Order of Business

Does the crackhead become homeless,” someone asked, “or does the homeless person become a crackhead?”  This question was posed on the site Quora, at which I am an infrequent volunteer contributor.

I took the question to be indicative of a certain social perception; i.e., that the usage of illicit substances is so widespread in the homeless populace that it is difficult to discern which came first: the drug addict or the homeless person.  I have observed that both can happen, but that the latter occurs a lot more often than many people are inclined at first to believe.

This is because people have a way of wanting to find out why someone has become homeless.  If they can pin their homelessness on a secondary issue, unrelated to the defining factor; viz., that a homeless person lacks a roof over their head, then they can effectively deflect attention away from concern over homelessness by replacing it with concern over that secondary issue.  But that issue, be it drug addiction or what-have-you, is only secondary.  The primary issue is homelessness — and people don’t want to look at it.  So they look at the “why” instead.

nietzsche quote on truth and illusionThis is because it is easier for most people to live with the perception that a person became homeless because they were a “crackhead” (or drug addict, alcoholic, etc.), than it is with the sense that a homeless person may have become homeless for reasons that were completely beyond their control, and that cannot possibly be attributed to any kind of behavioral flaw or defect of that person’s character.  The homeless person needs to somehow be blamed for having gotten themselves as far low as they’ve gotten themselves.  This is so that the focus can become on what they ostensibly did wrong in order to result in their homelessness; and not on the homelessness itself.

The situation is further complicated by the widespread misconception that drug addiction and alcoholism are behavioral flaws, rather than as spiritual maladies that can be arrested through faith in God or a Higher Power.   So it becomes easy to say: “Well, that guy became homeless because of his crack addiction.” A perception like that can easily soon morph into: “If he would just deal with his crack habit, he would be able to get out of homelessness.”

However, it is not true that if a person could deal with their “crack habit,” they could necessarily find a roof over their head. It may make it easier for them to find their way out of homelessness, but homelessness is a pretty deep hole, with many elements besides drug addiction obscuring the way out of it.

If, however, a person didn’t start using street drugs until years after the overall conditions of homelessness began to gnaw away at their better judgment, that person is less likely to be believed. This is because people don’t like the idea that homelessness might have resulted from anything other than a supposed “behavioral flaw or character defect.” If it was revealed that homelessness were the result of situations entirely beyond the individual’s control — for example, a foreclosure, an illegal eviction, or a costly medical misdiagnosis — then one would be forced to absolve the homeless person of any sense that they had “deserved” their homelessness, or that “bad choices” they had made were at its root.

In that case, one would be faced with the challenge of having to show compassion for the homeless person, rather than levying judgment upon them. Unfortunately, it is easier for most of us to judge others than to have compassion toward them.

For this reason, more people are likely to believe that the “crackhead became homeless” (as a result of their addiction) than that the “homeless person became a crackhead” (as a result of their homelessness.) Therefore, there are more homeless people in the latter camp than many are willing to believe.

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Gratitude List 898

(1) I’ve had a flu, maybe food poisoning — but it seems to have past with lots of rest and water.  It would have been a lot more difficult to take care of, if I still lived outside.

(2) Life is a colossal, colorful miracle that may be appreciated on multiple magical levels.

(3) Courtyard Cafe, free Starbucks coffee & refills.

(4) It helps during times of trial to remember His blessings: past, present and future.

(5) That doctor was a really nice guy, when I had to go to Emergency the other day.

(6) Most people I’ve met are pretty nice, and it helps their niceness not to make too many demands upon them, in this life.

(7) Self-sufficiency, not being dependent on too many other people, is a good thing, and a blessed thing in the eyes of the Lord.

(8) I’ve been blessed with some pretty good, loyal friends in this life — Danielle being one of them.

(9) Nobody’s perfect, and to expect too much out of people is not wise.

(10) But God is perfect.  We can expect the Universe from Him.

Note: I’ll be taking a week off from this blog, starting this morning.  Will return on September 3rd, God willing.  

