Tuesday Tuneup 33

Q. Where would you like to be?

A. In a place of peace.

Q. Are you at war?

A. Yes.

Q. With whom?

A. With my enemies, of course.

Q. And who are your enemies?

A. Good question.  I tend to think that there are two of them — two young rapscallions from the hood, deluded young gentlemen who are often ringing my doorbell at odd hours of the night, for lengthy periods of time, and only to request annoying favors of me.

Q. These two young rapscallions — are they truly your ememies?

A. Probably not.   My enemies are probably more internal than external.  

internal enemyQ. What do you mean by that?

A. Well you know, I have all these inner blocks or demons that try to prevent me from staying the course, from keeping to what I’m about, and all that.

Q. But if a guy rings your doorbell at three in the morning, and keeps ringing and knocking until you finally give up and go answer it, and you can’t get back to sleep, how is that your fault in any way?

A. You know something, you’re right.  Almost any O.G. would not be able to get to sleep after something like that!

Q. So why are you being such a pushover?

A. That’s the internal enemy I’m talking about.  I’m a pushover.  The Kid knows that once a month, I’m going to be available to walk down to the nearest ATM and get him money for his chewing tobacco.   So what I’ve got to do is just say NO and say it firmly.  

Q. Why haven’t you done this already?

A. He keeps catching me off guard.  Both of them do — the other one’s not so flagrantly nefarious – but he’s still got his angle.  And his angle involves me, because—

Q. Because?

A. Because I’m a pushover.  And worse yet, I just told the whole world about it.  Pretty soon, every rambunctious rapscallion in town will be knocking on my door.  On MY door!  On the lockable, locked door that I EARNED – after putting in twelve hard years on the streets, where there was no door to be locked, or even to offer the slightest separation from me and all the evils of the night.  What a fool I am to willfully descreate and violate the sanctity of my sanctuary!   Damn, I’m pissed.

Q. And now?

A. And now what?  I just have to make the internal change, and enforce it, and be firm about it.  It’s like — a life lesson.  It’s something I’m supposed to learn here, while I’m on this Earth, and take it to the next stage of experience, when I’m not.

Q. You think so?

A. Sounds good to me.   Not knowing how to stand up for myself and say NO to people landed me in a gutter for over ten years.  I daresay I shan’t make the same mistake twice.

The Questioner is Silent.

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The Homeless Christmas Day

This piece was originally posted on my Facebook timeline on December 23rd, 2015.  It has been edited for coherence, and for the relative removal of bitterness and rancor, being as the overall conditions of homelessness were, at the time, affecting both my brain and my heart.  “The Homeless Christmas Day” has been published in the December issue of Street Spirit.  

It looks as though we’re closing in on Christmas again, folks. That’s bad news in my book, and (I daresay) in the corporal book of homeless people everywhere. The good news is that I haven’t flipped out yet. Last year at this time I thought I would “err on the side of caution” and do everybody the favor of at least deactivating my Facebook for the holidays, so that people wouldn’t have to endure too many posts like this on my timeline. Meanwhile, I would be free of that awful combination of outrage and jealousy that so often overtook me when I had to see all the “likes” on all the cute family pictures, often with lavish gifts being opened beneath their highly decorated Christmas trees.

Last year my departure was quick and easy: “It’s that time, folks! See ya after the Super Bowl!” Probably the shortest Facebook timeline post of mine in history. Somehow it didn’t go over too well.

The year before that, I was spending Christmas Day stuck out in the rain, with services closed for those of my ilk, not to mention the usual five-in-the-morning “indoor resources” being closed (Starbucks, McDonald’s, etc.) After all, social workers need to celebrate Christmas too, and baristas need a day off as well. Of course, government buildings were closed, and it wasn’t possible to hide out in the library all day.  So I wandered around aimlessly in the rain, eventually realizing that the only other people doing so were about twenty-five other angry homeless people. Our natural exchanges of commisseration began to depress me.

Describing my situation, I implored a number of people for a PayPal grant of $60 or so, hoping to be able to get out of the rain and set up shop in a cozy motel room somewhere. I figured, “Geeze, it’s Christmas! You’d think somebody wouldn’t mind giving the poor homeless bloke a well-deserved Christmas present.”

Of course, it was short notice. Quite to my hurt, I mistakenly banked on the combined compassion of the chosen few. But alas, the constant bombardment of pictures of old friends on Facebook basking in decadent bursts of Christmas Day galore – stockings, ornaments, grandchildren, the whole works — did nothing for me other than to arouse the ol’ Green Eyed Monster who forever grumbles dormant within me — perched, poised, and ready to pounce.

Well — pounce the Monster did indeed! The results were none too pretty. One of my friends was so aghast at my approach (which no doubt must have been rather ghastly), that his response was quite a shock. Rather than consider helping me out in any way, he sent a joint email to me and the closest member of my family he could think of. In the email, he recommended that I be “institutionalized” — evidently as a viable solution to this chronic homelessness business that obviously wasn’t being dealt with effectively.

Unbeknownst to him, that was my biggest fear. Not that I have any particular dread of the techno-torture of this Age. It’s just that they don’t let me plug in my laptop in those types of dives, because it can “conceivably be used as a weapon.” They do the same thing with my shoelaces, which makes jogging around the building a bit difficult. And of course they don’t let you out of the building so you can go on a run of decent length, if you happen to be (as I am) one of those. I remember once when I even alluded to the fact that I was training for a half-marathon, they wanted to put me on bipolar meds because I was exhibiting what they called “excessive goal orientation.”

In short, the instutitions, both short-term and long, are rather dreary places to be. Arguably, Christmas outside in the rain would be preferable.

As I read my friend’s well-meaning recommendations, all I could do was shake my head. “What we have here is a failure to communicate,” I mumbled, mulling over the text in amazement. Knowing I could never get my point across to my old friend through Internet typing alone, I implored him that I reply with an oral presentation to consist of approximately thirty minutes of persuasive speech.

It worked! Not only did I succeed in explaining the Facts of Homeless Life to the guy — but he actually poured accolades upon the technical and aesthetic details of my Spoken Word piece. Naturally, my attitude of disdain toward him was replaced with great approval. This fellow actually had an MFA in Voice and Speech, and here he was telling me that I was a good speaker? The same person whose opinion I had poo-pooed now expressed an opinion I found quite delightful. You see, I had enormous professional respect for this person, and I took his praise to heart. It was as though I had discovered a new hidden talent, hidden among all the other hidden ones — not that I’m about hiding any of my alleged strengths, but only that the society at large, in continuing to view me as a scum bag, essentially doesn’t see what I’ve got to offer even as I offer it. They see what they want to see.  It doesn’t matter how brightly the homeless person’s light may shine. Between that shining light and the eyes of the beholder there is a dark cloak that obscures the accuracy of their view.

And the name of the cloak is Stigma.

Ah, Stigma. Hast thou found me, O mine enemy? What are we to do with You? Should I make the same move as I made in 2014, in order to avoid yet another Facebook Christmas? It’s tempting, but something gives me pause. It’s already the 23rd, and like I said, I haven’t flipped out yet. So let’s push this puppy to the limits. Take ‘er to the max. Shoot for the moon! Let’s keep my Facebook active, and push the envelope just a wee bit further. Let’s all see for ourselves just what exactly happens on Christmas Day.

Come on, Christian America! What do ya think Christmas is all about? Why are we washing our hands like Pontius Pilate of the validity, the legitimacy, the dignity, and the humanity of an estimated 8% of our nation’s urban population? Even among those who are not homeless, statistics still reveal that one sixth of America struggles for hunger on a daily basis! Do you think Christmas will be any less of that struggle!?

Come on, people! Let us in! Stop looking at us as though we’re all a bunch of worthless druggies and boozers and losers and vandals and varmints and thieves! We take showers, we wash our clothing — it just takes us longer to do so because we have to wait in big lines at service centers to get into the shower, to access the washer, to get the toothpaste and toothbrush and razors and shampoo — while what do you do? You can do these things in a moment’s time, and you look at us patiently waiting at places like then Multi-Agency Service Center in Berkeley, California, and you frown and shake your heads and say: “Look at those lazy bums, sitting there doing nothing!”

Le us in for once! It’s Christmas, for Christ’s sake!! Let me show you I still know how to play the piano and crack my jokes and get you to holler and laugh and do requests! You think any of my gifts have changed just because I happen to sleep outdoors and you happen to sleep inside? I can give you the same Christmas gifts you used to enjoy so much back when you were glad to have me over for a dinner on the holidays! And those are only my gifts. We all have our gifts to give you! Isn’t Christmas about giving? Then let us give you our gifts — on Christmas Day. Let us in.

Tears of love will fall from my eyes when I am finally able to tell you that I love you in a manner that no email nor Skype call nor timeline post could ever touch. And great will be your reward in heaven. For the King whose birthday you claim to commemorate will reply: “Whatsoever you did for the least of my brethren, you did also for Me.” 

Andy Pope
Berkeley California
December 23, 2015

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The Blog and the Blues

For those who have been anticipating a Friday piano offering, I want you all to know that I have not forgotten.  I wasn’t able to get to the church piano earlier than this morning.  So right now I’m in the process of uploading.  I should have the piece posted later on tonight.

Meanwhile, I’m trying to call attention to an earlier post of which I am proud.  I earlier received the following comment on A Homily for the Homeless at Heart from Lauren Sapala, a San Francisco-based writing coach who has authored several fine books, including Firefly Magic, The INFJ Writer, and Between the Shadow and Lo:

kudos.JPG

I found it interesting that I was about to trash the post before I received this comment.  Believe it or not, I had actually thought it was the worst piece I had ever written about homelessness in America! Thanks to Ms. Sapala, I had a change of heart.  I then edited it four times to polish it until I was able to feel proud of it.  As I started the fifth edit, my friend Danielle sent me an email reading: “Please don’t make many more changes.”

So I didn’t.   Here it is, in finished form:

A Homily for the Homeless at Heart

Hopefully this will give you something to chew on while you’re waiting for my somewhat chaotic version of “Billy’s Blues” by the late Laura Nyro.   I hope you enjoy both the blog and the blues.   

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A Homily for the Homeless at Heart

It’s Sunday morning, and time for a sermon.  But far be it for me to preach.  These words may be read by anyone who happens upon this page.  But they are directed to those who are, or who have been, homeless — who know the fullness of what that word entails.  These words are meant primarily for those who, despite perhaps having escaped its horrors, have a place in their heart for the homeless, who revere Homelessness as a heavenly gift.  This homily is for the Homeless at Heart. 

This homily is for those who realize that here on this Earth, we have no true home that will not be outlasted.  Our home is in spiritual places, in the heavens, eternal.  In that sense, we are all in fact homeless.   In another sense, knowing what is everlasting, and distinguishing it from that which will vanish at the grave, we rejoice in being Homeless No More.

It’s been two years and three months now that I have been living indoors, in dignified dwelling spaces of my own design and desire.  I have either lived alone, in a studio room or this present one bedroom apartment; or I have lived in this apartment with a like-minded person; a significant other, if you will.   I have not had to “live” in shelters, rehabs, psychiatric facilities, or board and care homes.  Note the quotation marks around the word “live.”

Twenty-seven months have passed, and I have never failed to pay my rent on time.  For me, this is a milestone.  It negates and transcends every other concern that anyone could possibly have about my mode of existence.    Since people in general do not like to look at the ugliness of homelessness, the people who were in my life before all this happened have not wanted to look at the actual reality that was behind my sordid conditions.  So they looked at other things that they suspected might be at the heart of it all.  When they alighted upon something that satisfied their need to know why a man like me should ever have permitted himself to land in such miserable conditions, they contented themselves to wash their hands of my suffering, and of the suffering of those of my kind.  They were content to classify me as a lazy bum, a loser, a deadbeat, a drug addict, perhaps an alcoholic, or a nut case, a lunatic, a wannabe — or better yet, a has-been.  In so doing, they echoed the sentiments of the Pharisee who in the 18th chapter of the Gospel according to Luke, praised God that he was not like other, more miserable men.  They looked at me with condescension and scorn, saying:  “There but for the grace of God go I.”

Don’t get me wrong.  I fully understand why people would think I am insane.   People are often threatened by those whom they can’t quite classify or codify.   It doesn’t matter whether they lean to the Left, to the Right, or neither.   What matters is that, in some way or another, they are bound by what I call mainstream values — the very values condemned in the first two verses of the 12th chapter of the Epistle to the Romans.  Anybody locked into any kind of box is going to think I’m crazy.  They’ll also think that anyone like me is crazy.  Be that as it may.

It is remarkable how well I get along with formerly homeless people, even though their life practices and spiritualities may be far disparate from mine.   Their experiences and practices have led them to different conclusions than mine.  But we’ve all been through the same life-changing experience: the Experience of Homelessness.  This alone is such a powerful grounds for identification, it practically overwhelms all else.

I may not identify with New Age spirituality. I may not identify with the Ascension Movement. I don’t identify with NeoPaganism — not much anyway. There were those of us who, though Christian, identified as Castaneda Warriors in order to manage the conditions of homelessness with some semblance of thanksgiving and peace.  Some of us needed the Boy Scout Handbook to get by outdoors. Whatever we did, it was a concerted effort to make a valid life-practice out of abominable conditions — not the least of which was that while we struggled day after day to survive, people looked down upon us in scorn.

This commonality is so strong it overwhelms religous and philosophical differences. It overwhelms political differences. It consumes the entirety of Who We Are.  That I should emerge from such a life-changing experience and even pretend to go back to old ways of being that never worked for me is such an assault to my own inner integrity, it baffles me that I should even endeavor to keep up the pretense.

The milestone of having manifested a respectable place of dwelling, tailored and customized to meet the needs of my specific, individual personality is the greatest thing that I have achieved since having escaped twelve years of homelessness and borderline-homelesness in the San Francisco Bay Area.  It also paved the way for other milestones.  I successfully scored all the music I had written “in my head” while wandering the streets of Berkeley like a madman, playing drums on my pants legs, keyboards and guitars in the air, and singing “bop, bop, bop” to the ridicule of all passersby.  I doubt seriously that more than 10% of the people who saw me doing so were able to perceive that I was actually composing music, and not just being crazy.  When I got inside, I was able to score all this music with notation software on my laptop, and put it on the Music Page of this site. 

After that, I was able to complete an entire musical — book, music and lyrics – about homelessness in America.   I also became a regular contributor to the Street Spirit newspaper, though I had no background in journalism, as well as a regular blogger for the Classism Exposed publication in Boston.  I joined a Writers Guild, and had a piece of mine published in an anthology.  I made five speeches on the Homeless Experience.  I created a youtube channel of my piano work, and three CD’s of my piano playing, two of which you may find on my SoundCloud.  And many other things did I do —  not that I wish to boast about these accomplishments, but only to illustrate two key points:

(1) That these things could only have been accomplished under the protective umbrella of the dignified, customized living situation that I had crafted, with God’s help, for the manifestation of my true and unique self.   

(2) That the motivation to accomplish these things is a direct result of the inspiration received during those twelve years of living outdoors.

So it’s not just the case that I couldn’t have done any of these things if I had remained homeless.  It’s also the case that I wouldn’t have done any of these things had I not have been homeless.  

And of all these things that I so pride myself in having been able to accomplish, I honestly feel that the finest thing of all is this recent piano album called Exile.   I pride myself on this album even more than I have prided myself on my finally having completed a full musical play that I had belabored in my mind so fruitlessly for more than five years.  Somehow, without words, without singing, without drums, bass, or other instruments, the music of Exile reflects the person whom my homeless experience has permitted me to become.  And it’s called Exile for a reason. 

Others who are or were homeless have heard these strains, and they hear in it the uniqueness and authenticity that marks the way of those who have embraced the fullness of outdoor living.  We are the unsheltered ones, the ones who have placed ourselves naked and vulnerable before all the vicissitudes of a totally predictable and often hostile Universe, with no box to hide in, whether that box be the physical box of an ill-fitting abode, or the spiritual box that binds our true selves, and prevents us from accessing Who We Are.

We are those who spent years in exile.  And now, we are in exile no more.  

Strange feelings overwhelm me as I listen to this music.  I hear myself playing as I have never played before.  People thought I was a good piano player before this huge life transformation took place, and informed the transformation of my Music and my Art.  And do you think that I was able to actually practice the piano in all the years when I was homeless?  Not at all.  Of course not!   If I wanted to play the piano in an empty church sanctuary, they would have been denied me access “for insurance reasons,” on the supposition that I was likely a thief or a vandal.   It took a dramatic resurrection from the gigantic grave of homelessness for me to get to the point where I am now trusted with the keys to a church building that includes a Baldwin grand piano.

