Categories
Homelessness Music Spirituality

Dangers of Liberation (Part Four)

This is the fourth in a five-part series, posted on five successive Thursdays.  Though the series is only quasi-chronological, I urge you to leaf through the first three first.  

Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) Drawing by Granger

The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard referred to the moment, not as “an atom of time,” but as an “atom of eternity.”  That’s how the moment of August 8, 2006 felt.  One might say that time stood still at that moment, and I had a glimpse of the eternal bliss we might experience in heaven.

This is one reason why I framed this series as I did.   A chronological order of events would not be as meaningful as a spiritual progression, which in a way defies time.  My first day of homelessness was not August 8, 2006 — it was May 17, 2004.  But the night of May 17, 2004 was a night of fright and awful uncertainty, afraid to make myself prone on a bench at the Burlingame CalTrain station, but sitting up all night, nodding off periodically, and watching for cops all the while.

By contrast, the event of August 8, 2006 was one of momentary ecstasy, but where did that moment lead?  Down the tubes fairly quickly, as I recall.  Its memory, however, did not fade.

That memory was in fact felt in retrospect.  For on March 19, 2004, I took a look at my badly beaten car, its front end crunched like an accordion.   As I discovered the freedom of public transportation, of leaving the driving to those more capable than myself, I was granted a foreshadow of the more complete liberation I would know two years in the future.

The horror that marked my final three years in Berkeley was also foretold.  It wasn’t until June 24, 2013 that I first found myself pistol-whipped, as I watched a pair of young hooligans making off with my laptop.   But on some unknown date back in June of 2004, I had known a much more serious violation, of the kind that in civil society it is not thought proper to discuss.

The complex confluence of incongruous influences that comprised the conditions of homelessness was never considered a drain or an overload, in the way that the Mainstream had been.  The overload of the Mainstream was death to my soul. But all the excesses of stimuli that combined to create the Homeless Adventure were health to my spirit, and marrow to my bones.

“Naked I am!” I shouted.  “I am stripped of all I have ever thought I would be!  I have made myself naked and vulnerable in the face of a fully mercurial and often hostile Universe!”

I saw all my possessions be burned to bits before my eyes, the act of an unfeeling young juggaloe who hadn’t slept in days.   I was hurled to the ground by deluded gangbangers, shouting “I’m going to kill you White Motherf—-r!” — as they hit me again and again with the barrels of their guns, on the head I had bowed before them.

Yet through all these atrocities, I found it in myself to sleep on my back without bedroll in a thunderstorm, exerting pelvic thrusts in the direction of the full moon, and reveling.

“Bring it on!” I screamed.  “I want more!  I want more!!”

Then, getting up, fully clad and with shoes on — (for I always slept in shoes, so as to be ready) — I suddenly shivered.   So what did I do?   Of course, I ran as far as I could, as fast as I could, till I warmed.

When the sun shone, and the daylight burned, I walked about the City of Berkeley and composed music in protest, having not paper nor pen, neither software, nor laptop, no possessions at all, save the clothes on my back.

“Bop bop bop!” came the singing of the melodies.   My weathered trousers were as sets of drums.   Keyboards and electric guitars anointed the air, while passersby mocked and mimicked me, shouting: “Shut the f—k up!”  Meanwhile, seemingly unbeknowst to them, I composed the score to Eden in Babylon— to my proud estimation, the finest music I have written thus far, to date — in the timeless spool of life.

“That’s your whole problem!” my naysayers chided.  “You think that your music is more important than God.”

“Ah but no,” I replied.  “It’s your problem.  You think that your Mainstream is God.”

There was nothing Mainstream about the Uniqueness that was Homelessness in Berkeley.  So for all of the fears, the highs, and the rages, it yet remained sacred — to me.

“How do we get inside again?” my friend Jerome had earlier queried.   “How do we get back inside, and yet not get sucked back into the Mainstream?”

In search of answer, I shouted at the Most High in outrage.

“WHY am I hanging around pimps and hookers and drug dealers and thieves and criminals and hustlers and panhandlers?   WHY am I not among Artists and Writers and Musicians and Actors and Directors — and people more like myself!?  I know — I know — these are the people whom JESUS hung out with!   But I’m NOT JESUS!!! I’m NOT JESUS!!  I’m only f—ing human!!!  Give me a god-d—–d break!!!!”