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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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Tuesday Tuneup 23

Q. Where would you like to be?

A. In a safe place.

Q. Is there something about your present place that is not safe?

A. What kind of a dumb question is that?  Of course there is!  Why else would I wish I were in safer place?

Q. Could you be a bit more specific, please?

A. What do you mean?

Q. What is it exactly about your present place that is unsafe?

A. That’s a good question.  Let me think about this for a while.

Pause.

A. Well, it’s like this.  I can’t exactly say that I’m in an unsafe place, at least not with respect to many of the other places where I’ve been.  When I slept on a pile of cardboard in a high-crime district, I was considerably more unsafe.   Yet at the same time, if I took care of myself, and I did the right things, I felt that God protected me.

Q. And if you did not take care of yourself, and did not do the right things?

A. I sometimes got burned.  He protected me insofar as that He spared me my life, and saw to it that I didn’t suffer as much bodily harm or psychological damage as a lot of the people around me.   But I was hit enough — and hurt enough, hard enough — to get the message.

Q. That message being?

A. All over the Book of Proverbs — for starts.   But I’m afraid we’ve drifted from the point.

Q. And what’s the point?

A. The point is that, even though I’m living in a nice one-bedroom apartment in a secluded area with good neighbors, lots of protection, and a couple of locks on my door, there’s something about the place I’m at that isn’t safe.  It’s not my physical spot that is my biggest concern.  It’s my mental spot — where my head is at.

Q. And where’s your head at?

A. All over the map, man.  I still dwell on a lot of the situations from my past, people from my past — from my homelessness.  The people who tried to help me, even though they didn’t quite really get what my problem was, and so they couldn’t really help.  And not only them, but the people who tried to hurt me, and who sometimes succeeded.  And not only them, but — 

Q. But whom?

A. My friends.  The people I miss.  The people who were in the same boat as I was.  People who, for one reason or another, had lost their homes.   We bonded together.  We prayed together.  We watched each other’s backs.   We were there for each other, whenever somebody was down, or hassled, or messed with in some way.  It was powerful.  And that bonding, that love — I miss it.

Q. But isn’t there love in your life today?

A. Lots of it!  Don’t get me wrong.  But it’s a different kind of love.

Q. What makes it different?

A. Context.  

Q. What do you mean?

A. See, I don’t have the same issues here.  And the people I hang with, they don’t have the kinds of issues I had back then.  Most of them never have.   So when we share our love with each other, it’s on an entirely different basis.

Q. Is that a bad thing?

A. Not at all.  It’s just that — I sometimes feel alone.  As though my own specific experience, the particularly powerful progression of my life that has shaped me, is too weird for anybody to relate to.   So while I may not be surrounded by people who blatantly want to hurt me, the ones who want to help me don’t quite know how to help.  Or maybe I don’t let them help.  I mean, I gotta admit, my pastor helps.  My lady friend, she helps — though it’s not her job, and I sometimes feel guilty.  I should be helping her, supporting her.  But I’m not.   I’m still on disability, and all screwed up in the head.  So I turn to the therapists, to the doctors, to the system.  And I find that — 

Q. That what?

A. They totally don’t help.  It happened just this morning even.  I go to the therapist, and I think I’m advocating for myself, and I’m finding once again that I really like the guy, and I’m thinking it’s all good — and then, at the end of the session, it all comes down to the same old thing.  That same old useless, worthless band-aid that can never really stop what’s bleeding inside.

Q. What same old useless, worthless band-aid?

A. Lithium. 

Q. Lithium?

A. You heard me.  No matter what I do and where I go, it all comes down to lithium.

Q. Why do they keep wanting to put you on lithium?

mental abuse quoteA. Because they’re boxing me into a box and not listening to my real issues.  They think they know something more about me than I know about myself, because of their credentials and alleged expertise in their field.  But how can they know me, if they’re not listening?   They think that just because it’s well-known that those of us who are quote-unquote “bipolar” don’t like to take our medication, it means that I’m in denial, and I’ve got to take their medications.  What a bunch of malarky.   They might as well have told me that just because people are bipolar don’t like to walk across a pile of hot coals, then I’m in denial, and so I better walk across a pile of hot coals.   Think about it!  Do they think I’m stupid?