How strange it feels to realize that the same people who offered adulation and praise for my music, before it became so authentic, will no longer hear one note of it, nor admit it into the realms of that which they are willing to appreciate as Art. But I hear my true heart in the notes that I have played.   And while I feel great satisfaction in what I have been able to produce, I also feel outrage that during all the years when I was homeless, people flat-out refused to recognize my musical gifts.   The only people who acknowledged my musical talent were other homeless people!

What is up with that?   People who lived indoors were so maddeningly focused on my various visible personal flaws and foibles, it awakened my indignation, and prompted me in protest to channel the composing of my music in the appearance of a maniac, visibly homeless, visibly composing music on the streets, and marveling in how many people saw me as a “nut case,” and how few even realized that I was writing these strains.

This has not happened here.  Everything I did when I was homeless was visible.  Everybody saw me do it.  But because of their preconceptions, what I was actually doing was invisible.  Nobody saw what I was really doing.  They only saw their stigma and prejudice, manifested according to their own inner lies.   So naturally, my insistence on pursuing my music in any form, let alone insisting that others pay attention to it, was off-putting. “First things first,” they chided, pointing their fingers, as they all adjured me to get out of homelessness first, and then perchance they would listen to my music.

But they didn’t!   I got out of homelessness, and they still would not listen to my music!  Instead, they continued to bombard me with mockery over whatever was wrong with me, despite the fact that the obvious point of their initial objections no longer existed. This proved that their condescending treatment of me was not sheerly on the basis of my having been homeless, but in a larger sense, a product of their own need to exercise one-upsmanship.  It’s really that simple. They didn’t treat me with normal human respect. I was always lower than them. Worse than them! Inferior to them! Why?

I’ll tell you why. It’s because these are the kinds of people who have no real sense of self, so they measure themselves against those to whom they can claim to be superior.  My being homeless made me an easy mark for finger-pointing, so they pointed their ever-pointing fingers at me.   Instead of having compassion, they looked down on me and judged me. Their condescending attitudes toward me made an already difficult life all the more difficult. If they did anything at all to help me, which was rarely, they then expected me to kiss their royal behinds as though I owed them, for the rest of their hellbound lives. All the while they never gave me what they owed me, which is what I was certainly trying to give them, what we all owe each other, which is love and respect. Isn’t it?

But how can you respect people who are treating you so disrespectfully? That’s the issue. And we might say, well this is my issue — my “stuff,” so to speak. But if that’s the case, does every person who has ever been homeless have the same exact, hidden, deep-seated psychological issue? Is that what made us homeless? Because we all happened to be these weird over-sensitive freaks who didn’t take very well to being treated with disrespect, and so our logical, mutual life-destination was Homelessness? That is, unless we all toughened up and acted like insensitive, inhuman, competitive assholes?

Yes, many of us were sensitive. Many of us did not have any feel for the play of the game; we did not relish the ruthlessness of the realm where we were expected to climb up the corporate latter and screw people left and right, while receiving raises and perks from our higher-ups for doing so, as they encouraged all of us who had succeeded in being so clever and cunning and callous and crafty to do the very same. These are the ones who are encouraged to “succeed” in our sick society.

I shudder to think about it, but it wasn’t much different in the realms of Education or of the Performing Arts, even though people in those spheres routinely express opposition to the competitive or capitalistic mores of the corporate world. They were just as damned cut-throat. That’s why at least one man I know in the Performing Arts has made it as far as he has — and I sincerely doubt he’s a happy man. His ways of achieving things, in order that he himself might “get his way,” are outright immoral and sometimes even unethical. He intimidates people into his getting what he wants. He’s good at it, and he does it craftily as well as, at times, blatantly.  He almost always gets away with it. Look where that man is now in Theatre Arts: reputable, respected, and feared. Well, I fear him not!

I fear him not.  Nor do I fear those like him.  For one thing, that miserable man, despite his ill-gotten notoriety, is not all that talented.  Had he been more talented, he would not have felt the need to gain fame and fortune through nefarious means.  He’d have felt that his talent alone would have sufficed to get him there.  And then — if he were like me (which he would not have been) — he would not have achieved notoriety, for he’d have discovered (like I did) that talent alone did not suffice.

Do you think I’m jealous? If I am, it’s to my fault. Why would I want to be jealous of the depressed, desperate kinds of people whom he exemplifies? What reason would I have to be envious of those who, having reaped what they have sown from a lifelong facile at getting their own ways, to the detriment of others in their paths, had brought them nationwide recognition and success, but not happiness?

I am reminded of another man I once knew who also enjoyed great worldly success, in the field of Education.  He resembled the other bloke in that he saw people as objects, but he went a step further in deciding that certain people (myself at one time included) were actually projects of his. Passive vehicles for his own self-expression, for him to paint and sculpt and mold, as though we were easels and statues and pieces of pottery, and he was the great cunning craftsman known as God.  All of this was done under the guise of “teaching,” and he did it very well.  But is it the role of an educator to seek out the gullible, and fashion them into facsimiles of one’s own godless self?  Did not the Pharisess whom Jesus decried in the 23rd chapter of the Gospel According to Matthew do the same?

Woe to you,
teachers of the law and Pharisees,
you hypocrites!
You travel over land and sea
to win a single convert,
and when you have succeeded,
you make them twice as fit for hell
as you are yourselves.

Both of these men would refer to God, to prayer, and in the most nauseous of hypocritical ways. Who the hell are they praying to anyway? They have no gods but their own bellies.

All of that competitive focus on achieving “success” in the sense that our society holds we be successful, is a total distraction from receiving the kind of success and satisfaction that can only come from desiring God. As I desire God, it is revealed to me that they are the ones who are really in need of enlightenment, salvation, and healing; because the realm they roam like lions that roar is the form of a former world that is passing. But the truth will endure forever.

It’s absurd for me to have even thought that, in getting inside finally, I could readily or easily return to old systems of values that not only were the very same systems that, when I tried unsuccessfully to adopt them in my pre-homeless past, only had the effect of leading me back into further and deeper Homelessness. It’s absurd that I thought that, just as soon as I finally got inside again, I could regain the friendship of friends who had not only failed me and betrayed me once I became homeless, but proved in so doing that they were never my true friends to begin with. It’s absurd that I should go back and try to engage in anything left over from my pre-homeless existence, if all those things did was join together with each other to form a bunch of things that, when working in concert, had the power to cast me out from society and put me on the streets.

After having learned how to be real in a world of fakery, it is absurd that I should do anything other than my best to be real. Learning to be real got me out of homelessness and into a dignified living situation that works for me, that represents and reflects the person whom I truly am. Busting my guts to try and be fake in a world of fakes not only failed all the fakes who had mastered such fakery, but also it failed myself. Why should I go back to being a fake after learning how to be real? Rather, I should work my butt off trying to maintain being real, in a world where my being real is what’s working.

Many who hear these words will echo the sentiments of the reality now being brought to light. For it is we who were forced by abominable life conditions to struggle day after day, enduring relentless persecutions and assaults against our persons and our dignity, and in many cases, our bodies as well as our minds, hearts, souls, and spirits, while we were already struggling with all our might to survive the indescribable conditions of continuous outdoor living, feeling trapped as though sub-human animals on the cold-hearted city streets.

It was more than many could bear. But not all. Let our voices be heard and understood. Were these words to be sent to homeless and formerly homeless people everywhere, many would lift their hearts and their voices in accord. Many did indeed falter, collapse, and eventually be put to death by the overall horror that is Homelessness. But many endured, survived, and prevailed – for the purpose that now unfolds.

Lift up your hearts, whoever you are who hears these words and understands them! We were spared the fate of the bulk of our fellows. We were not destined to die in vain, alone and friendless, without hope, without purpose.

Instead we were destined to rise above all that mire, put our lives back together, and emerge from the cages in which we were kept, on a mission to even the score. For where once we were submerged in the world as though destined to drown in the depths of dark water, we now have emerged with a story to tell, and our story is driven by fire. For once we were all but forgotten, and death was at every door. Once we were all of us homeless. Now, we are Homeless No More.

homeless make a difference

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Old Habits Die Hard

Earlier this evening on Quora, somebody asked me if there were any particular habits left over from my homeless years that I was having a hard time shaking.  Being as I completely spaced out my Thursday blog on the homeless experience, I figured it was timely.  So I blasted out seven off the top of my head.   And believe me – it’s the tip of the iceberg.

(1) Until very recently, I had to imagine that I was still homeless every time I lay down to go to bed at night. Somehow, picturing one of the outdoor settings where I used to sleep, seeing the familiar sights in my mind, imaginging the sounds I would hear at that time, was soothing to me. (I’ve actually broken the habit, but it’s taken some work. For the past month or so, I’ve been able to get to sleep without having to imagine that I was still homeless.)

(2) Embarrassingly enough, I still haven’t bought a pair of undershorts, even though I’ve been living inside for almost two years ago. A lot of us men who were homeless discarded our underpants right off the bat, once we realized how impossible it was to keep buying them and/or keeping them clean.

(3) Equally embarrassing, I have a hard time changing into pajamas or anything “night-like” before I go to bed. Often I just sleep with my pants and socks on.

(4) Although I’d like to get back into the habit of showering daily like I used to, it just hasn’t happened. When I was homeless, weeks would go by without my hitting an actual shower. Now I have my own shower and tub, but I still only shower about once or twice a week. I still do a lot of rinse-offs in sinks like I used to have to do when I was homeless.

beanie(5) I almost never take my “security beanie” off of my head. In the summer, I have to wear a baseball cap. Even though I have a regular barber now who recently gave me a very decent haircut, I have a hard time taking off my beanie unless I’m in the shower. I even asked the pastor if it was okay to wear it in church.

(6) Having a hard time shaking the habit of cussing like a drunken sailor (at least at moments, when triggered by this-or-that). This is interesting, because I never used to cuss hardly at all before I put in twelve long years on the streets. And that bugger is not going away too easy.

(7) Suspicion of people in general, of their motives, was greatly increased when I was on the streets. Having a hard time shaking it, and regaining trust.

That’s enough for now.  As I said, there are many others.  And while some of these are pretty problematical, there has been a positive value to listing them like this. Maybe now I’ll see fit to do something about them!  I mean —  I do brush my teeth, you know, and shave, and wash my clothes, you know.  So I have gotten that far, but — what can I say?  Perhaps it’s time I raised the bar a little bit, don’t you think?

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Tuesday Tuneup 28

Q. Where would you like to be?

A. In a place of greater vigilance.

Q. What do you mean by that?

A. By vigilance?  You know what vigilance means – surveillance, watchfulness, attentiveness, alertness —

Q. But you mean something deeper than that, don’t you?

A. What makes you think so?

Q. Aren’t I the one who’s supposed to be asking the questions?

A. Okay, look.  I mean greater awareness.  More keen to what’s happening around me, and what possibly could happen.  More mindful of the conceivable consequences of my actions.  Vigilance.

Q. Why is this important to you?  

A. Because it’s the fourth of the five principles of the Practical Pentacle, and all of these principles are important to me: integrity, confidence, diligence, vigilance, and fortitude.

Q. Where did those words come from?

A.  I guess the short answer would be, “off the top of my head.”

Q. And the long answer?

A. You asked for it.  Around about 2012, I was in an environment where there were a lot of Pagans.  Or, I guess, Neopagans would be more accurate.  Some of them wore pentacles, and one of them told me that if I chose to employ a pentacle, I would not necessarily have to use the standard five points of “Earth, Air, Fire, Water, and Spirit” – but could pick any five principles I thought would work for me.   So I said: “I’ll use integrity, confidence, diligence, vigilance, and fortitude.”  

Q. Just like that?

A. Pretty much.  Not sure where they come from, to be honest with you, but it all seemed pretty positive.

Q. Then what did you do?

A. Naturally, I started looking online for a pentacle to purchase.

Q. You actually purchased a pentacle?

A. Actually, no.  I stopped short.

Q. Why?

A. Couldn’t find one off-hand that looked right.  And then, in the time it was taking to look, I began to have reservations.

Q. Like what?

A. Well, being as I was a piano player at a Christian church at the time, I thought it might be odd if I showed up wearing a Pagan pentacle.

Q. But how do you really feel about this oddity?

A. You know me.  I don’t think it should be odd.  So what if I’m wearing a necklace shaped like a five-sided star?   As a Christian, I’m free to where whatever I please, as long as it’s not overly revealing or provocative.

Q. But doesn’t the Pentacle connote an anti-Christian religion?

A. What makes you think Neopaganism is an anti-Christian religion?

Q. Aren’t I supposed to ask the questions?

A. Okay look.  Getting down to brass tacks, there is nothing wrong or immoral about wearing a five-sided star, and associating each side of the star with a positive spiritual principle.   Nothing evil in that.  But because, to some people, it would appear to be evil, I declined, for their sake.  The Scripture does say: “Abstain from all appearance of evil.”

Q. So you’re saying a Christian has to look good?

A. To a degree, yes.  Appearances are important.   They’re not all-important.  They’re certainly not more important than reality.  But certain kinds of appearances have a way of messing with people’s realities, and that just isn’t cool.

Q. So, in other words, you bailed out?

A. I suppose you could put it this way.   But Christianity does involve being concerned for others in our midst.

Q. And this is why you wimped out?

A. More-or-less.

Q. Well then, if you never bought the pentacle, and never actually wore the pentacle, how does the pentacle still figure into your trip?

A. It’s an internal pentacle.  I have it inside me.

Q. You do?

A. I do.  I believe that it was placed inside me as a device to assist me in getting something accomplished — something which I very much need to do.

Q. What is it that you need to do?

A. You already know that.  It’s all over this website.   Everybody knows what I’m trying to do.  I’m rather surprised you would even bother to ask.

Q. But how do these principles help?

A. It’s a matter of applying them, moment by moment, one at a time.

Q. Can you elaborate on that?

A. I’ll try.  Integrity is the first and most important.  Before I make a creative or professional decision, I need to run it past my integrity.  I need not prostitute myself.

Q. And then?

A. Confidence.   Faith, essentially, that I have what it takes to get it done.

Q. What next?

A. I already told you.  Diligence.  That means, work, discipline, sticking to it, keeping a schedule — all that stuff.   And then, vigilance.   Awareness of the greater picture.  Preparation for possible dangers and pitfalls.   Finally, fortitude.

Q. Meaning?

A.just do it Just do it.  

Q. Take the leap, eh?

A. That’s right. Take the plunge.

Q. But – but – the plunge to where?

A. We don’t know quite where.  That’s what makes it a plunge.

Q. But – for what reason?   Why bother with any of this?

A. Because I need to get something done.

Q. What do you need to get done?

A. You already know that.

Q. And you don’t?

A. No, sir.  I do, if anyone does.   But –

I tire of talking about it.  I burn myself out having to explain myself all the time, over and over.  It gets tedious.   And people are tired of hearing about it.   I get tired of telling people that it’s going to cost me $200 a night to rent out the theatre where I want to showcase my musical, and that I’m going to have to come up with $15/hr for each member of the technical staff they provide me.  I get tired of harping on the fact that I’m an impoverished old guy with a serious health condition who somehow managed to put together an entire musical — book, music & lyrics — about the Homeless Phenomenon in America.   I’ve been screaming “money talks, bullshit walks” for so long that I’m begining to sicken my own self.   

And that dollar figure you see when you click here?   That money went to pay for my critique and demo recording, a long time ago.  When was the last payment?  In May?  From February to May I managed to scrape up $950 – or Danielle did, bless her heart.   But do you realize it’s October already?   What’s happened between May and October?  Damn near nothing.   I need the bucks!   It’s maddening.  Sometimes I need to apply all five principles at once just to keep my head together . . .

Q. Andy, what is the bottom line?

A. Bucks.  I need the bucks – the bucks . . .

Q. Come on, Andy — is money really the bottom line?

Q. You know me.  Of course it’s not.   Homelessness is the bottom line.  It’s as low as it gets.   It’s the weakest link in the country right now — and we need to be about strengthening our weak links — or else the whole chain is going to break, and fast.

A. How do you know this?

Q.  Dude — you sit on a sidewalk for five years, watching the urban world buzz by at a lightning pace, on a marathon race to nowhere, and you have a lot of time to make observations and draw conclusions.   Believe me, I didn’t put this show together because I was talking out of my hat.  

Q. What do you need the most?

A. Fortitude.  I need for somebody to take some action here.   Take a risk.  Have courage.  Believe in me.  Just do it.   

Q. Just do — what?

A. What you’re thinking about right now — you who have so encouraged me by having read to the bottom of this whole long page.   Please — we don’t have all night.   Daylight’s burning.  We gotta get this show on the road.   Just do it!

Q. Just do – what, again?   

A. Do you honestly expect me to answer that?

Q. Aren’t I the one who’s supposed to be asking the questions?

A. You tell me.  

The Questioner is silent.  

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The H-Word

This post is an expansion on the fourth “buzzword” cited in my previous post, The Homeless Buzzwords.  I wrote it on request from Alastair Boone, the new editor of Street Spirit, whose fine editing is already evident in this piece.