Many times did I scream to the God of my youth.  Many times someone screamed back at me: “Would you just shut the f—-k up?!”

Then came the terrifying threats of the night.  “This guy,” said a jealous man, pointing my way, “is not going to live much longer.”

“You know what?” I told myself.  “He’s probably right.”

So on June 24, 2016, exactly three years after the first of a series of violent assaults against my person, I went down to Bill’s Computer Store on Shattuck Avenue, bought myself a refurbished Dell laptop with my government check, and walked quietly away from the City of Berkeley without saying a word.

God then proceeded to answer every prayer I had hurled toward Him, facing His Infinite Love with hatred and vitriol.   He answered those prayers sevenfold, nay — seventy times sevenfold — in spades.   And He provided a way for me to live inside without getting sucked back into the evils of the Mainstream.   In so doing, He showed me the hugeness of His unfathomable, unconditional love.  

I have one more thing to say on this matter, more-or-less in conclusion. After that, I’ll be done — for now.

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Christ Homelessness Spirituality

Dangers of Liberation (Part Three)

It would be tempting for me to recount just about everything that took place between August 12, 2006 and April 15, 2011.   But that would be a story in itself — perhaps even a novel or a book.   Suffice it to say that my travels during that period of time were extremely disjointed.   They represented the trek of a man who, having already realized that the Mainstream held nothing for him, nevertheless engaged himself in a five year plan of pointless futility, hanging on to the remnants of a former Mainstream identity.  To everyone in my path, this leg of my journey appeared to be nothing other than a poisonous mixture of insanity and instability.   I bounced from Lodi to Redwood City to Stockton, back to Redwood City, up to Oakland, and back to Stockton, with frenetic periods in between where I could claim no single city as my own.  "BenjaminAlways, I was haunted by the lure of Berkeley and its particularly special brand of homelessness.  Having tasted of that heavenly fruit, there was no way I could return to anything like my former system of values without incurring disaster.  Berkeley loomed as though a Mecca for all who had embraced this unusual consciousness.  In fact, prior to the momentous event of August 8, 2006, there was even a previous moment in the Fall of 2005 that served as a kind of prophecy of unknown times to come.   Someone had driven me to visit my daughter where she was working at the Jamba Juice on Bancroft, and as I stepped out of the car, I suddenly found myself  lifting up my hands in a spontaneous gesture of amazement, shouting: “Berkeley!   This is where I’ve got to be!”

To this day, I have no idea what prompted that outburst.  Something in the air of this peculiar city had caught my attention in a way that no other place ever had.   And then, there was the mysterious revelation of 2006, followed by the tortuous premature application of that epiphany in the next three days, prompting a five year disappearance into failed jobs, shelters, residence hotels, and psych wards, until at last, on April 15, 2011, I gave up the ghost.

On that day, I took $40, left the last of a series of untenable living situations, got on an AmTrak, and alighted once again on the City of Berkeley, this time with the full intent of my heart.

That night I hooked up with a fellow named Sydney, sold my cell phone for a blanket, and the two of us slept in a corridor near the U.C. campus.  Far from the earlier disorientation, I now found myself guided, as if by an unseen hand, to every resource for the homeless that the city had to offer.  It was at that time that I also was directed to numerous other homeless men and women whom I discovered to be very much like myself.   All of them shared a similar story of having been “liberated” from an evil form of bondage that we called the Mainstream.

One of these was a tall African-American man named Jerome.  For the first five days of my intentional homelessness, I chatted with him at Starbucks.  He was well-dressed — as was I — and it took five days before either of us discovered the other was homeless.  At that, we decided to camp out together.  (There’s safety, after all, in numbers.)

“Here’s the challenge,” Jerome said one night.  “How do get inside again without getting sucked back into the Mainstream?”

“That is indeed the challenge,” I replied.

Then there was silence.

There are many levels to liberation.  As I wrote in Part Two of this series, one is not just liberated from something.   One is liberated into something.   And that something might just morph into an ogre as forbidding as that from which one had been released in the first place.

For my part, there is no true liberation, unless one is liberated into Christ.   “If you make my Word your home,” said Jesus, “you will indeed be my disciples.  You will learn the truth — and the truth will make  you free.”  

