances are the person would never even have guessed I was homeless.   Usually, they didn’t find out till another homeless person came in and joined us.  After a while, they would detect a rapport that had been absent earlier, and they would turn to me and ask:

“Are you homeless?”

The very question I had hoped not to hear!  I had so been enjoying talking about classical music with somebody neutral.  For a brief period of time there, I was neither one of “us” nor one of “them.”   I was merely a guy in a conversation over a morning cup of coffee at a Mickey D’s.  

It always seemed as though the things that people would assume were the big negatives in the homeless experience were never the things that we ourselves thought were so negative – we being the people who actually were homeless, who lived that way 24/7, and who would naturally would be familiar with all the ins and outs of it.   Of course, perceptions about the homeless phenomenon varied from one homeless individual to the next – and sometimes even from one moment to the next.  But in general, if someone were to ask any of us what bothered us the most about being homeless, we would unhesitantly reply:  “The way that we’re treated.”

Yet usually that was the last thing on anyone’s mind, when they stopped to think about homelessness.  The first thing, of course, had to do with the weather.  The weather?  Yes, you heard me.  The weather.  Naturally, the weather must be the big difference, if one is living outdoors, rather than in.  Logically!

But let’s dissect this for a moment or two.  How much did weather conditions bother me, on a day to day basis?   Outside of the occasional thunderstorm, really, not much at all.  I remember freezing for the first three weeks or so, having all these uncontrollable chills, every time I woke up.  It seemed it took forever to get warm in the morning.  But then, after about a month, where had all the freezing gone?  It had gone the way of what we used to call “body armor.”  It’s this thing your body does to protect you.  I suppose you could still die of hypothermia when you don’t happen to be feeling the cold, but there’s something to be said for not feeling it, too.  One less thing to rattle you, in a world where you’re constantly rattled.

All that we really ever wanted down there was to be treated with respect — the same way that we tried to treat others.   The way we were brought up, maybe.  Something having to do with the Golden Rule, or principles of etiquette, or common courtesy.   We felt that we had lived by the Law of Respect throughout our days.  We had not engaged in cut-throat competition in order to prevail over others, to secure a better paying position, or some better post in the scheme of things.  We had instead loved our neighbors as ourselves, and had often sacrificed a perk of our own for the joy of seeing it granted to another.   And where had it gotten us?

Maybe it was too much to expect respect from a world that had grown so deeply divisive and cold.   Those who didn’t show respect for us probably showed little respect for anyone else either.   Maybe they weren’t all brought up with the values that, prior to twelve years of homelessness, I had always taken for granted.   Or maybe they had tried those values, and found them wanting.  Maybe they knew how to stay off of the streets of San Francisco.  Maybe they had learned how — possibly even by looking at us.

By contrast, there was something charmingly simple about the man’s approach, when he somehow knew that what I really needed was a decent pair of socks.  Socks are pretty expensive, after all.  He could have just bought a pair for himself, then come out of that store realizing there was a guy sitting there who probably needed those socks more than he did.

God bless him.  I hope that kind of thinking doesn’t land him homeless as well, like it seems to have done for me, and for many others.  I could tell from one look at the guy, he’d have an awfully hard time pulling out of it.   

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Three More Articles Published

I learned a few days ago that three more of my stories have been published in Street Spirit.  This makes ten short pieces I’ve had published in the past six months, in Street Spirit, and in Classism Exposed.   I find this astonishing, especially because I never expected to have anything published at all.  It brings a new sense of purpose, with a connection to fulfillment in life — something I can always look towards pursuing, at times when I might be tempted to ponder that my life is without meaning or reason.  

Street Spirit

February 2018 Issue of Street Spirit

The above link is to the full 12-page issue.   I think it’s an unusually good one, if you want to leaf through it.  Or, if you just want to check out my own work, I’m on pages 8 and 12.  Terry Messman the publisher again gave me the entire p. 12, which is the back page.  He gave me the whole back page for the posting of The Revelation of Humanity, which I’ve gathered from reader response to be one of my better recent pieces. Other pieces published from my blog were On Disorganization and She Called Me Dad, both on p. 8, the former having had its title changed appropriately for the February issue: “Scrambled and Scattered by 12 Years on the Streets.”  