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

His answer still sticks with me. Homeless is just a word, one that is over-used to describe the experience of somebody who, for one reason or another, does not have a place to call their own. It fails to capture any of the individual characteristics that make the homeless person, well, a person.

homeless stigmaIn the twelve years when I lived outside, this word had a way of making me feel that I was in some way distinctly set apart from the rest of the human race. At times, the word suggested that possibly I was not even fully human. I quickly learned that in this over-generalization, the “H-Word” carries with it so much stigma that its usage actually had the power to actively work against me in a number of different ways.

I often found that avoiding the label of “homeless” was the only way to reach my personal goals. For it would be from that label that all the other distracting labels would spring. Drug addict. Nut case. Lazy Bum. Loser. If instead I somehow managed to be seen only as a fellow human being, and not as a “homeless” person, then my chances of achieving my goals were greatly enhanced.

Not the least of these goals was to find dignified dwelling. Not just any old place to live, but a place that I could truly call my own, where I could attend to all the things that make me the human being who I am—not just the homeless guy, but the human guy—the unique individual who goes by my name. Too often I had seen landlords reject a prospective tenant after learning that they had been homeless at some earlier point in time.

Even recently, a 65-year old man came to the Recovery Center where I work, and was extremely open about his having become homeless at the first time in his life. He had received assistance from St. Vincent DePaul and another charitable organization in the area, and was referred to me to help him find a room at a local residence hotel, where I was on good terms with the manager.

However, by the time I contacted the manager on his behalf, the manager had already heard about the man through the grapevine, this being a very small community, and the man in question a very outspoken fellow. The landlord explained to me simply:

“No, Andy — if I let him in off the streets, I will have let them all in. And I’m sorry, I just can’t take that risk.”

I had hoped to head off his reputation at the pass, but unfortunately it preceded me.  I then remembered how another landlord of my acquaintanceship had once told me, point blank:

“If there are ten people on my rental application, and I find out that one of them has been homeless, there will soon be only nine people on that application.”

Sadly, all of this corroborates with my overall experience with the homeless condition. Not only landlords and apartment managers, but people in general do not like to have homeless people on their premises. There seems to be a prevailing notion that if a person has become homeless, then they must have somehow “messed up” their living situation somehow. “Therefore,” continues the line of thought, “let’s not have them mess up mine.

So, at the end of my homeless sojourn, when I finally did find a place that was to my liking, what do you think I did? I found a landlord who had no reason to see me as anything other than a fellow human being, in a place where nobody would have any knowledge of my homelessness, and I basically started afresh from scratch—just to get my foot in the door. Literally. The H-Word in no way entered into the process.

The H-Word, after all, is divisive. Its essential function is to cause division. The person to whom this word applies—the “homeless person”—is pitted against the person to whom the word does not apply; the “housed person,” if you will. From that moment on, it’s: “You stay in your camp; I stay in mine; never the twain shall meet.” By categorizing all the vastly disparate reasons that one might live outside under the umbrella of “homeless,” society gives itself permission to ignore these stories altogether. If the H-word doesn’t apply to you, then you can put those people in a box and carry on your way.

People who have been so privileged as to always have lived indoors often don’t grasp that the H-word is not just a neutral label used to describe one’s state of living. It also packs a punch that has the power to keep you from finding a place to live, and from leaving the experience of homelessness behind. Simply put, this word carries in it a certain violence. Because of this, I prefer to talk about those who live “outside” or “outdoors,” rather than “the homeless,” whenever possible. 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 as such is protected from the vast array of such external elements.

Acutely aware of such disparities, many people struggling with homelessness will do everything they can to conceal their homelessness from those who live indoors. They become driven into the realm of invisibility in order to avoid the stigma that arises as soon as the question is posed: “Hey – are you homeless?” When spoken, the flood of unwanted connotations and generalities comes rushing in. In the midst of all this, the truth of the actual person who is happens to live outside—their individual and unique story—is forgotten.

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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, where 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 wrongin 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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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.   

Even 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 a certain stigma 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 midst, 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.

This, of course, says nothing about 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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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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When You Gotta Go . . .

When I was homeless in the San Francisco Bay Area, I had an awfully hard time getting myself to a bathroom on any kind of regular basis.

It wasn’t so bad when I only had to go No.1, as we used to call it.  I could usually find some kind of bush to duck behind, and the cleanup process wasn’t nearly so involved.  Also, the sense of stigma or shame attached to the act of having to pee outdoors wasn’t nearly so severe as the corresponding sense of shame involved in having to go No.2.

But I tell ya – when you gotta go, you gotta go.   There were times when I held it in for an hour and a half or more.  Only one thing was on my mind as I went from bathroom to bathroom, finding all of them locked, and getting the sense that whoever was in there wasn’t about to step out in the near future.

I’ll never forget how one day, I finally gave up, because I just couldn’t hold it any longer.  I found a fairly secluded path of greenery, and figured I could use the large leaves for toilet paper.

“Let’s make this quick,” I said to myself, looking from side to side.  Squatting, I did the deed as thoroughly as I could possibly manage in a fairly paranoid five-second interval.  Then I reached for the leaves.

At that exact moment, about twenty U.C.Berkeley co-eds came waltzing around the corner, smiling and chatting merrily amongst themselves.  You should have seen the look on their eyes when they saw what I was about.  (I’m sure the look on my own eyes was a sight to see, as well.)

All of these musings come in the wake of San Francisco Mayor London Breed’s recent comments that “homeless advocacy groups that receive funding from the city need to better educate the homeless to ‘clean up after themselves.'”  She went on to say: “there is more feces on the sidewalks than I’ve ever seen growing up here. That is a huge problem and we are not just talking about from dogs.”

sad truthWhile these comments may seem to many to be fairly sensible at face value, I would have to say — from the perspective of a person who spent several years swimming the quicksand of homelessness in the S.F.Bay Area — that the mayor’s insights are rather shallow.  While I personally never had to take a shit on the sidewalk, can you imagine the difficulty I would have had in “clean-up” if I had?   For one thing, what would I have used to clean up the feces?   Certainly not toilet paper.  If I’d had access to toilet paper, I’d have had access to one of the many locked bathrooms I wasn’t able to get into.  And that’s the very situation that would have driven me to have to take a dump outdoors in the first place.

Would I use my shirt?  Perhaps the only shirt I had?  Somebody else’s shirt?  A rag of some sort that I would have readily acquired — from where, exactly?  What about a dustpan?  Or a make shift dustpan, quickly constructed from — from what exactly?  

Let’s get real here, people.  We’re talking about homelessness.  The homeless person is at an incredible disadvantage compared to just about any other person in today’s society.  There were times when I was virtually immobilized for hours or even days because I couldn’t come up with a pair of shoelaces, and I basically had to sit still, penniless, until the money to buy them surfaced.  Under such conditions, in the time it would have taken me to come up with a viable device to wipe my shit off of the sidewalk, there could easily have been KRON news cameras covering the scene, further prompting the ludicrosity of such comments as Mayor Breed was so quick to make.

Anybody making a visit to downtown San Francisco will easily observe that the demand for usable bathromms exceeds the supply by a ratio of at least 100-1.  Rather than focus her energies on further demeaning the homeless and inferring that homeless rights advocates are not doing their job properly, why doesn’t the Mayor funnel some energies into adjusting the budget to include more portable toilets in the Financial District?

I would further submit it is not only homeless people who are affected by the appalling lack of public bathrooms in the Bay Area.  Recently, a security camera in San Francisco’s SOMA district caught both a truck driver and a non-profit employee defecating on the sidewalk.  Afterward, they simply walked away to carry on with the rest of their days.  Why is it assumed that all this feces comes from homeless people?

What all of this points to is the overall refusal of society to recognize that homeless people are not the problem — they are the result of the problem.   If statistics are correct and there are in fact only 7500 visible homeless people in San Francisco, how difficult would it be to budget in 7500 tiny houses, and encourage each homeless person to live indoors in privacy and dignity?  

Sure, not every homeless person would go for it.  But a lot of them would — I know I sure would have — and it would be a step in the right direction.  At least the homeless individual would be treated as a full human being whose needs and rights are being considered along with those of the rest of the human race — not like a pariah, an outcast, or a leper.

We really need to take that leap.  Remember that homeless people were not, as a general rule, born homeless.  None of us were born on drugs or drunk or severely mentally disabled.   If we became that way, it was largely the result of having to cope with the extreme conditions of street life, and of having to struggle for survival night after night, and year after year.  It was not the other way around.

Homeless people are human beings with basic needs and inalienable rights just like any other kind of human being.  The sad thing is that homeless people are not, as a general rule, treated like pople — they are treated like homeless people.   And what that translates too, ironically, is that they’re treated like shit.  

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(Talks 2018) – Talk No. 4

Here’s the fourth talk in our Talks 2018 series of talks on the Homeless Experience. In this talk, I share my personal story of how I finally escaped twelve years of homelessness and for the past two years have effectively maintained a dignified place of residence in a favorable climate.  

Homeless No More

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Restorer of Streets with Dwellings

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

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

–Isaiah 58:6-12

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Statement to the World

I’m finally going to try to adhere to my earlier stated concept.   I’m going to try to make sure that six posts of six different natures are each posted here at 7:30am PST, Monday thru Friday, with Saturday off.  

Why am I going to try and do this?  It’s not necessarily for the sake of creating a decent, appealing blog here.  That’s part of it.  But it’s a bit deeper than that.

People who have been diagnosed with mental health conditions are often regarded as unstable, incompetent, or insane.   It is generally held that we are flaky, unpredictable, and unreliable.  We can’t hold down jobs, and people can’t tell which way we’re going next, or where we are going to land — if we are going to land.   So, naturally, I would like to do my best to dispel that stigma.

So far, however, I can’t help but feel that all I am doing is proving them right.  My Tuesday Tuneup often shows up on Wednesday — if not Thursday, or even Monday.  There is no consistency whatsoever as to the times that any of the posts show up.   I don’t always take Saturdays off, and in fact the Friday piano video often gets postponed till Saturday or later.  Frequently, I disappear for a few days (while probably in a depressed funk), and then try to “make up for lost time” by, for example, posting the Wednesday speech, the Thursday “blog of substance,” and maybe even the Friday piano video all on the same day, which might even be Sunday.

The point is, no consistency.

How can I possibly dispel the notion that those of us who have diagnosed mental health conditions are unstable, inconsistent flakes if I don’t get it together and bring some order to the table?

Well, obviously, I can’t.   But that doesn’t mean I might not be — er – biting off more than I can chew.  Still, I’m going to give it the ol’ college try, one more time.   You will see this post tomorrow at 7:30am PST, rain or shine.   The mail must go through, and the show must go on.

idiotsavant-tshirt
Severe ADHD, Dyslexia, Bipolar One Hypomanic Disorder, PTSD & Blah Blah blah.

Sigh.

There’s even more to it than this.

People with mental health conditions are often very talented, vibrant people when given their chance to shine.   To meet me in real life, I might not be the most charismatic fellow on the face of the planet, but I do have some specific talents in certain key areas.  My writing isn’t all that bad, for one thing.  It’s good enough to have been published this past year, anyway, for the first time in my life.   You can’t say I’m a bad piano player, and I’m told I’m a pretty good speaker — although admittedly, it’s a lot easier to make a speech in my dining room using the voice recorder app on my lady friend’s smartphone than it would be to stand behind a podium and boldly address the multitudes.

However, somebody whom I respected once told me this:

“You act as though all these talents of yours make up for all your bad qualities.”

While that’s certainly debatable (if not hurtful), I can see where she was coming from.  The particular skills of expertise do not make up for bad qualities in other areas.  I’ve even said it myself, in so many words.   We live in a society that values competence, and devalues moral integrity.  And I hate to say it, but I’m pretty sure the person who said that to me felt that I was morally lax.

But there’s another facet to all of this.   While skillful expertise cannot compensate for moral turpitude, it can compensate for the lack of expertise in other areas.   I am horribly incompetent when it comes to most jobs, because my mind is largely incapable of panoramic focus.  I can only focus myopically.  If there is more than one thing I need to keep my mind on for any significant period of time, my mind will fail me.  I will screw up.  It will be noticeable and frustrating to my coworkers, and I like-as-not will be fired.

They call this Severe ADHD and Dyslexia.  Other aspects of my personality have been dubbed Bipolar One and Hypomanic.   Throw in a little PTSD, and the O.G.’s pretty much a mess.

Given all that, to cut to the quick, why should I not be focusing on the things that I can do?  I’ve spent most of my life trying to excel at things at which I suck, just because they happen to be the things that make money in this world.  But now I’m an Old Guy, and I’m on Social Security, and why not just take some time to show the world what I’m really made of?

In fact, if I don’t do so, I would feel like I’m shirking a calling of mine.   Yes, a calling – of which this post is a part.  

My disability landed me in a gutter for damn near twelve years, where none of these special gifts I have to offer were given the chance to shine.   While my ascent from that gutter to a decent apartment in another part of the world was rapid, sudden, unanticipated, and miraculous, that ascent would be meaningless if I didn’t do something with it.  For I am no less disabled, no less “incompetent,” than I was when I was sleeping under a bridge.   

The difference is not in my personality.  The difference is that I have been granted favorable circumstances in life, in such a form that the gifts with which I hope to bless you actually are given a chance to shine.

And that alone is the essence of my Statement to the World.  Not every homeless person is a worthless, low-life scum bag.  In fact, none of them are — because no person on Earth needs to be saddled with that tag.   Every person is redeemable and salvageable, for our Father in Heaven desires that none will be consigned to perdition, but that all will be preserved and saved.   So, if I don’t hide my light under a bushel, and I don’t let it shine before humanity, then people will not glorify the Maker of All Things — and yet, that’s what life’s all about.  (It’s also 2 Peter 3:9, Matthew 5:16, and Ecclesiastes 12:13 in a nutshell — and the reason I know this is because I just looked ’em up.)

So I’ll give it a go.   If you’re reading these words, it means it’s 7:30am PST or after.  If you’re not, you’re not.  Wish me luck.

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(Talks 2018) – Talk No. 3

This morning please find the third in our Talks 2018 series of talks on the Homeless Experience. This talk is intended to demonstrate how, even if a person has made a conscious choice to be homeless, that person is likely to soon find themselves entrenched in a condition from which it is almost impossible to escape.

Homeless by Condition: Part Two

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Homeless by Choice

On the Q&A site Quora, dedicated to the dissemination of knowledge by those “in the know,” I was asked if I thought there was anything wrong with being “homeless by choice.”  Here’s my answer:

There is nothing morally wrong with being homeless by choice. One has a right to do whatever they wish to do as long as it does not impinge upon the rights of others. Therefore, if one wants to be homeless, and one is not harming anyone in the process, one can rightly exercise that choice.

However, this does beg the question as to why one would want to be homeless by choice; and in fact, if one choosing to be homeless is actually choosing a preferred lifestyle, or merely the lesser of evils in an untenable situation.

home sweet homelessThere are three general reasons why one would “choose” being homeless over an indoor living situation:

(1) lack of privacy in the indoor situation

(2) abuse or neglect in the indoor situation

(3) inability to keep up with the cost of living indoors

I was homeless in the San Francisco Bay Area for many years.  As I stated in this post, I often had a difficult time with shelters and other group situations due to the lack of privacy. I also found it next-to-impossible to keep up with the rising cost of living in the San Francisco Bay Area. The trade-off was made palatable due to my not having to pay exorbitant rental fees, often subjected to rent increases every six months.

Although I personally would not have characterized any of my living situations as “abusive,” I certainly have met numerous people, mostly young people, who chose to live “home free” following emancipation from abusive parents or guardians. To many of them, the idea of living indoors was associated with bondage, violence, and sexual violation. Of course they should not be faulted for wishing to escape such horrible home lives. This is why many such young people will not use the term “homeless” to describe their lifestyle. They prefer the term “home free” — and this is telling.

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Hunted

There was neither a speech nor a piano recording this week, for the simple reason that I’ve been relying on the high-quality microphone in my lady friend’s Motorola smartphone in order to make these recordings, and while she’s away visiting our friend on the Coast, I could not manage to locate another device.

On another level, however, I am still dealing with enormous exhaustion after having put my all into the creation of this new musical, Eden in Babylon, and having at last received the recordings on the demo for that musical.  The third and final song in the demo, my song “Hunted,” is below.

Hopefully the present innervation precedes a future innovation.  It’s going to take quite a bit of ingenuity to instigate the initiation of this initial production.   I can’t just sit at home idling with incessant alliterations, to no avail.  I have believed in this message to the Mainstream of Modern American Life.   Now all I need to do is make sure the message is heard.  

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The Very Same World

In lieu of offering a speech this week according to schedule, I’m writing to let you know that I’ve received the 2nd number from my Eden in Babylon demo.  It’s “The Very Same World,” (link is to lyrics), and I’m posting the demo now.