When one has found a home, one needs to maintain it.  Otherwise one will have a home no longer.   Even the freedom that there is in Christ is not an absolute arrival.   To what extent I had found liberation it now needed to be tilled like a garden.  Otherwise, it would morph into a beast as threatening as the Mainstream from which I first fled.

For better or worse, that is what happened with homelessness.  It developed into a world of its own, with rules of its own, many of them tacitly acknowledged — unwritten and unspoken, yet real.   And those rules bespoke betrayal, vengeance, and death.

Though the first months of homelessness in Berkeley were little short of blissful, even on into the second year, eventually my old enemy reared his head, though in a different and far more frightening form.   Just how bad it got, it will disturb me greatly to tell.  But I’ll tell it, as cogently as I can, in Part Four.

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Categories
Homelessness mental health Spirituality

Dangers of Liberation (Part Two)

This post is a sequel to Dangers of Liberation (Part One).  I strongly urge you to read it first, if you want to get the most out of this one.   

I am not the only person who has had an experience like the one described in the first post of this series.  After the unbelievable epiphany of August 8, 2006, I was later to be drawn toward a number of individuals who reported a very similar event.  The problem, however, is that the information received in that moment was processed prematurely, in a mind that was unready for so radical a change.   So I didn’t encounter the others till about five years later.  

Liberation is a two-way street.  It’s not just that someone finds themselves released from a form of inner bondage or imprisonment.  When one is liberated, they are released into a new realm.   The nature of that realm is of extreme significance.   We are not only liberated from.  We are liberated into.  

You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely your goodness and love will follow me all ...

This raises a couple questions. From what sort of inner prison were we released?  Essentially, it was a conglomerate of rules, customs, social mores, status symbols, contracts, hierarchies, schedules, regimens, routines and protocols that ran contrary to our natural God-given design and character.  For lack of a better word, I and others called this conglomerate the Mainstream.   It was a stifling force, the Mainstream, whose role was to quench the spirit.  

To what sort of freedom were we liberated?  To freedom from the outmoded rules of a former day.  From customs by which we could no longer abide.  From social mores that bespoke hypocrisy, status symbols we no longer possessed, contracts severed, hierarchies violated, schedules disregarded, regimens rejected, routines discarded, and protocols exposed.   Where could we find such freedom?

Only in homelessness.  Everything else reflected a Mainstream that never served our true natures, and from which we were eventually severed.

It took five hard years for me to find the others who shared this unusual gift.  For in the days that followed that moment of bliss, I struggled to process the strange twists and turns that came of outdoor living.  I learned, for one thing, that a person doesn’t just walk into a shelter and expect to be served.  There was an application process, and a long waiting line, before one could be granted a bed.   So for three days I struggled to manage, with no money, no roof over my head, stuck and stranded in a strange town called Berkeley.

By the third day, my thinking was very much awry.  I got in with the wrong crowd, and long story short, found myself running from would-be assailants.   Though I believe I eluded the two young rapscallions, I was by that time completely spent.  In desperation, I flagged down a police car and beseeched them for help.   Discerning my mania, the officers had no problem escorting me to the place where they felt I belonged.

So on August 11, 2006, I sat in the John George Psychiatric Pavilion, having persuaded myself and others that my issue was merely one of untreated bipolar disorder.  The entire memory of a momentary freedom now paled in the wake of a serious disease.  In that downtrodden state, I permitted the clinicians to diagnose my liberation, and prescribe me the mood stabilizer Depakote.   After a single night’s stay in the psych ward, my thinking was clear enough to steer me toward a $50 PayPal loan from a friend in Las Vegas, a one-way Greyhound ticket to a small town in the Valley, a shelter, a clinic, and a cheap residence hotel.  

“I must have been out of my mind!” I told myself.  And then, for five years, I followed the guidelines of a Mainstream I’d already rejected in my heart.

It was not until April 15, 2011, that I took the next plunge into the realm where the memory of a transcendent event had informed my true spirit.   On that day, I took $40, left the last of a series of untenable living situations, hopped on an AmTrak, alighted upon the City of Berkeley once again, and proceeded to become Homeless by Choice.  