Q. I son’t know — do they?

A. Probably not.  But I sure think they’re stupid, if they think that after all I’ve been through, I’m going to turn around and start believing anybody who wears a badge.  And I won’t!  Because I already know what’s going to happen   That lithium won’t have anything to do with clearing out all of the garbage that is related to years of living on the streets.  Which of course is the part they never listen to — the main part.  The important part.  And you know what else it will do?

Q. What?

A. It will destroy all the things that are good about me.  The things that I waited years to be able to get inside and do –  and that now I’m finally doing — because I finally got myself inside. 

Q. What things?  What things are good about you?

A. Dude!  My piano playing!  My speaking!  My writing!  My playwriting!  My songwriting!  All of that good stuff that I so delight in finally being able to do will be trashed and shot the hell if I take their lithium — just like it’s been trashed whenever I’ve taken any other psychiatric drug that those bastards have never ceased to cram down my throat!   I lost a $50.000 annnual income in 2004 because of a psych med!  And do those money-guzzling mainstream, medical monsters give a damn?  Do they care?  Do they care about Andy??  Do they???

Pause.

Q. Do I detect a note of resentment?

A. Listen, I’m sorry I got so pissed off.  But now you understand how hard it is to keep going back to that damn clinic and trying to advocate myself.  When they throw their crap back at me, I explode.  I hate those medical bastards so much for what they did to me all my life – you don’t even know how much I hate them.  All of them.

Q. But aren’t you — stigmatizing them?   Lumping them into a box?   Much as you yourself dislike being pigeonholed, can’t you find it somewhere inside yourself to be more open to them?  To forgive them?  To give them another chance?

A. There’s a big difference between forgiving them and just swallowing any damn pill they stuff down my esophagus.

Q. Then what are we to do about it?  Shall we adjourn until next Tuesday, and give you a chance to get your bearings?

A. Sounds like a plan.  I’ll need about a week to cool down.

Q. May I be excused now?

A. You may.   Thank you for your time.  

The Questioner is silent.  

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Gratitude List 891

My daily gratitude list from, I believe, Friday morning the 17th, two days ago.

1. I realized something when I got up this morning. I used to wake up sleeping on a pile of cardboard outside of the Rubicon East Bay Area Works building, feeling scruffy, scraggly and miserable. Then I’d smoke a couple hits of weed and feel all right. But now, I wake up feeling pretty good, sleeping in my own bed, cranking up my own coffee and computer, and hearing the birds chirping outside my very own window. If I were to smoke a couple hits of weed, I’d feel scruffy, scraggly, and miserable.

2. This is such a positive town.

3. Courtyard Cafe, nice Starbucks coffee, $2.76 full traditional breakfast in five minutes.

4. Ran into Doug, Paul A.’s friend, who works here at the hospital. Very nice guy, all smiles.

5. The cook smiled at me when he saw his “regular” sitting at the usual spot. There was a time when, if I were a regular in a morning breakfast establishment, they’d eye me with caution, and look for a way to kick me out.

6. Heard from Norman that the first track of my Killing Me Softly piano video is still on his phone. It might be better than the 2nd take, and is worth a listen.

7. Naw, just listened all the way through without looking at the guy. It doesn’t get better than that. I’ll mp3 at it A444 and put slight fade on the last A major chord.

8. Heard from Marshall F. who can easily sing the Winston Greene part in “Turns Toward Dawn” in the high tenor octave. Solves a big problem, since now I don’t have to make any weird adjustments in Taura’s range, not to mention they can sing harmonies on thirds now, so long as I find a decent alto with a low belt and medium-high soft head voice for Taura.

9. Hmm.

10. Time for breakfast. Another day flat broke in Paradise. :)

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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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