I should have the third speech in my new series, entitled “Homeless by Condition, Part Two,” posted by next Wednesday or Thursday, or thereabouts.   If you feel like going back and listening to the first two speeches, here they are:

Homeless by Condition, Part One

Homeless by Choice

Finally, if you want to make an any-amount donation and help me produce my musical about homelessness in America, now’s your chance.    At this stage, every little bit helps.  

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Tuesday Tuneup 18

Q. Do you know who I am?

A. Yeah.  You’re a pain in the ass who darkens my door once a week, annoying me with an incessant series of inane questions, challenging my patience.

Q. So why have you summoned me?

A. What choice did I have?

Q. Aren’t I supposed to be asking you the questions?

A. Supposed to schummosed to.  I’m totally disgruntled.

Q. Whatever for?

A. I don’t know.  The whole thing just seems to be — on me. 

Q. What whole thing?

A. Forgiveness!  Why am I the guy who always has to focus all his energy on forgiving all these other people?   If even one of them would so much as give me the time of day, it would sure make it a lot easier.

hillary forgivenessQ. Easier on who?

A. On me — obviously!

Q. Why don’t you make it easy on them?

A. Don’t insult my integrity.  I’m already trying to do that, and you know that.

Q. How?

A. By apologizing to them.  By asking their forgiveness.  Like the Bible says.  Like Jesus says.  Like we’re all supposed to do with each other.  But they still won’t —

Q. Give you the time of day?

A. Right.  How do I know they’re even reading my emails?  Or listening to my voice mail messages?  Or even reading my carefully, prayerfully worded snail mail letters?   I wouldn’t be surprised if whats-his-face just ripped up the letter I sent to his home address, without even bothering to open it.

Q. But why would he do that?

A. I don’t know.  Fear of its contents, I guess.  Or disrespect for me as a man.  Hard to say.  Maybe his wife doesn’t want him to have anything to do with me.  Maybe his doctor told him to avoid “toxic people,” and he decided I was “toxic.”  Or maybe he’s just a cowardly wimp who can’t face up to his own bullshit unless he’s painted into a damn corner.

Q. Do you really need this guy?

A. No, not really.

Q. Then what do you need?  

Pause.

A. I need to forgive him.  To be free and clear of all the lingering resentment over the way I was treated — and the way I treated him.   To know that he has received my apologies, my requests for forgiveness, and that they matter enough to him — that Jesus matters enough for him — to say “I forgive you, Andy.”  And then we can both move on.  Or even be friends again, who knows?   God only knows.

Q. How long has this been going on?

A. Five years now.  

Q. He hasn’t talked to you for five years?

A. Not just him – but all kinds of people.

Q. Why did they all stop talking to you?

A. Probably because of the way I was coming across at the time.

Q. How were you coming across?

A. I was desperate.  I was homeless.  Sure I had all kinds of other problems, but I couldn’t solve any of them from homelessness.  And none of those damned group situations that were always recommended ever worked out for me.  They only surrounded me with thieves and criminals, and furthered the violation of my person and my property.   I was down in this hole that was so deep, I couldn’t climb out of it myself for the life of me.  I kept beseeching them, please, let me stay with you, just for a while, just for a month or so, till I can get my bearings, get some sleep, and see a way to maybe get back on my feet.  But nobody would budge.  They all rejected me.  Most of them without even a word of notice or warning.  They flushed me down the toilet like I was a total piece of — piece of — piece of  —

Q. Shit?

A. You said it.  

Q. Why did you internalize their opinions of you?

A. I couldn’t help it.  I knew I was coming across in a way that freaked them out, or pissed them off even.  But all the gross details of homelessness, the sleep deprivation, the constant insinuation from everyone around me that I was this worthless piece of crap, that my music didn’t matter, my singing, my piano playing, my writing, my public speaking, none of the good things about me counted!  I was just supposed to cram a bunch of damned pills down my throat that I knew would destroy everything I had going for me, and get into some group home where they monitored all my meds and only let me out under supervision on Sundays.   

And I had already tried all that.  And I just couldn’t do it!  I’d have rather slept alone out in a field somewhere.  So I did.  But then — all the other crap set in.

Q. What other crap?

A. You know something?  I really don’t want to talk about it.

Q. Then why are you?

A. Because of you.  And all your damned questions.  Go away! And don’t come back till Tuesday!   Tired of your robotic, unfeeling crap.

The Questioner is silent.

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Homeless Shelters

Note: this post was first written here in an answer to a question posed on the Q&A site Quora, which I am acknowledging according to their terms of service.   The question, as posed, was “What are homeless shelters like?”  Of course, I could only answer according to my personal experience.  But I did my best.  

During the many years when I was homeless, I stayed in a number of different shelters, as well as in other group situations that were even less favorable and less appealing to me than the preferred choice to sleep in a secluded spot outdoors.

I did get a good feeling from one or two of the shelters, but most of them gave me the creeps. Even in the one where I felt most “at home,” it was still assumed that I was of a criminal mentality, and that I had a criminal record. I had a hard time believing that all of us who had fallen into homelessness were “criminals” – and of course I gravitated toward those who clearly were not.

I eventually realized that part of the reason why this mentality was so widespread was because the people who ran the homeless shelter were themselves ex-convicts or criminals in varying states of reformation, rehabilitation, or recovery. So from the top down, it was pretty much assumed that one was comfortable with the criminal element.

A great plus was my being able to get a free breakfast with unlimited coffee refills in the morning; in fact, Peet’s coffee was served, which I loved. At night, there would be dinners brought by organizations in the community who desired to help the homeless. Usually these were religious organizations having a strong bent in the area of converting the homeless to their particular brand of faith. That I already had my own religious preferences was usually dismissed as irrelevant, since it was assumed that if I had a true “relationship with God,” I would never have wound up homeless to begin with.

The preponderance of religious zealotry mixed in with a criminal mentality made it almost impossible for me to feel “safe” in the shelter. I slept on a fold-up cot that sank down very low in the middle, inducing backaches, and not conducive to a good night’s sleep. When the night manager shouted: “Lights Out!” at ten at night, all that this meant, literally, was that the lights were turned off. It did not mean that people kept their voices down or made an effort to stay quiet.

In close proximity to my cot was a large T.V. where a number of the men who had rented pornographic movies stayed up and watched porn flicks all night, reacting as men would do in private to the various suggestions of these movies, while I was trying liberty-safetyunsuccessfully to sleep.

I constantly feared for the theft of my laptop and cell phone. I kept my backpack attached by one of its straps to my body at all times, even while I slept (or tried to.) Although there were lockers in the shelter, one had to fill out a lengthy application in order to obtain one of the lockers, and there was a long waiting list to get one. I often declined to take a shower in the morning after I watched a young man’s Ibinez custom electric guitar be stolen during the five minutes he was allotted to shower. But at least they had showers, and it was also a good place to shave and brush my teeth, both of which activities were frowned upon in the library bathrooms, as well as in the bathrooms of local cafes and restaurants. It was nice having a bathroom right nearby during the night, and this was one advantage that staying in the shelter had to sleeping outdoors.

I also was able to do my laundry on Tuesdays and receive razor blades on Wednesdays. There were several other perks. In general, however, I felt “safer” sleeping outdoors in a secluded place known only to me. But I must put the word “safe” in quotes, because the concept of “safety” is meaningless on the streets. We did not think in terms of “safety;” and whenever anyone made references to our “safety” (or the lack of it) we were generally baffled. Homelessness was best regarded as a wild adventure, where one had to be ready for anything at any time, almost like being in a war zone. The word “safety” has very little relevance to that manner of life.  

I must also disclaim that in this brief exposé, I have tried to describe only the shelter I liked best. The last one, the one I liked least, was the one where I was kicked out for catching a flu, even though I had obviously caught the flu in the shelter itself. There followed an awful scenario in which I was denied a stay in a hospital because I was homeles and kicked off of the all-night bus (where several homeless people regularly slept) because of my having the flu. Having a bad flu and being forced to stay outdoors was the catalyst toward terminating my homeless “adventure” of twelve years. But I owe that termination to prayer and to my God. Homelessness is a hole so deep, one really has to have lived it in order to understand how next-to-impossible it can be to climb out of it. I consider myself therefore lucky and blessed. 

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(Talks 2018) – Talk No. 2

Here’s the second talk in my Talks 2018 series, intended to illuminate the realities of the Homeless Experience to those who have not yet been there.   This talk shows how a person having found themselves winding up homeless more often than not might eventually make a conscious choice to live outdoors, rather than inside an untenable situation.  

Homeless by Choice

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Compassion and Complaint

Lately I’ve encountered some pretty disturbing questions on a certain forum where I am expected to provide intelligent answers. One such question was this:

“Why are poor people so much more compassionate than rich people?”

Another Deteriorating Bridge...Obviously, the question contains a covert statement; i.e., “Poor people are more compassionate than rich people.” How do I answer such a question? After all, there are plenty of poor people who aren’t very compassionate at all. Moreover, there are plenty of so-called rich people who have lots of compassion. So the question, as posed, is unfair.

But even more disturbing were some of the answers offered. Several people, like me, objected to the rhetorical nature of the question. But unlike me, a number of them contended that “rich people” are more compassionate than poor people. They also gave their reasons why they thought so. One such answer was as follows:

“Poor people do nothing but complain, and this lacks compassion toward those who have to hear their complaints, since nobody likes to hear people complaining all the time. Rich people hardly ever complain, so this is more compassionate.”

In examining this answer, I cannot help but recall a statement I made yesterday in this speech. I related how, when I was first becoming homeless, I didn’t seem to be able to express any of the details of my situation without coming across as though I were “complaining.” People who had never been in my shoes, and who were baffled at how a man like me could possibly have descended to such a depth, interpreted my explanations of the homeless condition as “complaints.”

But when I was hurled into Poverty Culture, and I discovered the refreshing candor with which poor people discuss their common obstacles with remarkable honesty and openness, I began to understand how such a level of untainted, clear communication could easily be construed to be a “complaint.” After all, these obstacles were of necessity negative in nature, and to delineate them in detail would necessarily constitute a negative statement. Moreover, since the “negativity” of homelessness is even more pronounced than that of sheltered poverty, these communications will bear even more of the aura of “complaint” to those who don’t wish to hear such “negativity.”

FIRST HOMELESS GUY: “Man, I really tried to get a shower before the job interview, but I waited in line at the Multi-Agency Service Center for three hours before a shower opened up. By that time, I was afraid I would miss the bus and not make it to the interview. But I really needed a shower. So I showered as quickly as I could, and shaved and put on my best clothing. Then I literally ran half a mile to the bus stop, only to find that I had missed the bus, and that there was no way I would have made it to the interview on time.”

SECOND HOMELESS GUY: “Dude, I feel for you, but you gotta get a load of what happened to me! On the night before my interview, I was sleeping at my Spot when all of a sudden, two rookie cops woke me up at one in the morning, ran my criminal record, searched my backpack for drugs, and then told me to move on, after they found out I didn’t have any drugs in my backpack and didn’t have a criminal record. It rattled me just enough that I couldn’t get to sleep. I got showered and got to the bus stop on time, but I fell asleep on the bus, missed the stop, and missed my interview!

RICH GUY: “Would you both just quit whining? You spend all your time complaining, it’s no wonder you never can find a job. I bet both of you wouldn’t have even been able to keep a smile on your face throughout a 45-minute interview.”

Here, to me, the schism is obvious. The “rich guy” interprets the empathy with which the two “homeless guys” identify with each other as “complaints.” But to the homeless men, that conversation is simply a communication — not a complaint. They are relating to each other on the basis of their common ground, and such a conversation actually affirms their common dignity.

FIRST HOMELESS GUY: What do you mean, “smile?” Are you trying to tell me for one minute that the phony plastic smile you have on your face is genuine? Sure, I can put on a smile at a job interview or on a job. That’s what we call a work façade. But you’re smiling even as you rip us to shreds, and that’s nothing more than hypocrisy.

SECOND HOMELESS GUY: That’s right, Rich Guy. I bet you’re not even a happy person. If you were happy, you wouldn’t feel the need to put us down, when you’ve got everything you’ve ever needed in this life, and we’re busting our guts every day struggling to survive.”

RICH GUY: See what I mean? Both of you have a lousy attitude. It shows in all this negativity you keep throwing at me. Neither of you will ever be able to hold up and roll with the punches day after day in the workplace.

Here we have another schism. The well-meaning smile of the ignorant “rich guy” is being interpreted as hypocrisy by the homeless guys. Add that to the fact that their mutual affirmation of common dignity is being interpreted as “complaining,” and what does this tell us?  How about this:

And besides all this,
between us and you a great chasm has been set in place,
so that those who want to go from here to you cannot,
nor can anyone cross over from there to us.
– Luke 16:26

While the above Scripture pertains specifically to the “chasm” set in place between the heaven and hell, one does not have to delve very much further into the substance of the 16th Chapter of the Gospel According to Luke, before one realizes that it is the rich man who is in hell, and the poor man in heaven.

This is yet another instance of what I said in yesterday’s speech, and what I say continuously to all who would undertake an objective study of the Holy Bible. Despite the Prosperity Gospel and the modern-day deception that equates material gain with spiritual fulfillment, the Bible in general does not hurl warnings at the poor. It hurls warnings at the rich — all throughout the Book.

And as far as that smile we’re supposed to plaster on our plastic faces every morning before we sign our lives away to the daily grind, are there any particular references in the Bible to Jesus having smiled? None whatsoever. But there’s a reference to what Jesus did, rather than smile:

Jesus wept.

And that’s the 35th verse in the 11th chapter of John, in case anyone wants to look it up and actually read the Book (hint hint).

I get tired of smiling myself. Lately I’ve been looking at my picture here, and all I can think of is “Wipe that smile of your face, you phony hypocrite! This message is serious business, and you look like you’re trying to sell me a used car.”

I’ll change the picture. I’ll change it — because this is serious business. The chasm between heaven and hell might be a gulf we will never be able to bridge. But we need to bridge the Class Gap in America — and soon. If we don’t, we might just lose our country.

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Piano Album & Recently Published Pieces

This will be brief.

I’ve been posting samples of my piano playing every Friday for a few months now.   Jan and I have now finished preparing an LP of the most popular of these tunes.  We’re going to sell CD’s, and have also posted the album on  BandCamp, where it is far sale for only $10.  Also, individual songs can be purchased for only one dollar.    We will apply the proceeds toward the production of my musical Eden in Babylon, which explores the effects of homelessness on the youth of today’s America.

If anyone is interested in obtaining a CD and assisting me toward this cause, please drop $10 into the pool by clicking on the donate button below.   Then leave me info as to how to get the album to you in my Contact Form.   The online version of the album may be found here.  

Other news is that I have now been published 25 times in Street Spirit and twice on Classism Exposed, after having escaped twelve years of grueling, demeaning homelessness in the San Francisco Bay Area — and after never having been published before in my life!  The most recent such articles may be found on the link below:

STORIES ABOUT HOMELESSNESS, CLASSISM AND CHRISTIANITY

Although I try to post something substantial here every Thursday along the lines of the causes about which I am passionate, the “Thursday Blog of Substance” will have to wait another week or so.  I’m trying to prepare a detailed post examining the effects of classism in the behavioral health industry, and hopefully it will be ready soon.

Thank you all for your love and support.   May the Force be with you — and by all means, be a Jedi, and not a Sith.  ;)

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Tuesday Tuneup Thirteen

Trigger warning – portions of this Tuesday’s tuneup are not for the faint of heart.  If your stomach is strong, read on.  If not, it’s a long one, and you might as well pass it by.

Q. Do you know who I am?

A. I don’t know, man. Some kind of gadfly I can’t swat.

Q. Why have you summoned me?

A. Because I’m a hypocrite.

Q. You? A hypocrite?

A. You heard me.

Q. Whatever makes you think a thing like that?

hypA. Revelation. Revelation of my own hypocrisy. You might say, my hypocrisy has been revealed to me.

Q. Why are you repeating yourself, in so many words?

A. Because it will probably take a lot of words to drum the Revelation of Hypocrisy into my own thick head.

Q. As though you don’t quite believe it yourself?

A. Exactly. I mean, look at it! Who wants to be thought of as a hypocrite? Let alone, by one’s own self?

Q. Do you expect me to answer that?

A. No – but I can. The only person who wants to think of their own self as a hypocrite is a person who doesn’t care. A game player. A sociopath. Someone who puts forth one face in front of one fellow, and another face in front of another.

Q. And you do not do that?

A. I didn’t say I don’t. I actually do. Especially when I’m — loose. In a good space. On a roll. Enjoying the sunshine. Having fun. You ought to hear the kind of b.s. that comes out of my mouth when I’m feeling good.