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Categories
Buddhism Christianity Hinduism Homelessness Spirituality

Dangers of Liberation (Part One)

This post was lifted from its original manifestation of approximately one year ago.  I didn’t feel ready at that time to produce the next four parts of the series.  I do now.  

On August 8, 2006, I sat at the corner of Shattuck and Kitteredge in Berkeley, California, three blocks North of the Royal Grounds Cafe, where I had just spent my last two dollars on coffee.   

I had walked back and forth, to and fro, not knowing where I was going.  It gradually dawned on me that I had nowhere left to go.  I had spent my entire severance check after leaving my summer job as a singing teacher with Children’s Musical Theatre San Jose.  I had spent it all on taxicabs, meals in restaurants, and motel rooms.   So I sat down, expecting to enter into total misery.  Instead, I entered into total bliss.

Mihai Eminescu Quote: “I understand that a man can have everything having nothing and nothing ...

I finally had nothing.  Nothing to prove anymore.  Nothing to hold on to.  Nothing to need to protect or salvage or horde.  Nothing that could be coveted or stolen.  Nothing that I needed to accomplish or achieve.   

And in having nothing, I realized that I was open to everything.  In an instant, everything that the Universe had to offer came soaring into my consciousness.  All the gifts of life — the very gifts that my worldly concerns had blinded me from seeing — were now not only visible, but tangible, accessible, and omnipresent.  

I found paper and pen, and I wrote down these words:

I have indeed hit bottom.
And at the moment when I reached my bottom,
I realized that I had reached the very top.
At that moment, I was Buddha.

While this surprising sense of liberation was very real, and while it was destined to impact me for years to come, its accompanying bliss was short-lived.  Within three days, I was to see its downside in a dramatic way.   And the bittersweet dynamic thereof informed my later thought.

So I’ve decided to use the next several Thursdays to post my thoughts on this theme as best I can.   There are distinct dangers involved when one permits oneself to receive gifts of joy and happiness from sources commonly associated with misery and despair.  I’ll do my best to illustrate what the years following that experience have held for me.  Hopefully, I can do so with clarity.

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Homelessness Playwriting Psychology

Tuesday Tuneup 66

Q. What are you doing here?

A. Having a third cup of coffee.

Q. Was there something wrong with the first two cups?

A. No — in fact, there was something right about them.

Q. What was that?

A. They tasted good.

Q. Are you trying to tell me that just because your first two cups of coffee tasted good, you’re drinking a third one?

A. That’s what I said, isn’t it?

Q. Well — don’t you think there’s something wrong with you?

A. There are many things wrong with me, as with us all.  But what are you driving at?

Q. Don’t you know that it’s unhealthy to indulge that which you enjoy to unneeded extremes?

A. Uh — a third cup of coffee is an “unneeded extreme?”

Q. Isn’t it well known that two cups of coffee are sufficient for all?   And that a third cup is extreme?

A. But how often do I actually have a third cup?

Q. I don’t know – how often?

A. Almost never.

Q. Your point?

A. My point is that it would be more extreme to remain at two cups every morning than to allow myself the occasional indulgence of a third cup.

Q. So you justify your indulgence on the basis of its rarity?

A. Yes.  It is so rare that I bother having a third cup of coffee, that I really don’t think I am in danger of overdoing it.

Q. Have you experienced any palpitations of the heart lately?

A. None.

Q. What about your excrement?  Notice anything strange in your poop?

A. Funny, my doctor asked me the same two questions last week.  And again I say, none.

Q. Why did your doctor ask you those questions?

A. Low thyroid, apparently.

Q. But don’t you take thyroid medication?

A. Begrudgingly, yes.

Q. Why is it begrudging?

A. Because I have to wait a half hour after taking it before I am allowed to have a morning cup of coffee.

Q. Isn’t that cruel and unusual punishment?

A. It has occurred to me more than once that the doctor’s orders are a violation of my 8th Amendment Rights.

Eighth Amendment: Banning Cruel and Unusual Punishment - David J. Shestokas

Q. And who else has violated your 8th Amendment Rights?

A. Glad you asked.   Before 2016, when I was experiencing homelessness in the San Francisco Bay Area, lots of people violated my 8th Amendment Rights because they kept waking me up when I had nowhere else to sleep.  Then finally Martin v. Boise came into effect, and Judge Marsha Berson ruled that it is unconstitutional to wake up someone who is sleeping on public property and tell them to move, if in fact they have nowhere else to sleep.  So, at least in the 9th Circuit, including most Western States, I am free to be homeless again and not fear unjust awakening.