Now, I trust Terry’s editing in general.  Sometimes, a title change in particular will draw the reader toward a particular point of view the selected article might espouse.  There can be no doubt, for example, that I was indeed “scrambled and scattered” throughout my twelve years of sojourning on the streets of the City of Berkeley and elsewhere.   In many ways, it has been indisputable hell trying to readjust to a set of procedures that, while crucial to the more mainstream modes of living here in today’s America, is entirely inapplicable to the drastically altered set of conditions governing the lives of street people and of those who inhabit the Great Outdoors.

But there was also evidence of some pretty amazing grace that surfaced during the perplexing period when for years I drifted about the outskirts of what society holds to be acceptable.  There were even recurring gifts of a nature that I’ve been hard-pressed, while living indoors again, to replace.  This is why I know that my life has meaning.  It would be one thing if my task were only to report the sordid horrors of extended homeless living.  Some of these may surprise, or even startle or shock.  But we can be startled and shocked by sordid stories any day of the week, anytime, anywhere.  It’s the stuff that was good — that seems almost irreplaceable — that often goes unreported.

The challenge to find sufficient replacement for these blessings is something that adds new purpose to my path.   Anyone who’s been reading me throughout the past year and a half will know that my path toward accepting and positively managing the details of indoor living has not been a straight line.  It’s tempting at times to want to default back to a homeless situation, despite the inherent dangers thereof.   To address that dynamic, it makes sense that I would be about discovering what it is that certain redemptive aspects of the homeless experience were providing for me, so that I might regain their provision, in a different form, in my new story of indoor life.  

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A Parallel and Opposing Culture

I’ll try to have a new speech posted by next Wednesday.  Here is more of what I had to say back in 2013 on the matter (the matter being the phenomenon of homelessness in modern-day America, and my own experiences therein.)

A Parallel and Opposing Culture

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Gimme Shower

I recently found this email in my Sent folder.  To this day, I wonder if it was my sense of desperation that prevented each of seventeen people in my life from permitting me to offer them twenty dollars so that I could step inside one of their homes for a period of a half an hour so that I could take a shower — or whether it was “something else.”

From : andypope7 at zoho dot com
To : [17 friends and family members]
Date : Mon, 11 Jul 2016 13:51:40 -0800
Subject : Shower?

Dear Friends and Family Members:

I kinda hate to approach you all in this fashion, but I don’t really have a cell phone now, and as you all know, I disdain to beg for change.  Not to mention, they’ve ripped out the pay phone by the library, outside of which I’ve been camping out these days.  I hope somebody will get back to me.

showerI really need a shower.  I’m not used to this neck of the woods, and I can’t just go hang out at the Multi-Agency Service Center like I could in Berkeley, where I could usually be assured of a shower in the morning, though I often had to wait for over three hours with about fifty other people, and sometimes would have my things ripped off during the brief period of time I was allotted for my shower.

As you know, I don’t drink, and I’m honestly not on drugs or anything like that.  I have twenty bucks I can give you for your trouble.  I promise I’ll be in and out really fast, and I won’t leave a towel on the bathroom floor, as someone complained about last time I tried this.  Honestly I’m totally clean, I just need to get cleaner enough to put on some decent clothes I got at Goodwill and hopefully pound the pavement and find a job pretty soon.

I’m only asking a half hour of your time.  I really really really need a shower.  Can anybody help me with this?  I’d really appreciate it.


Only one person replied, which was kind of him.  Now, in deference to that person’s kindness, I must admit that I have not been able to find the exact email.  I did, however, have several conversations with this individual (whom we shall call “Randy”) during that period of time.  So I recall that this is the basic gist of what he had said.  I hope you can appreciate the disparity in our viewpoints here.

From : “Randy McRiddle”<randy@mcriddle.net>
To : “andypope at zoho dot com”
Date : Mon, 11 Jul 2016 15:28:17 -0800
Subject : Re: Shower?

Hey Andy –

I talked to my wife about this, and I’d like to help you.  But we let a homeless guy in here last year, and it turned out he had lice.  It was a real hassle getting rid of all the lice.

Also, to be quite honest with you, my daughter is home from school for the summer, and she gets really freaked by those kinds of people.  You understand.

If it was just me myself, I’d probably consider helping you.  But I’ve got the wife and kid to think about.

Hope it works out for you, trying to find a job.


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