Q. Do you mean that you have to feel bad in order not to be a hypocrite?

A. That’s a good question. I would guess that ultimately, the answer will be no. I will eventually be able to accede to a place of Zero Hypocrisy without losing my ability to have fun in life. But in the meantime, I might have to go through some hell.

Q. What kind of hell?

A. This kind. The very kind in which you and I engage. The hell of ruthless self-examination, with an eye toward facing the bitter truth.

Q. Why is the truth bitter?

A. Because of what it tells me about myself. For example, consider the theme of social stigma. It’s all over my blog, and practically everything I’ve written throughout the past two years. I hate being stigmatized. I hate to be thought of, for example, as some kind of low life tweaker scum bag, just because I was homeless in the Bay Area for all those years. And I hate it when my fellow homeless or formerly homeless brothers and sisters are thought of that way. I will defend my family to the hilt.

Q. Doesn’t that sound rather noble of you? As though you have integrity? And courage? And not hypocrisy?

A. It might sound that way. But things are not always what they sound like. For one thing, as much as I abhor being stigmatized, I myself stigmatize whole huge groups of people. Not homeless people, of course. But other social groups.

Q. Like whom?

A. Like doctors, for example. I have this insane idea that all doctors are money-making control freaks who act as though they hold the keys to my Divine Human Body. The nerve of those damn doctors acting like they own me!

Q. Has a doctor recently acted like he owned you?

A. Maybe. Maybe not. The point is, I *think* that he has. And why do I think that? Because I stigmatize all doctors. I lump them all into one bag. They’re all a bunch of fat cats driving Cadillacs, for all the slack I give them. But the point of fact is that there’s a doctor in this very town who has performed the one good thing that a doctor has ever done for me, in all of my 65 years of wandering the surface of this mysterious planet.

Q. And what did that doctor do?

A. He yanked out my toenail.

Q. And this was a good thing??

A. Yes. Because he did it the right way, so that it wouldn’t grow back the wrong way.

Q. Had somebody else done it the wrong way?

A. Yes. I myself. I yanked it out myself one day. Didn’t feel a thing, by the way (thanks to the local anesthetic of choice.) Felt fine the next day too. But it grew back the wrong way.

Q. So this one doctor did something the right way?

A. Yes. There is therefore at least one good doctor on the face of the globe. Or at least, he’s good on a good day.

Q. And on a bad day?

A. Prescribed me an antidepressant which you’re not supposed to prescribe to people who have Bipolar One disorder. Almost lost my job on it the next time I tried to play piano at the church.

Q. You play piano at a church?

A. Not any more I don’t. I eventually lost the job anyway. Or quit, or something like that. I think it was mutual.  But that’s besides the point.

Q. And what, may I ask, is the point?

A. The point is that not all doctors are insensitive fat cats driving Beemers treating my Divine Human Body like a set of nuts and bolts. And not all homeless people are worthless low life scum bags. In fact none of them are. Yet homeless people are stigmatized by the society. And doctors are stigmatized by me. Doctors – and whole other groups of people.

Q. Like whom?

A. Technocrats. Rich kids. Trump Supporters. Juggaloes. All kinds of people. Even gang bangers.

Q. Um – how can you *not* stigmatize a gang banger?

A. What do you mean?

Q. Aren’t gang bangers by definition a bunch of mindless thugs?

A. Not necessarily. Let’s take Arthur for example. (Not his name.) Brought up on the streets of Oakland California, gang affiliations, twenty year old kid who followed me from my spot on Shattuck near the Berkeley BART station one day, him and his buddy, knocked me on the head with a gun, threatened to kill me, and barreled me over the head (him and his buddy) about ten or twelve times while shouting: “I’m gonna kill you, White Motherfucker! I’m gonna kill your fucked up white ass, bitch!”

Q. And you survived?

A. Obviously I survived.  All they wanted was my Chromebook.   I gave it to them and they ran off, looking back at me.   They didn’t really want to kill me.

Q. But still, how can you not stigmatize people like that as heartless scum bags?

A. Oh don’t get me wrong.  I could.  Sure I could.  But not after a couple years had rolled by, and I’d had quite a few serious conversations with the deluded young chap.

Q. What did these conversations entail?

A. Lots of things. Ideas how he could better his life. How he was happier when he was with his girlfriend. How he was actually a pretty intelligent guy. And on his end, how he wished he could help me get inside – because he was inside –

Q. Inside?

A. Means, living indoors, like a non-homeless person.

Q. But wasn’t he brought up on the streets of Oakland?

A. Yes, but eventually fell in love, met a gal, moved in with her. I’m pretty sure that’s what happened. In any case, he came up one day to tell me he was “in house” and that because he knew I was an Old Guy and I still had to live outside, he wanted to help me in any way he could.

Q. And you believed him?

A. Yes and no. I didn’t believe he could help me. But I believed that was what was in his heart.

Q. But couldn’t he just have felt guilty?

A. Sure! But that in itself is a good thing. It’s the thugs who never feel guilty that you have to worry about.

Q. Why did you keep hanging around this guy?

A. (laughing) Oh brother, you do not know the streets! Down there, you have no choice but to keep hanging around with everybody. It’s not as though there’s any escape from anyone else out there. People stalk you, they approach you in the dead of night, they wake you up to ask you for cigarettes, and they don’t believe you when you tell them you do not smoke. They are always engaging with you, one way or the other. Best you can do is try to be on as good terms with everybody, and be ready for anything.

Q. How did you put up with it for as long as you did!?

A. That’s an easy one. I didn’t believe I had a choice.

Q. Seriously?

A. Seriously. The message I kept getting, from all sides, was that I had no choice. I was homeless, I was therefore a mere mutation of a true human, with defects so severe that I was consigned to permanent, everlasting homelessness — in this world and the next.  Not only would I not ever be anything other than homeless, *could* not be anything other than homeless, and should not be anything other than homeless. I was regarded this way with such unanimous agreement, I figured they must all be right. How could they all be wrong?

Q. But how could they all think such a thing?

A. Ha – you drive a hard bargain.  Let me correct myself.   They did not all think these things. Some of them even thought the opposite. They thought I had as much choice, as much privilege, as they did. They thought that the easiest thing in the world should be to pick myself up by my bootstraps and pull myself out of the damn mess. Yet it wasn’t nearly as easy as some of them thought.

Q. But who were they? I mean, who were the ones who thought you had no choice?And who were the ones who thought you had all the choice in the world?

A. In general, the homeless social workers were the ones who figured I didn’t have a choice, and my old friends who still lived inside were the ones who thought I had all the choice in the world. But you ask me to stigmatize, which is the very thing it has been revealed I must avoid. So I won’t. I will instead generalize – as I just did.

Q, Generalize?

A. Generalize.

Q. How is that different than stigmatize?

A. Big difference. Stigmatize is when you judge an individual based on general characteristics of a social group to which it is perceived they belong. That individual may in reality have none of those characteristics whatsoever. Generalize is when you correctly assess the overall characteristics of a social group, and describe the group according to that generalization.

Q. Do you have a degree in Sociology?

A. Don’t hit my sore spot!  You know I can’t read worth beans. I tried a music degree but couldn’t get through the Music History reading load, though I tried four times. And my philosophy major? You can only imagine how poorly that one went! But don’t press my buttons, please.

Q. Consider them unpressed, or depressed — or something like that — and I promise not to repress them — but really, if you have no trained educational certificate, however did you come up with this distinction? And what gives you the hutzpah? The daring? The audacity to presume that your perceptions are valid?

A. Look, dude. When you sit down on a street corner flying a sign on a sidewalk for five years, you have a lot of time to think things over. You also have a lot of time to watch people. I thought things over. And I watched.

Q. What did you see?

A. People. All kinds of people. And you know what I noticed about them all?

Q. What?

A. Every damn one of them was an individual, with unique characteristics unseen in any other. Sure they belonged to groups and factions. Sure there was stratification. But one thing I knew for sure, is that they were all unique, and distinguished by bonds of flesh from one another.

Q. Even the gang bangers? Even the thugs?

A. Hey – a couple of gang bangers were walking up one time looking tough when I was sitting with a bunch of Street Kids on a sidewalk playing a guitar. As soon as they heard me, they both broke into dance. So they had something in common other than the fact that they used drugs, dealt drugs, and occasionally engaged in violence to get what they wanted.  They had a natural feel for the rhythm of Music.  They all had it.  What a beautiful thing!  So how can I stigmatize them?

Q. But even in your saying that, doesn’t one still get the feeling that they have more in common as a social group than they have separately as individuals?  How can you answer that?

A. By going back to the example of Arthur. (Not his name.) Have I ever told you the story about running into him at the Au Coquelet cafe at around 1:30 in the morning?

Q. I don’t know – have you?

A. Probably not. So here goes.

coq

A. I walked into Au Coquelet late at night one night and Arthur was sitting alone at one of the tables, looking glum. As he noticed me, he motioned me to sit with him. Reluctantly, I complied.

Q. Reluctantly?

A. Well let’s face it. The Kid had knocked me over the head with a gun about three years before and threatened my life. I didn’t exactly love running into him.

Q. But you sat with him anyway?

A. Didn’t want to offend him. But that’s all beside the point. It’s what he said at the table that got to my heart.

Q. What did he say?

A. He said:

Arthur: Andy, I think I have brain damage.

Andy (gulps): Why do you think that, Arthur?

Arthur: I’ve been hit on the head too many times with too many guns.

Andy: Uh, er, yeah. Well, uh, I myself have been hit on the head with a gun or two in my day.

Arthur: (warmly) I know you have, Andy.

Andy: And I don’t worry about me having brain damage. I just figure — the wounds heal.

Arthur: Your wounds maybe. Mine are way too deep.

Andy: What do you mean?

Arthur: All my life, my whole fanily, whenever they needed to get a point across, they hit me on the head with a gun.

Andy: Damn man, that sucks!

Arthur: It gave me some deep wounds. Too deep. It’s hard to find where the actual hurt is, but I know it’s damaged my brain.

Andy: Maybe. But I can tell you what part of you it hasn’t damaged.

Arthur: What part is that?

Andy: Your heart.

The Questioner is silent.

Before you leave this page, please say a prayer for Arthur. God put a burden on my heart for him this morning. And no, it’s not his name, but God will know who you mean. After all, people have called God all kinds of names over the centuries, not all of them very kind.  And God took that hurt, and loved them anyway. And so did Arthur. Pray for him, please, in God’s Good Name.

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Anything Helps – God Bless!

Handling Homelessness

The question was posed on Quora as to whether one felt one could “handle” a week of homelessness.  Here’s my answer.   

Being as I handled about twelve years of it, you’d think my answer would be “yes.” But having lived indoors for almost two years now in very favorable situations (first alone, then with a congenial partner), I would have to say that I honestly don’t know.

I feel as though I’ve been pampered by all the convenient luxuries of indoor living. I’ve been spoiled for so long that I’ve gotten soft.  At this point, I can’t claim that I could go back and handle even a single day of homelessness — let alone an entire week, let alone twelve years.

You see, things are different for me now internally than they were in the days when I successfully “handled” being homeless. Back then, I handled homelessness on the basis of believing that there was no way out. For the first two or three years, I kept looking for a way out, and not finding it.

homeless for a weekThen one day I had a revelation. I realized that I needed to embrace homelessness completely and learn how to deal with it on its own terms. Those terms included a silent hustle for day-to-day survival that easily consumed more than forty hours each week — in other words, the time consumption of a full time job. So I gave myself to the homeless experience, and I prided myself on how well I was handling it. But I did so in the spirit of believing that I had no other choice.

Now, however, I know that I do have a choice. That’s why I said that things are different for me internally than they were back then.  Now that I know for sure that there is more for me in life than to remain homeless for the rest of my days, I honestly don’t know that I could ever tolerate being homeless again. I wouldn’t be able to just shrug my shoulders and resign myself to its misery, like I used to. I would know that there was a way out, and I would actively seek that way out from the get-go, possibly to the exclusion of being willing or able to tolerate the homeless experience at all.

And there is, by the way, a way out. I am living proof of this. The way out may differ from one person to the next, but I can tell you for sure that there is a way. As I’ve shared here before, I was absolutely certain that I was going to be homeless for the rest of my days, and that I would die a meaningless death in a city gutter. That this did not happen, and I instead am poised to write these words meaningfully today, is not only a miracle in my own life experience, but a sign of hope for anyone facing homelessness at any level, for any reason.

So, while my honest answer to this question would have to be, “I don’t know,” it does lead to an interesting theme. Life is meant to be lived, to be fully embraced and received for everything that it is and possibly can be. Too often we consider our days to be drudgery and tedium, a general drain on our psychic reserves. I was only able to handle homelessness by embracing it completely. To be honest with you, it’s the way that I handle my present life of highly favorable indoor living, conducive in every way to the ongoing production of my creative work.

My years of homelessness have changed me completely. To my own estimation, I am a much more principled, purpose-driven individual than I ever was before I first became homeless in the year 2004. One way that I have changed is that I no longer see life as an aimless, shiftless shuffle, the way it seemed for so many years before. Life is this amazing gift from unspeakable, invisible life-giving dimensions far beyond our capabilities of human comprehension. As such, all life, whether homeless or sheltered, or on the battlefields for that matter, calls out to be appreciated as the incredibly colorful and fascinating mystery that it is.

So I think that in general, we need to escape the mentality of life being drudgery, something we can at best hope to “handle” or “survive.” Even homelessness was no longer misery, once it had been embraced. My choice right now is to embrace indoor living, with all its unprecedented benefits. If that choice ever changes, given all I have just said, I’m sure you’ll be among the first to know.

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Anything Helps – God Bless!

 

Homeless and Sick

Recently I’ve been answering questions pertaining to homelessness on Quora, a site dedicated to the distribution of useful, factual information.  Below is a transcript of my answer to the question: “What do homeless people do when they get sick?”

I would like to address this one in a hopefully unbiased way based entirely on my own personal experience as one who once spent the better part of twelve years on the streets.

The short answer is: they don’t. E.R. rooms in hospitals are not accustomed to accepting someone who has caught a severe cold or a bad case of the flu and doing anything other than providing them with medicines and advising them to rest in bed for 7–10 days. The problem with this, for the homeless person, is that they like-as-not don’t have a bed to rest in.

I watched five people die of hypothermia overnight when a mere two dollars would have afforded any one of them an all night stay on a bus, in order to get warm. Bus drivers in my area were notorious for showing no mercy to homeless people when they didn’t have proper fare, even if the bus was only sparsely populated on a graveyard run.

Myself, I am fortunate enough to have been gifted with an unusually strong immune system. Throughout the twelve years, I only caught a flu twice.

poor and sickThe first time was roughly nine years into my homeless experience, in December of 2013. When my friend on the East Coast (3000 miles away from me) found out I was ailing, she immediately sent me $700 off of her credit card, asking me to pay it all back at the beginning of the month, when I got my government check. The idea was to put me in a hotel room for 7–10 days so I could recover in full.

I did recover, and I did pay her back, though it took most of my government check. It was worth it, to spare my life.

The second time was different, and much worse. I had gotten a bed in a homeless shelter, where I am pretty sure I caught the flu. I went to the doctor, who said it was “viral bronchitis,” and that I was to rest in bed for ten days. When I went back, and they saw the thing that said “viral bronchitis,” and that it was contagious for the first three days, they freaked out and kicked me out of the shelter. I’m pretty sure “viral bronchitis” is just a high-fallutin’ name for a kind of flu, but they kicked me out anyway. In retrospect, they’d have probably kicked me out even if I said it was a flu.

The mistake I made there was honesty. Lots of guys in the men’s dormitory at the shelter were heaving and wheezing and coughing like mad. I was the only one who went to the doctor to try and do anything about it, and who let the shelter managers know what was up. So out I went into the cold.

Returning to the hospital, I implored them to let me stay there overnight. They declined, on the basis that homeless people came in all the time requesting overnight stays on various pretexts. So, they reasoned, if they let me in, they’d have to let the whole lot of us in. No can do.

After that I tried an all-night bus. But the riders on the bus complained so much about my obviously sick condition, they got the driver to kick me out.

Left out in the elements with the flu, the rest is history. My story is told on my blog Eden in Babylon under the title “Somebody Gave Easily.” (It has also been published in Street Spirit.) If you’re interested, you can find the pertinent stories and read them.

The upshot was that I fell down on my knees and pleaded with God to put an end to twelve years of totally unpredictable, totally unreliable, anything-can-happen-anywhere-anytime Homelessness. That prayer was answered.

Two weeks later I had an apartment in another State, and three weeks later I had a job — after being considered unemployable for over 12 years in the San Francisco Bay Area. Prayer works, when it is delivered with fervency, from the heart.