Q. Do you want to be homeless again?

A. Kinda.

Q. Why?

A. You want an honest answer?

Q. Of course.

A. Because I got to be good at it.   Really, the main thing that bothered me was all the awakenings in the middle of the night, when I was only trying to get a good night’s sleep.

Q. But will those awakenings stop just because of a new ruling?

A. Come to think of it, probably not.

Q. Why not?

A. For one thing, not all of the awakenings were by authority figures.   A lot of them were by other homeless people, and many of them were by random thieves and vandals roaming the area looking for easy marks.   What mark could be easier than a sleeping homeless person?

Q. So you say you got a lot of things stolen from you in the middle of the night?

A. Yes.  Also was threatened to bodily harm quite a bit, when I awakened to the sight of a stranger telling me I had stolen “his spot.”

Q. Would you say homelessness has lost its appeal?

A. Most of it, yes.

Q. Why did it ever appeal to you in the first place?

A. As earlier stated, it seemed a thing I could probably do well.   After all, I wasn’t managing very well at hanging on to a living situation.

Q. But you’re hanging on to your living situation now, aren’t you?

A. Seems that way, yes.  In a few short days I will have paid my rent on time for the 26th month in a row.   And prior to that, on a smaller cheaper place, fifteen months in a row.

Q. Doesn’t that give you a sense of stability?

A. It does.

Q. Then why on earth would you ever consider being homeless again?

A. Why on earth should I value something like “stability?”

Q. What do you mean?

A. We’re all going to die anyway, right?

Q. So?

A. So there’s no such thing as stability on this planet.  If we get too attached to things that make us feel stable, they will eventually be taken from us, and then we will have a really hard time letting go of them.  Better not to become so attached.  Better to be ready for anything.

Q. Anything?

A. You heard me.  Especially nowadays.   It is better to live spontaneously, and for one to ready oneself for anything — than to seek the fragile semblances of stability that this passing world has to offer.

Q. You really believe that?

A. I said it, didn’t I?

Q, Why do I find that hard to believe?

A. I don’t know.  Why do you?   

The Questioner is silent.  

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Activism Classism Homelessness Psychology social statement

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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Christianity gratitude Homelessness journalism Social Media

Gratitude List 1354

This one’s from Thursday morning.  

1. Slept about 8 hrs from 11:30 till 7:30 am.

2. Snow all about, very beautiful.

3. Echo called early, having also gotten up at 7:30.  She seems well, and I’m glad.  I’ve spoken with her in fact two times today, for which I’m thankful.

4. Also got a chance to talk with Nick.

5. Making progress toward submitting my 2nd column for Tracy.  I am connecting together themes of social media / pleasure-seeking to the creation of Cancel Culture, and then how homeless people have been cancelled by society.

6. Got another compliment, it was from Nick G., the ‘Palouse Pundit,’ it was on my Homelessness Taught Me Gratitude piece, he said it was good writing.  At the end, he said: “Keep writing!”  He himself is reputable, a retired philosophy professor, spent several years with the Maharishi in India.

7. Seneca made me a quad espresso and gave me a day old scone, even though I only paid for a doppio.

8. Took a brisk three mile walk in the snow, wherein all errands were accomplished.

9. This includes having gotten my levothyroxine, of which Dr. M. has how given me a 90 day supply at 137 micrograms / day.

10. Nice to be inside on a snowy day.   God is Good.

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Berkeley gratitude Homelessness

Fifth Column Published

Here’s my 5th column on Homeless No More, as published by Street Spirit under the editorship of Alastair Boone.

Homelessness Taught Me Gratitude
by Andy Pope

When one lives outdoors, and weather conditions are less than favorable, one sometimes wakes up freezing and soaking wet—not to mention flat broke. Under such circumstances, you can’t imagine the feeling of gratitude that would overwhelm me as I succeeded in scraping up 63 cents for a senior cup of coffee at a McDonald’s. At the store most frequented, they wouldn’t let us in if we didn’t have coffee change. Once admitted, our stays were limited to twenty minutes. But it was still huge that I could get out of the rain and get my bearings.