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Tuesday Tuneup Ten

Q. Do you know who I am?

A. Do you ever listen to my answer to that question?

Q. Why have you summoned me?

A. I guess not.  Well, I summoned you because I am disgruntled.

Q. Disgruntled?

A. Is there an echo in here?

Q. Why are you disgruntled?

A. Cognitive dissonance.

Q. Meaning?

A. I simultaneously hold to two conflicting systems of values.

Q. Specifically?

A. As a Christian, I believe in forgiving those who have wronged me.  As a guy who spent twelve years on the streets, I believe in rewarding loyalty and punishing betrayal.  

Q. Can’t you forgive them and punish them at the same time?

A. (nods) The concept of chastening.  I’m afraid only God has the rights on that one.

Q. But supposing your son or daughter had wronged you, wouldn’t you forgive them and still “chasten” them, as you say?

A. Sure I would.  But these people are not my sons and daughters, nor am I their father.  One of them is a 63 year old man.  Another is 62.

Q. What about their own fathers?

A. Neither of them is alive.  And if they were, I doubt they’d take my side.

Q. Then doesn’t that leaves the Father God to do the chastening?

A. But Father God might not be their father.   

Q. How can that be?  Is not God the father of all?  

A. Not necessarily.  According to Scripture, their father is either God the Father, or “their father the devil.”  Look what Jesus said once:

You are of your father the devil, 
and you want to do the desires of your father. 
He was a murderer from the beginning, 
and does not stand in the truth 
because there is no truth in him. 
Whenever he speaks a lie, 
he speaks from his own nature, 
for he is a liar and the father of lies. 
But because I speak the truth, 
you do not believe Me. 
“Which one of you convicts Me of sin? 
If I speak truth, why do you not believe Me? 
He who is of God hears the words of God; 
for this reason you do not hear them,
because you are not of God.”

— John 8:44-47

Q. Do you really think it’s all that black and white?   Are there a bunch of liars that are children of the devil and another batch of truth-seekers that are, like, God’s kids?

A. (nods again) Black and white thinking.  I don’t like the concept much either.  But as the article I just linked to points out, a lot of times we engage those approximations because the language lacks wording that will sufficiently describe the “middle ground” or “gray area” without having to use too many words, thus impeding communication.

Q. What do you mean by that?

A. Well, take the word “God” for example.  Any intelligent person engaged in the vaguest search for a definition of that word will first have to admit that “God” is only a word.  Like all words, it has a meaning.  Many meanings.  Different meanings for different people, and so forth.  So one person will say, “I don’t believe in God,” based solely on their preconceptions as to what that word means.

To one person, “God” is an old man with a long gray beard sitting in the clouds somewhere.  Do I believe that meaning?  No, I do not.  But the same person who holds to that idea of “God” will often speak of a “force” or a “higher power” or even of the Universe.  Who’s to say that those descriptives are not of God?  And yet, they say they don’t “believe in God.”  To me, it seems that they do believe in God.   They just won’t use the word God, because it’s loaded down with stigmatic preconceptions.

Q. Then why do you keep using the word “God?”

A. Ease of use.  It’s simply easier to say the single word “God” than to keep saying, “Spirit or Power of the Universe or whatever you want to call it.”  I get tired of using too many words when one will suffice.  I use too many words as it is already without having to add yet more words to the mix.  

Q. But why does the single word have to be “God?” Why not use some other word, if “God” is so loaded down with stigma?

A. (frowns) I find they all fall short.  The other words “Spirit” or “Universe’ somehow lack sufficient power or personality for me — or maybe command or authority — something like that.  I don’t know exactly.  But really, Questioner dear, aren’t we veering a bit astray of the subject?

Q. And what, pray tell, is the “subject?”

A. The subject is the black-and-white codification of humanity into a batch of Satan’s babies as contrasted with the real children of God.   I believe the words of Jesus I quote run deeper than that.

Q. In what way?

A. In lots of ways.  For one thing, I think we’re all born “children of the devil” in the sense that we’re too unsophisticated to grasp the concept of a loving Father God apart from our own earthly fathers — who, let’s face it, might not be all that loving.  We’re innocent.  We’re vulnerable.  We’re easy to con, to manipulate.  I learned that on the streets.  The people who were pushovers seemed to be so faultless, yet in a very real sense they were the devil’s babies.   The hustlers, the thieves — they had them over a barrel.  In order to realize the authority of the True God, and to see yourself as His child, there has to be some kind of revelation, leading up to a transformation.  One gets to the point where one refuses to be hustled any further.  One says to oneself: “Screw these guys!  I’m a child of God!  I don’t have to put up with their garbage.”

Q. One says?  Or you say?

A. Both – along with a lot of other people who have managed to escape all the trappings of street life.  I’m a lot better off spiritually than I was earlier on.  I was such a pushover I believed all those lies I heard from pretentious preacher’s pulpits.   It’s like I always say, before the age of 51, I believed just about anybody who wore a badge.

Q. And now you don’t?

A. No, I don’t.  And obviously, in the passage I quote, Jesus didn’t either.  Those were Pharisees he was talking to — religious hypocrites very much like those who betrayed me.  Like I said, there’s a lot of depth to what the Master is saying here.  He speaks on many levels.

Q. Such as?

A. This.

(The Answerer takes a very deep breath.)

A. There are people who are so caught up in the game that they can’t tell lies from truth.  They lie so much and are lied to so often, they come to expect it from everyone.  You would think that the truth would stand out like an orchid in a petunia patch with people like that.  But somehow it doesn’t.  They are so used to lies, that when someone speaks the truth like Jesus did, they don’t hear it.  Their minds immediately begin to speculate and calculate.  

Speculate – by which I mean they speculate as to just what kind of a scam the truthful person is trying to pull.

Calculate – meaning they calculate a response designed to trap the one who tells the truth, and get them to say something completely inconsistent, to prove them a liar.

Q. And you are not one of those people?

A. Sure I am – in a certain context.  I test people all the time.  But the testing is of a different nature, because it follows an inward process of trying to dredge out the lies within my own heart.

Q. Are you lying to me, Andy?

A. Verily, verily, I tell you no lie.  But this is because I find myself lying to myself at times, and compelled to share that lie to others.  And when I do, I stop to examine my motives.  What am I trying to conceal?  Who am I afraid of?  Who am I trying to impress?

Q. Then what happens?

A. Then, when someone like that fellow who betrayed me lies to me, I don’t swallow his lies, because I see the same lies in my own self.

Q. Really?

A. Really.

Q. So the streets have made you sharper?

A. Can’t speak for my sharpness.  I’m an old guy, and my intellectual powers are naturally on the wane.  But I’m a bit more discerning between falsehood and truth.

Q. Andy, what is the bottom line?

A. This.

(Another deep breath is taken.)

Q. People seem to think that all those years on the streets are supposed to have crippled me to the point where I should have no higher goal than to sit in some meeting and raise my hand as an alcoholic or a drug addict, and then get down on my knees (and stay on my knees) and humble myself before every Tom, Dick, and Harry on the block.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

I came off the streets realizing I no longer had to take crap from just anybody.  I came off the streets seeing through all the Mainstream garbage that I swallowed so wholeheartedly before.  I came off the streets discerning that all those money-chasing money-hoarding money-worshipers who look down on poor people are the liars — not me.  They lie to their own selves, and yet they don’t stop to look within, to really see what’s inside them, to be able to discern with accuracy what’s going on around them.

So the bottom line is, I’m not going to get down on my knees before all those Mainstream robot clones, or to their “God,” whoever they think he is, or cow-tow to whatever they think it means to be a “Christian.”  I know what I’m about – or beginning to find out anyway – and on my spiritual journey, I ain’t taking no shit from nobody.

Q. Do you want to know what I think?

A. Shoot.

The Questioner is silent.

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Welcome to Homelessness

I make a point of remembering important dates in my life.  One would think that the first night I slept outdoors, inaugurating twelve long years of homelessness, would be a very important date.  That I don’t know the date is telling.  Who wants to know a date like that?

I do know that I was prescribed the psychiatric drug klonopin on the morning that my mother was to die (unbeknownst to me) on October 9, 2003.   I do know I was asked to resign my teaching job on February 17, 2004.   I know that I was illegally evicted from my place of residence on April 1, 2004.   Though I became legally homeless on that date, I still had enough money for motel rooms to keep me afloat for another month or more.

The day when I stopped using klonopin was certainly one that I remember.   I went off of 4mg of klonopin cold turkey on May 10, 2004.  I never even had the seizure they told me I would have, as they tried to convince me to keep taking that God-awful drug that had lost me my shirt.  I was so relieved to finally be free of that stuff.  My short-term memory returned, I began to speak coherently again, and I started to remember the names of the people with whom I was conversing.

Though my living situation by that time was sketchy — an illegally parked motor home in the back yard of a friend of mine – at least I was still indoors.  But then, by May 20, 2004, I had lost my reading glasses after sleeping in Golden Gate Park. It was that day that inspired the first piece of literature I ever had published on the subject of homelessness: A New Pair of Glasses.

So it was at some point between May 10th and May 20th that I sat on a bench at a CalTrain station all night long, sometimes nodding off, sometimes waking with a start — to the sound of a roaring engine, or laughter from late night carousers, or some other noise in the night.   Cops would drive by, and I feared interrogation.  But they never stopped me.  Eventually, the sky grew light.  I grabbed a coffee at a nearby doughnut shop, then walked up to the church where for several years, I had been the Director of Music.

Pete, the pastor, had known of some of my recent struggles, and we seemed to be on good terms.  I had visited with him more than once in the past few months, and I figured he might be able to help me get up to San Francisco, where my friend Tony had promised to help.   As I strolled to the church on that bright sunny morning, I pondered how easily I had made it through the night.  There was nothing so far about homelessness that seemed intolerable.

When I arrived at the church, I saw that the Hispanic minister was there, along with two friends.  He did not recognize me from the 90’s, where he had seen me at the church organ many times.  Walking up to shake his hand, I told him that I remembered him from all of those joint preaching sessions, where he and Pete would take turns behind the pulpit on days when the Spanish-speaking congregation joined in with us English-speaking folks.

But he eyed me cautiously, as though I were somehow suspect.  The others looked at me strangely, too.  It seemed they did not believe me.  I could understand if the Hispanic pastor would not have recognized me.  But I couldn’t understand why I wasn’t being believed.  That seemed strange.  I had provided at least enough information for him to have made the connection.

“Pastor Peter will not be in today,” he said, in a guarded fashion.  “This is his day off.”

“Oh that’s right,” I said.  “He takes Mondays off after preaching on Sundays.  Well — I’ll just come back tomorrow again at eight.   Just let him know that Andy stopped by.”

“He won’t be in at eight tomorrow.  He never comes in before noon, you know.”

“He doesn’t?” I asked, perplexed.  “I just saw him a couple months ago.  He was in at eight as usual, the same way he always came in at eight every morning for years, when I worked here before.”

“Please, no more, sir,” he said.  “I cannot help you, and Peter will not help you.   Please go back to wherever you came from.”

love thy neighborAt that, a strange mix of fear and anger ripped through my body.  The man had not only lied to me about Pete’s schedule, but he blatantly refused to even consider that I might have been telling the truth.  Moreover, I had recognized him; I knew exactly who he was, and I could not possibly have changed my appearance so hugely in the past seven years, that he would think I was anyone other than who I said I was.

“And you call yourself a Christian pastor?” I said, outraged. “I’ll have you know I’m a decent guy who’s down on his luck, and you’re treating me like a scum bag.”

“Go!” he shouted, as his friends joined in.  “Go!  Go!  Go away!!”

Talk about your Monday morning! 

I stormed away in torment.  Somehow I knew at that moment that the worst was yet to come.   The worst thing about homelessness, I somehow sensed, would have nothing to do with weather conditions, or malnutrition, or even sleep deprivation — or any of the other things that people always ask about when they find out that one is homeless.  It would have to do with something they never ask about: the way I would be treated.   I would be cast out like a leper, as though one would contract a deadly disease just from being in my presence.

But if nothing else comes of my recounting this horrible memory, at least I have finally learned the exact date.   After all, it was Monday.   There is only one Monday between May 10, 2004 and May 20, 2004.   So the first night I slept outdoors was May 17, 2004.

How could I forget?

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Tuesday Tuneup Nine

Q. Do you know who I am?

A. Yes.

Q. Why have you summoned me?

A. Because it’s Wednesday.

Q. Uh – isn’t the Tuesday Tuneup supposed to take place on Tuesday?   And haven’t we been here before?

A. You asked me two questions at once.

Q. What’s wrong with that?

A. And now there are three unanswered questions!   Really, sir, you overload me.  And I’m already overloaded.

Q. Why so overloaded?

A. Perhaps you haven’t heard. 

(Takes a deep breath.)

when_opportunity_knocksI’m engaged in this huge process of getting all these singers and musicians to learn my music, so as to record three songs from my musical Eden in Babylon and have the long-awaited demo recording finished by Sunday night.  It isn’t often that a decent sound engineer offers me free studio services and resources, and his availability will not last forever.   

Q. Do you mean to tell me that you are actually working to a deadline?

A. (sighs) Much as I despise the concept, ’tis true.  

Q. Now why do I find that so hard to believe?

A. Probably because I am noted for espousing wild philosophies I picked up after years of living on the streets.  I’ve even gone so far as to say that no human being should ever be required to show up a specific place at a specific time.

Q. But don’t you work better when you don’t have a deadline?

A. I do, yes.  Others do not.  But the point is that my own work as the composer-playwright of Eden in Babylon is already complete.  It’s only a matter of getting a finite number of people to respond accordingly.  It may well be that these people work well to deadlines.

Q. And when is this deadline?

A. Four days from today.

Q. Have you — er — succeeded in getting the money together to pay these singers and musicians?

A. Almost.  I am prepared to pay the remaining $150 out of pocket the at this stage.  But I would have to wait till the beginning of the month, which might inconvenience a couple of the singers who are strapped.  And of course, I am also strapped.  I have made myself strapped in order to succeed in this venture, as any other devoted Artist would do.

Q. Won’t you become even more strapped after contributing $150 from your fixed income?

A. Of course.  And I’d prefer the $150 come from somebody who can actually afford it.  Still, the joy of seeing this leg of the project finally coming together after all these years is certainly worth a lot more than $150 to me.

Q. But – but – won’t you starve?

A. I prefer the word “fast,” thank you.

Q. Are you not parsing words?

A. Not at all, sir.  When a starving artist decides to fast in order to produce a work of Art he believes in, it is no longer a matter of health.  It is a matter of Spirit.  For Art is a spiritual matter.  It is a matter of the Heart.

The Questioner is silent.

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Is Poverty a Choice?

I occasionally encounter the “poverty is a choice” mentality, but I can’t help but notice that those who say this often have never been poor and have no real idea what the details of poverty are like. There’s something a bit odious about a rich person trying to tell a person who has been poor and disadvantaged since birth that their poverty is a “choice.”

That said, I have chosen to remain poor at this time in my life, largely because I dislike the effects that having a lot of money has had on certain lifelong old friends of mine. I’ve watched them pursue money, property, and prestige — and I have not watched them become happy. Some of them are downright miserable.

I also dislike the effects that having had a lot of money has had on me. There have been times in my past when I had more money than I knew what to do with. I can sit here without money and dream about all the nice things I would do with a few thousand dollars, but the actual reality is that whenever I encounter money upwards of $5,000 or so, it has a tendency to vanish very rapidly. This leads to a lot of anxieties as to who my actual friends are on this planet. They sure do show up when I have money – whoever they are. I think I’ll remain poor, thank you.

As a poor person, I do not have to worry about who my real friends are. Nobody ever asks me for money, because I don’t have any. A rich person often wonders if somebody is actually his friend, or if they only want their money. I don’t have that worry. If somebody happens to like me, I know that it’s me they like – not my money.

wiser still though poorAs a poor person, I get to work on my inner spiritual issues around money without fear of spending a whole lot of it in the process. Nobody is advising me to go on an expensive retreat or pay for long-term psychotherapy, because both those options are financially out of the question. I find this refreshing, because an hour’s conversation with a caring friend usually works better than several sessions with a psychotherapist. Not to mention, the friend actually cares about me, whereas there’s a good chance the therapist mostly wants my money.  And of course, the friend probably won’t “charge” me anything more than the price of a cup of coffee.  

As a poor person, I actually enjoy running out of money on around the 10th of each month and challenging myself to live without money for the rest of the month. I have found that this is not at all an impossibility; and I believe that I have become a stronger person as a result of this challenge.

As a poor person, I have been able to sit down and write an entire musical — book, music & lyrics — about Homelessness in America. I wrote it from the heart, because I felt the themes I was putting into musical and dramatic form.  When I was a working composer, I wrote money for commission.  I felt forced to write songs, and the pressure of deadlines drastically reduced the authenticity of my work.   

My point? It has to do with integrity. As a poor person, I have developed integrity, and I am proud of the person I have become. When I had money, I had no integrity. I only had money.

When I say, for example. that I am looking for money to pay for singers, musicians, and studio costs to create a demo recording of a few songs from that musical, I mean what I say.  The money will not go into pocket, because I have trained myself to live on minimal means. This is a much happier choice than the earlier kind of choice I made, at a time when I had no inclination to detach myself from worldly concerns.  When I was well-off, my life was all about worldly stuff — passing stuff.  My life as a poor person is all about spiritual stuff — everlasting stuff. Does that make any sense to anyone?

If it does, I’m glad. At this point, I think it’s a lot more likely that 1,000 poor people will each kick down five bucks apiece for me to package this musical of mine, than it is that five rich people will each kick down a thousand bucks. When I talk to wealthy people about my ideas, I have to filter though all kinds of annoying perceptions that they think I’m some kind of a “con artist” or “scammer” or “hustler” trying to put one over on them somehow. When I talk with poor people about my ideas, they usually say: “Great idea, man! I hope that works out for you!” Which experience would you rather have? I think it’s a no-brainer, quite frankly.

Poverty in America is not, for most people, a choice. It is a condition. I myself have made the choice to remain poor, because I don’t care for the effects that money has had on myself and others. Therefore any money toward this project goes to my assistant Danielle — because I have a problem with money (obviously!) and she does not.

I will now cease these deliberations, lest I be construed for having a hidden agenda. My agenda is not hidden — it’s about as open as they come. Information on my project is on my home page, in case anyone’s interested in pursuing this theme a bit further.

I’m not a person who wants money or fame. Been there, done that, too old for all of that. I’m a person who wants to get an important message across about Classism in America. I placed my message in musical-dramatic form — because that’s where I’m strong.

Money is where I’m weak. So, while poverty may not be a choice in most parts of the world, it is my choice. Any other choice, in my 65 years of life experience, has led to disaster.

Thank you for hearing me out.

Note: this post was first submitted on the site Quora, which I am acknowledging in honor of their terms of service.  

 

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The Homeless Monologue

This is in response to a Quora question, to the effect of one’s wondering why so many homeless people seem to be talking to themselves quite a bit.  I didn’t contest this perception.  I did my best to explain the phenomenon, and also referenced another writer who had done the same.  

I appreciated the answer of Adora Myers because this is a side not often seen in the homeless equation.

It is true that a person suffering from paranoid schizophrenia will often believe that s(he) is talking with those who are not actually there. It is also true that many schizophrenics, as well as people suffering from severe PTSD and other mental illnesses, are too ill to effectively access treatment, or else they lack privilege which would render treatment more accessible to them. So they wind up on the streets, more-or-less by default. This is a very sad state of affairs.

invisibleHowever, it is also true that people who have become homeless in large urban areas, especially where there is a sizable concentration of other homeless people, will feign or play-act the known symptoms of these mental disorders in order to protect themselves by making themselves more frightening to would-be assailants and thieves.

I know this to be true, because I did it myself. When I was homeless, I walked around a city that contained over a thousand visible homeless people. As I did so, I composed music in my head. This meant playing drums on my pants legs, guitars and keyboards in the air, and singing tell-tale syllabic sounds such as “Bop Bop Bop” in a manner that conceivably could be construed to be obnoxious.  

People frequently told me to “shut the f—k up” but they also had a way of keeping a distance from me. So this “act” worked in my favor.

Incidentally, I would guess that only about 30% of onlookers realized that I was actually a serious musician in the process of composing music. The other 70% shrugged and said, if they knew me by name: “That’s just Andy. He’s one of the local wingnuts.” If they did not know me by name that was reduced to: “Wingnut.”

Of the 30% who perceived I was writing music, I would say that probably 20% of them appreciated what I was doing. The other 10% frequently showed up with smartphones facing me and grim expressions on their faces, giving me the distinct idea they were out to steal my stuff.

So much for life in the Big City. Glad to be indoors — and far away from all that particular noise.

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Homeless in the USA

On the site Quora, where I am considered to be a “Most Viewed Writer” on the subject of Homelessness, somebody recently posed the question: “How do people become homeless in the USA?”  I answered it quickly according to my experience, and later noticed that it had received over 3,500 views and 73 “upvotes.”  So I figured I’d share it here.  I hope you gain from it.

Having lived in a community of over 1,000 homeless people for five years, and having been homeless and borderline-homeless in other areas for seven additional years, I think I might be qualified to answer this question.

There are many ways that a person can become homeless in America. Let me list four that seem most prevalent:

(1) A sudden medical problem or family crisis that costs a person an unexpected amount of money, making it impossible for them to continue paying rent or mortgage.

(2) Socio-economic factors beyond the scope of individual control; e.g., a persistent rent increase over a period of time that far exceeds any increase in the renter’s income.

(3) A drug or alcohol problem resulting in job loss, eviction, and/or general inability to make rational decisions over the long haul.

(4) A mental health condition that goes untreated or is (as in my own case) misdiagnosed, resulting in one’s taking medications that work to one’s detriment rather than one’s benefit.

My experience is that, in larger urban areas, there is a greater percentage of people who became homeless as a result of socio-economic factors or circumstances beyond their control.

evictionIn smaller, more rural areas, such as the small college town where I now live in Northern Idaho, it is much more difficult to become homeless without sort of “asking for it” by displaying a serious drug or alcohol problem.

I do know that in the two years that I have now successfully rented apartments in my present city – first, a studio, then a one-bedroom, I have done every thing that would have “made me homeless” in situations that arose in the San Francisco Bay Area, where rents are on the average four times as high, but where my fixed income from Social Security has not varied.

Had I not moved to this small college town in the middle of the country, I would have died a meaningless death on the Berkeley city streets. I simply would never have been able to pay the rent. And because I was largely regarded as unemployable due to my mental health condition, I found it difficult to cut through that stigma in order to find a job.

After almost two years of successfully paying my rent every month, I am living a very meaningful and happy life.

All it took was a $200 Greyhound bus ticket to a distant State, and a loan on an apartment deposit, to end twelve years of seemingly inescapable homelessness in the Bay Area. I applied for a part-time job three weeks after I arrived in Idaho, and was hired. I even managed to keep the job for ten months before aspects of my condition caused them to ask me to resign. But by that time, I was established in the community with a church and a solid support group, and I knew how to make ends meet.

I hope this information has been helpful, and of particular use to someone who may be in need.

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White Without Privilege

I like to post a youtube of my piano playing here each Friday.  Although I prepared something yesterday, by the time I got around to uploading it, I noticed that my screen was cracked.  I am now on my older, spare computer — but unfortunately have not yet determined an avenue to get the video onto this computer, and thus onto youtube, from here.  My apologies.  Here’s a Quora answer explaining my theory why there are more White homeless people per capita in the homeless populace in America than there are per capita in large urban areas where homelessness is prevalent.

Briefly, I am not certain (as someone suggested) that the question is “racist.” I believe that statistically, the homeless populace actually is over-saturated with the evidence of White people than those of other races, proportionately speaking.

My general feeling is that it relates to privilege and class distinction. In America, people of privilege are predominantly White, especially as we get into the upper middle and wealthy classes. I have found that among those of privilege, poverty (especially sudden and inexplicable poverty; i.e., such as may have resulted from an unrecognized or misdiagnosed mental health crisis) is often viewed as a sign of moral or practical failing on the part of the person who has fallen into straits.

homeless white man will work for foodIn such instances, there is a widespread feeling that the person can “pull himself up by his own bootstraps” and that this will “teach him” to manage money better, become more responsible, and so forth. This translates to less sympathy for the homeless on the part of the privileged classes, which are predominantly White.

In less privileged classes there is a greater saturation of people of color. Also, the “class gap” separating people in the middle and lower middle classes from those who land on the streets is not so wide. People in the lower classes are more likely to identify with the types of struggles that can lead to homelessness. Combining these factors, one will find that there is not nearly the degree of “blaming the victim” placed upon sudden victims of financial crises as there is among those who view the person in crisis as having “blown his privilege.” Therefore, there will be more compassion toward those who are struggling in the classes that are more multiracial.

I state this perception at the risk of coming across as a racist or a classist. However, I take that risk because I think it is a valid perception. It might explain in part why in a large urban area with a highly visible homeless populace, there really *does* appear to be a disproportionate number of Whites, with respect to the actual proportion of White people per capita, in that same area.

I’ll try to have the piano youtube of my song “Midnight Screams” posted later on today for your pleasure.  In the meantime, if anybody wants to kick down some filthy lucre to help me get a new computer screen, you know what to do. 

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The Missing Homeless Person

A few days ago, this question was posed on the site Quora: “If a homeless person I see on a regular basis suddenly disappears (and no dead body is found), what would police do if I reported him missing?”  I could not speak on the behalf of law enforcement.  But since I was twice the subject of a Missing Persons Report, I did my best to speak on my own behalf.

Twice, during the 12 year period when I was homeless, a person concerned about my whereabouts filed a Missing Persons Report.

The first time, I received a mysterious message from “Joe” on my Facebook that read: “Welfare Check.” The person named Joe identified himself as a Marin County detective.

I did not understand what a “welfare check” was. I told him, quite naively, that I was not on General Assistance (i.e., “welfare”) and that I received no such check.

He explained that a young woman whom I had been working with had been concerned about my whereabouts after having received an alarming email stating I was alone in Golden Gate Park in inclement weather. (This is true, because I sent the email to her and others from a cafe that was near G.G.Park.)

Once I put the twos and twos together, I was able to tell him I was fine and staying temporarily in a motel, and that I was sorry I had caused anyone any consternation.

flying empty signThe second time was a bit different, and actually was more of an inconvenience than anything else. I had been in a halfway house, and I left before the two week term was up. I left because I couldn’t stand being around all the strangers, and I wanted to be alone, and sleep alone outside. (This was always my preference, during the years when I was homeless.)

Again, it came back to me — through Facebook, of all places — that an MPR had been filed and that police were looking for me.

Because I felt I had left the halfway house responsibly, informing the case workers there that I was leaving, I was incensed. I called them up and said:

“How on earth can anyone file a Missing Persons Report on a homeless person? Missing from where?”

Everybody at the North Berkeley Senior Center who had surrounded me at the moment thought this was very amusing, but of course the social worker on the other end of the line failed to see the humor.

So – again this is only my experience. It does show that the police did care, and that part’s good. But it also shows part of the reason why I no longer use Facebook. I value my privacy. If you ever become homeless — if you haven’t been already — I suggest you value yours as well.

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Tuesday Tuneup Six

Q. Do you know who I am?

A. I really wish you would stop asking me that.

Q. Why have you summoned me?

A. Because today’s the Big Day.

Q. You mean, Tuesday?

A. Well – that, too.  But it’s not just any Tuesday.   Barring the catastrophic, I will finally be with my daughter for the first time in two years, and with my ex-wife for the first time in 16 years.   And my ex and I will be sleeping under the same roof for the first time in 28 years.

Q. How did all this come about?

A. I believe you asked me that already, two or three Tuesdays ago.

Q. Can you run it by me again, please?

A. Whew – I barely know where to start.   And I disdain to unveil personal information about my family here.  Let’s just say that I’m a person who was on the streets for about twelve years in the San Francisco Bay Area.  I learned a lot about people during those twelve years, and a lot about life.  Of course times were hard, and moments were miserable.  But I was given valuable information during that period of time that I have since been compelled to share.

sacrificesI have noticed, however, that not everyone wants to hear this information.  They would rather cling to old stereotypes that make them feel comfortable, because the truth would cause them to look inward, into places within themselves of which they are afraid.

Of course this has been disturbing to me.  When I was homeless, I watched as old friends of mine, people with whom I had thought I would be friends forever, began to reject me one by one.  They didn’t return emails or phone calls.  They got all bent out of shape over relatively little things that gave me the feeling that, if any of these people had landed on the streets, they wouldn’t have lasted more than a week or two.

Before too long, I realized that most of these people were never my friends at all.  In fact, there were times when I thought I had never made a friend in my life — until I had become homeless.

While people of privilege were blowing me off left and right with half-truths and transparent forms of Mainstream Doublespeak, homeless people were telling it like it is.  Sure, there were scoundrels among us.  Of course there were those it is best off to avoid, and yet the streets made it next-to-impossible to do so.

I was hit on the head with guns.  I was pistol-whipped.  I was raped.  I watched all my possessions being burnt to bits before my eyes.  Not one person in my former life who professed to believe that Jesus Christ died for my sins lifted a finger to help me.  The only Christian who continued to believe in me, who treated me as a Christian, is a woman who knew me from the Internet, in a distant State, who never ceased to treat me as an equal, as a friend.  And she is among my best friends to this day.   But as far as people from the church I used to attend when I still was making money in this world?

They told me to go to counseling, to see a psychiatrist, to go into some kind of live-in program of some sort, or to merely “check in” to a shelter – as if they had any clue what bureaucracy would be involved, or what atrocities I would be subjected to in that so-called “shelter.”  The shelters in my world were little more than glorified jailhouses, and I far preferred to sleep in seclusion, absolutely alone.

Did any of those Pontius Pilates actually help me?  If you want to call an occasional lunch date at the price of a lecture “help,” I suppose they did.  Believe me, I was grateful enough for the lunch to put up with the lecture, however irrelevant that lecture may have been.

The continual experience of condescension, dismissal, and disrespect that I received from so-called Christians was such a far cry from the acceptance, dignity, and love that I was receiving from my homeless friends, I would become infuriated at the thought that these “Christians” actually thought they were doing the will of God, when they continually treated a man who was suffering like a bag of dirt.

Even to this day, I have difficulty getting my own eyes to see the naked truth.  Even in the last week, I appealed to former friends of mine, thinking surely they would express some happiness or joy over this reconciliation — when all they did was continue to raise their eyebrows and write me off as “crazy.”

But when the mother of my only daughter reappeared in my life, and I had learned that she had been through trials very similar to that which I and others endure on the streets, she didn’t write me off as crazy.

And the Lord Himself seeks such to worship Him.

Q. John?  Chapter Four?

A. John.  Chapter Four.  The day will come when those who worship God will worship Him neither in Jerusalem nor on the mountain – but the true worshipers will worship Him in Spirit and in Truth.

The Questioner is silent.

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Tuesday Tuneup Five

Q. Do you know who I am?

A. I have some pretty good ideas.  But I can’t say as I’ve figured it out completely, as of yet.

Q. So why have you summoned me?

A. Because it’s Tuesday.

Q. Um — isn’t it — Thursday?

A. Darn. Must have lost a couple days there. I know – it’s unlike me. I’ve just been very distracted of late.

Q. Distracted?   By what?

A. What do you think?   I’ve got my daughter coming up with her mother on Saturday, I’ve offered her Mom a place to stay here, my daughter’s going to get her own apartment and apply to the University here, I haven’t even seen my daughter since I left Berkeley almost two years ago, haven’t seen my ex in over fifteen years – that right there is enough to distract a guy.

Q. How did this family reunion, so to speak, come about so quickly?

A. I don’t remember.  I think it started when I began to want to help people to get out of the San Francisco Bay Area, especially if they were struggling or on the verge of homelessness, and basically nobody took me up on my offers until I made the right offer to the right person.

Q. Your ex?

A. Exactly.

Q. When was the last time you lived her with her?

A. If I counted right, I believe it was 29 years ago.

Q. Isn’t this a little bit unheard of?

A. It is indeed.  That’s what I like about it.  ;)

The Questioner is silent.

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A Sacrifice of the Heart

If you are a person who knows what it’s like to be poor, have you ever noticed how quick people of privilege are to attribute aspects of poverty to something that has absolutely nothing to do with your financial situation?  Such as, for example, your mental health?

I live in a city of approximately 26,000 people, 30% of whom are at poverty level.  Most of the poor people in this city are reasonably happy and healthy.  This is one reason why I enjoy the unique city in which I live.   But it appalls me how readily some of my wealthier friends will assume that my current poverty must have been caused by a mental health problem, a drug or alcohol problem, or (quite simply) a moral failing. 

Although I will be the first to admit that I have mental health issues requiring treatment, I find it disturbing how often these issues will be cited as the reasons for my impoverished condition.  Many of the wealthier people who say such things would become much crazier than I am, if they, too, were to suddenly lost their shirts as quickly as I did in the year 2004.

The people who most often allude to this fallacy will usually make no attempt to actually understand my condition.  They are clearly looking for a scapegoat — something beyond the scope of their experience that they can use to shift the blame away from the realities of poverty that they do not wish to look at.

“Hey Bob, I really hate to bother you for another loan.  I know you’re busy, but my car just broke down terribly.  I need it to get to work, and I just can’t afford the bill.  Is there any way at all you can help me?”