Picture the scenario, if you haven’t personally experienced it yourself. It’s raining cats and dogs. Your already soggy clothes are getting wet all over again. You’re shivering from cold. Your very blankets were full of moisture on awakening. You weren’t so bad when still enclosed beneath those coverings, but boy did it smart when you first got out from under ‘em! All of a sudden you were shaking to the bones. You ran, not walked, in the direction of the McDonald’s where, at 5:20 in the morning, approximately twenty other homeless people were pacing about the sidewalks on University and Shattuck, awaiting the moment of opening.

You don’t have coffee change and you just know they’re not going to let you in as a non-paying “vagrant.” So you swallow your pride, and you start hitting up your homeless buddies for bits of change.

“Hey Dave, do you have a quarter? That’s all I need. Bob, got a nickel? I’m only five cents short . . .” Just as the store is opening, somebody flips five pennies into your hand. “Here use this. I’m good.”

You breathe an incredible sigh of relief. Those five pennies just made the difference between your continuing to freeze your buns off, and your sitting comfortably in a warm building— with a morning cup of coffee to boot. You get in line, you get your coffee, and before you know it, you’re sitting at your favorite Mickey D’s table with a Berkeley Daily Californian. You made it! If you’re lucky, and somebody didn’t get there first, you might even be able to use the bathroom. If you’re even luckier, you’ll get a refill. Luckier still, and they might let you stay longer than twenty minutes. Heck, they might even let you stay till the sun shines through! Nowhere to go, says Gratitude, but up.

Because I live indoors now, a lot of the little things that used to inspire intense gratitude no longer have the same effect. But living inside has not dulled my sense of appreciation. I often find myself overwhelmed by the same kinds of feelings I had when I was able to pay my way into that McDonald’s. But the sources of this gratitude are different.

For example, living inside doesn’t make me exempt from the effects of nasty weather. It’s been freaky inclement in this part of the world lately, with temps in the low 10’s (Fahrenheit) and fierce winds and lots of snow rendering the outdoor trek a bit daunting for most people—and this particular formerly homeless homebody is no exception. The upside is that, when I walk into my apartment from such conditions, nobody is going to kick me out of my own home in twenty minutes and release me to the cold rain and snow. As I sleep, no night wanderer is going to wake me up to ask me for a cigarette, and no police officer is going to shine that bright light in my eyes and wake me up to an interrogation. When morning comes, and I hop into the shower, I won’t have to deal with a number of other men in the shower room, nor will I have had to wait for two hours to get there. Moreover, I get to make my own coffee in the morning. I don’t have to wait beneath a church stairway while a security guard barks orders at me in order to get my day started.

If I took for granted the extraordinary conveniences of indoor living before I was homeless, I certainly don’t today. I’m looking around the room as I write this. I look to my left and I see a 1921 vintage Howard upright piano that somebody gave me for free. How cool is that? I’ve never owned a piano before in my entire life. I look to my right, and I see a darn comfortable couch to crash on. A little further down is a five-drawer dresser. And believe you me, there are a heck of a lot of socks rolled up in that dresser. Gone are the days when I have to line up every Monday in hopes of getting a single pair of socks to last me all week.

For the first 51 years of my life, before I spent the better part of twelve years on the streets of Berkeley and other Bay Area cities, I took all these things for granted. Now, I am careful to make sure that I don’t lose my sense of gratitude as daily life becomes easier. Every morning when I wake up, I jot down ten things I am grateful for to off-set the sense of stress and sometimes drudgery that comes with maintaining all the details of a normal, mundane life.

Where before I would wonder what it was like if someone were homeless, I don’t have to wonder anymore. I know what it’s like to be homeless— and that knowledge is one of the greatest blessings I have ever received. While intense rushes of the feeling are much fewer and farther between now that I am trying to maintain stability, the gratitude, when it does come, is that much the richer.

I am grateful for all the years I lived outdoors, because my homeless experience is what taught me gratitude.

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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Activism Classism Homelessness social statement social stigma

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.   

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

 

Categories
Activism ethics Homelessness Social Media social statement

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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A little bit goes a long, long way.