“Well, Bill, I know you always pay me back, but I’m getting to be a little bit bothered by the fact that you’re not many progress.  Don’t you think it’s high time you dealt with your mental health, so that you won’t be so chronically down on your luck?”

friend in needOnce again, this is classism – pure and simple.   It can be incredibly frustrating when one is doing their best to maintain a healthy relationship to society, and the frequent setbacks endemic to poverty are dismissed as signs of poor mental health.  Of course one’s mental health suffers when encountering such setbacks.  But poor mental health does not cause those setbacks.  This is only an assumption on the part of those whose lives are such that they never have to experience such setbacks, and thus don’t know what those setbacks are like.

In short, they don’t know what it’s like to be poor.

Now here’s another thing I’ve noticed.  It is often assumed that someone who experiences a life crisis that hurls them into abject poverty — or even homelessness — has gotten there as the result of a moral failing.

“Obviously, Bill screwed up.  Nobody gets from where he was to the streets that fast without having done something wrong.   That being the case, I have no sympathy for Bob whatsoever.”

“Amen, Brother Bob.”

But the reality is that many people of privilege are extremely slow to let go of what they’ve got. In many cases, their natural stinginess is the reason why they’ve managed to accrue so much in the first place.  But many poor people, knowing what it’s like to be poor, will give another poor person the shirt off their back.  I myself have been known to give my last twenty dollars to another poor person if I felt they needed it more than I do.  When I do so, I am confident they would do the same for me, if the tables were turned.

A lot of people become poor as the result of something good that they have done — something that a rich person, under the same circumstances, might not do.  For example, if one’s mother or father is in poor health, perhaps dying, a person who is lower middle class might have their parent come live with them, despite having to take on added medical expenses.   A rich person, under the same circumstances, will often send their parent to a retirement home.

Granted, the richer person can afford to send Mom or Dad to the retirement home, and the poor person cannot.  But if you were aging, ailing, and dying, where would you rather be?   In a retirement home among total strangers?   Or with your kids whom you love, knowing that they love you too?  Where would you rather die?   With your children by your side?   Or not?

It is not a moral failing to take care of an ailing parent.  It is actually an act of self-sacrificial love.  Love, in its purest form, involves sacrifice.   When one sends one’s dying mother to an “old folk’s home,” what sacrifice is involved?  Only money.   But when one invites their dying parent to come live with them, that is a Sacrifice of the Heart.

I find it ironic that people of poverty often are more giving and more loving than people of wealth, and yet in our society it is often assumed that poverty is an effect of moral failing.   While moral laxity can certainly lead to poverty, it is definitely not the case that poverty necessarily results from it.

When Jesus appeared on the earth, who did he generally hang around?   Rich people or poor people?   Anyone with a cursory background in Scripture will know that he hung around the dregs of society, the outcasts, the lepers, the pariahs, those who were so dirt poor they were ostracized and vilified by the Pharisees and Saducees of their day.

If the first arrival of Jesus Christ were to have occurred today rather than two thousand years ago, you know who He would hang around?

The homeless people.  For my homeless brothers and sisters are the lepers of today’s society.  Let them in!   Let all of us in — before it is too late.

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Tuesday Tuneup Three

Q. Do you know who I am?

A. Not exactly, to be honest with you.

Q. Then why on earth have you summoned me?

A. I’m in existential conflict.  Whoever you are, I have found in the past that you have of helping me through such angst.

Q. Helped you?   By asking you questions?  Incessantly?  Obnoxiously, as it were?

A. Yes.  Despite your incessant obnoxiousness, the many questions you ask have a way of causing me to question my own inclinations.  I therefore examine those inclinations more carefully.

Q. What inclinations?  What are you talking about?

A. I’m inclined to think that a decision I have recently made is going to work against me.  I suspect it will overload me, and thus interfere with my mission.

Q. And what is your mission?

A. Well – “mission” may not be the exact right word.   But I tend to think I’m on this planet in order to make a social statement involving some serious questions and suggestions to my fellow Americans.

Q. Isn’t that somewhat grandiose?

A. Perhaps.  This is where I am conflicted.

Q. What is the essence of the conflict?

A. It is as follows. On the one hand, I want to live a quiet, reclusive life, so that I can write poems, songs, stories, plays, blogs, articles, and perhaps even a novel – or even a thesis – because I strongly feel that I have something  important to say about homelessness, classism, and social stigma.

home sweet homeless 2Q. And on the other hand?

A. On the other hand, I have a strong desire to help out particular homeless people in need; specifically, by letting them stay here in my house, where I have a spare room.

Q. What’s wrong with that?

A. Isn’t it obvious? I need my space in order to write, in order to create.   What if they get in the way?

Q. Why would they get in the way if you have a spare room?

A. Well, it’s not the biggest house on earth, and – and – there are other variables that have me a bit nervous — it could have to do with the nature of the specific individual whom I have recently invited to stay in the room — it could have to with a lot of things — and — and —

Q. Will you please stop beating around the bush?

A. All right.   You painted me into a corner.

A. I invited a Trump supporter to live here.

Q. A Trump supporter!?  To live with you, of all people?

A. I felt for him because he was homeless.   Mercifully, he declined.

Q. And then?

A. I invited a Satan worshipper to live here.

Q. A Satan worshipper!?  To live with you, of all people?

A. I felt for him because he was homeless.  He too declined — although admittedly, he wouldn’t have been nearly as bad as the Trump supporter. 

Q. And then?

A. Somebody else a wee bit closer to home was also facing homelessness.  For the first time in her life, at the age of 59.   Never having been homeless in her life, mind you.  And coming from a farm out in the country, to the cold cruel realities of impending Homelessness in the Big City.   I invited her to live here, and she did not decline.

Q. Who is this person?

A. My ex-wife.

The Questioner is silent.

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Homelessness, Family and Identity

The other day on the Q&A site Quora ,someone asked why homeless people don’t go stay with their families.  The person who asked that question seemed a bit naive, so I thought I’d enlighten them.  

Again, I can only answer by sharing my personal experience. However, it might point to a generality.

I first became homeless in April 2004. In May of that year, I asked my brother if I could stay at his house, where I knew he had a spare room. He said no. I asked him why? He said: “I won’t expand.”

It hurt me. I was not drinking. I was not on drugs. I was out in the cold. Although at the time, I took it as rejection, I later realized that he needed privacy. He probably had some private practice that he wished not to share with anyone, let alone his brother, who might be disdainful of whatever private habit he indulged. That’s just a theory. But I’ll go on.

LGBT Homeless YouthI asked my sister if I could stay at her house. She said no. She, however, gave me a reason. She had a very small house, was aging with health concerns, in a wheelchair, and with live-in care. My presence in the house would not have helped her health, and I can understand that. (She is since deceased.)

I was already running out of relatives, but the point is that once I had asked them all if I could stay there, all of them had said no. At the time, I took it as though there were something terribly wrong with me. But that was not the case. They all had reasons why they couldn’t permit another person in their space.

My best female friend while I was homeless was a woman who had had two strokes, and difficulty speaking. Again, she did not use drugs. But it took great patience to understand what she was saying or trying to do. Her relatives responded by never having her over to their houses, even on holidays and special occasions.

She would cry. “I used to play tennis. I used to wait tables. I used to ride a bicycle.” She would be arrested while she was sleeping, and once spent four nights in jail because the cops had no empathy for her condition. They woke her up because she wasn’t sleeping in the right place – a parking lot — and when she began to talk in strange half-words, they clamped handcuffs on her and put her in a jail.

In other words, she was criminalized for being gravely disabled, and for sleeping.

Believe me, I was homeless for a lot of years. People seemed to think it should have been easy for me to have pulled out of it. But for the better part of twelve years, all roads in the San Francisco Bay Area only led back to homelessness. People would ask me: “What about the halfway house? The rehabs? The shelters? The board and care homes?” Board and care, maybe, I can see that — if I were the type who wanted to completely give up all his freedoms. But I’m not that type – thank God. So it wasn’t too long before I realized that all the well-meaning advice was useless. Those advisers had never been homeless, and they had never been me.

All roads led me back to a quiet spot beneath the stars where nobody could find me and where I could say my prayers. That I am now living indoors and free to illuminate the sordid realities of homelessness to those who do not know, is the answer to those prayers.

I hope this helps.

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Classism, Stigma, and Addiction

Statistics often point to the large percentage of homeless people who are drug addicts.  Recently, I read the figure “26%” in such a context.  That would mean that about one out of every four homeless people is a drug addict.

I don’t doubt that this statistic might be true.  But do you ever hear anybody asking what percentage of upper middle class and wealthy people are drug addicts?   Of course not.  Why would anybody even bother trying to find out?  

This is sheer classism.   I have associated with lots of hard-working people whom I would consider to be “industrious rich,” and you wouldn’t believe the level of legally sanctioned drug dependency that runs rampant in their circles.  Addictive medications such adderol and ritalin, ostensibly prescribed for “Adult ADHD,” are essentially used as high-power wake-up drugs.  It is also not uncommon to see klonopin and ativan used as tranquilizers or as “come down drugs” to ensure sleep after a long hard day.  Pills are routinely popped, often publicly, in an overt effort to manage the stress of an insanely fast-paced life.   

When I was an itinerant music teacher in cities like Burlingame, Foster City, and Menlo Park, almost every person I worked with openly proclaimed that they were using psychiatric drugs.   In fact, they would refer to their psychiatrists as “dope dealers” in a colloquial way.   Often, the doctor had no knowledge whatsoever of their issues.  His or her only role was to dish out drugs.   Less talked about, but just as prevalent, was the usage of marijuana.  I certainly found no fewer “stoners” among the upper middle class than I did among those who struggled to keep their sanity on the streets.

rich cocaine addictsThis says nothing about the “idle rich” — people who are rich by inheritance and may never have done a lick of work in their lives.   They have so much time on their hands, and so much money, that many of them become addicted to heroin and cocaine — and they buy top grade.

The idea that there are more drug addicts among people who have lost their homes than there are among people who live in big huge mansions is simply a lie.  There are plenty of practicing drug addicts among those with privilege.  It’s just that they’re so rich, they’re not at risk of losing their homes over it, unlike the other 99%.  The only difference between the homeless drug addict and the wealthy one, is that one has lost his privilege.  The other one never will, no matter what he does.

And here’s another thing that bugs me.  If a homeless person is on drugs, it is often assumed that his drug problem caused his homelessness.    This is another lie.  Why cannot people understand that in many cases, the homelessness came first, and the drugs further on down the road?

This is sheer stigma.  Sure, if a person is working poor or lower middle class, and that person develops a drug problem, they are likely to lose everything and land on the streets.   But the overall conditions of homelessness could easily drive a person to drugs who had previously been living a completely sober life.

I know a certain fellow who became homeless pretty darned fast due to a first-time manic episode.  Suddenly, this man was thrust from an insular world of parents, principals, teachers, and elementary school students into a world where all kinds of drug dealers were roaming the streets.  Here is a typical conversation that he would have with a drug dealer:

“Hey!  You good?”

“What do you mean, am I good?”

“You good!   Do you need anything?”

“Need any what?”

“Never mind.”

Four years down the road of homelessness, the conversation looks a little different:

“Darn, it’s cold, and I don’t even have a blanket.”

“Go up to People’s Park and steal one.”

“I don’t want to be a thief.”

“You’re gonna freeze your buns off.”

“Yeah, I know, it’s scary.”

“Well, I got something that will keep you warm all night.”

“Yeah?  What’s that?”

“This.”

And if anybody were to question that there are proportionately as many drug addicts among the 1% as there are among the 99%, I doubt I would even dignify such a question with an answer.  

There is nothing about having a lot of money that makes a person superior to one who does not.  Rich or poor, the Lord God made them all.  But try telling that to some of the more sheltered of the wealthy.   Half of those guys are so out of touch, they don’t even know the meaning of the word “rich.”

I know one thing for sure, though.  Once they learn the meaning of the word “respect,” we’re all going to be a lot better off.

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What You Should Know Before Becoming Homeless

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.
AMEN.

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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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That’s His Whole Problem!

I’ve been under the weather lately, and I’ve taken to composing music to pass the time.  As I broke out my music notation software for the first time in quite a while, I noticed an assortment of unpleasant feelings associated with the task.   For some reason, I keep thinking that it is wrong for me to be writing music.

Wrong to write music?   Ah, but this makes no sense.   Where does that come from? Arguably, my father, though I’m sure the poor bloke was only trying to protect me from myself.   He would see the delirious obsession overtake me, quite like his own very similar obsession, and he feared for where it might lead. 

Wrong to write music – what do you make of it?   I can somewhat understand the inherent dangers in the “new toy effect” of this amazing music notation software — especially since I first acquired the new toy over ten years ago, and one would think its fascination would have faded by now.  Ah, but no – there is an almost addictive, compulsive quality to the way that I attack the Finale commands with such fervor, almost like playing a video game, or taking a ride in an amusement park.  Too much fun is involved, and escapism.  How can it possibly be good for me?

Escapism . . . I tend to escape the doldrums of life — by writing music.  In fact, I even escape the demands of the music world itself.  After all, I’m supposed to be finding other musicians to play my stuff, aren’t I?   Other musicians are supposed to play my notes; other singers are supposed to sing my words.  Instead, I belabor for hours over this feigned representation of my music, produced by the artificial, heartless software.  I pretend that there’s an improvised saxophone solo between Measures 33 and 48.  But let’s face it, every note of that “improvisation” has been painstakingly fabricated by the workings of my own tomfoolery, trying my best to mislead the listener into believing that there’s actually a sax being played there, rather than a sophisticated electronic fake.

Don’t I have more important things to do?  Aren’t I behind on my blogs?   I’m supposed to be writing about Homelessness, aren’t I?  What’s music got to do with that?

Well, that’s just it.  It’s got everything  to do with that.  And everything to do with this sense of wrongness that engulfs me whenever I try to write music these days.   It recalls a former time, not too long past, when the average person in my life believed that my relationship to Music was the biggest problem I had in life.

whole problem

It was widely thought, seemingly by everybody else but me, that it was a huge problem, this obsession I had with composing music.  It was a conspicuous problem — a visible problem, something that could not escape public notice.   In a way, it was like Homelessness itself.   There was no way I could hide my homelessness effectively from everybody in the city of Berkeley.   No matter how nice I tried to act, how good I tried to look, the cat was out of the bag.  Everybody knew I was homeless.   Everybody knew I was “just one of the local wing nuts.”   So my obsession with composing music, whether I used the software, or whether I only walked about town singing “bop bop bop” and playing drums on my pants legs, was all part of that huge visibility.   I couldn’t hide being homeless; and I couldn’t hide writing music.  So to my observers, they only seemed like two sides of the same coin.

“That’s his whole problem right there! Look at him writing music all day long, while he’s homeless.  No wonder he never gets off the streets!  How disgusting.”

I remember how depressed I would become whenever I encountered this objection.  Even at church, or at the recovery fellowship I attended, there was this idea that “music was more important to him than God.”  And it disturbed me.   I kept wanting to defend myself.  I honestly did not think it was true.  I just happened to be a deeply driven, tightly wound, highly charged composer, who just happened to keep getting all these musical ideas, that he felt a deep need to pursue.  What’s that got to do with God?  Other than that it was His gift?  How would eliminating this huge part of me possibly help me, either to figure out how not to be homeless anymore, or to be a better Christian, or achieve more sobriety, or recovery — why would eliminating music be so essential to my health and well-being?  Wasn’t Music what was keeping me halfway sane throughout all of this insanity?

I still feel the depression of all that.  I start to relive it, even now, while trying to write music again, after all this time.

But it wasn’t like that when I first got to Moscow, Idaho, almost two years ago to this day.  By that time, I had so much music accumulated in my mind, stuff that I had written without the software, that I’d kept track of in my head — I basically couldn’t wait to get it all notated, now that I finally had a computer, and a place to live.   

When I sat in a cafe writing music, I couldn’t help but notice that the reaction of passersby was much different than I’d become accustomed to.   Nobody scowled at me.  Nobody looked over and thought: “There’s his whole problem right there.”

Why not?  Because there was no huge visible problem that people were hung up on trying to determine the cause of.   There was not this thing called Homelessness hanging over me everywhere I went, seeming to demand an explanation.   

My friend Danielle put it nicely once, with this analogy.  “You see a fat guy eating a doughnut,” she said, “and everybody says: ‘that’s his whole problem right there.’   But you see a skinny guy eating a doughnut — the very same doughnut — and nobody squawks.”

“So what’s that got to do with me?” I asked, naturally.

“The fat guy has a visible problem.  He’s fat.  Everybody can see it.  So they look for the probable cause.  As soon as he sinks his teeth into that doughnut, they think they know the answer.  Genetics, upbringing, age, alcoholism — any other factor is thrown by the wayside.  That there doughnut is his whole problem.

“Same thing with you.  You’re homeless.  You’re conspicuous.  Everybody knows you’re homeless, and they wonder why.  As soon as they see you writing music — and all the time, by the way, you must admit it — any time of the day or night, anywhere, for hours on end — they say: ‘That’s it!   That’s his whole problem!’  Socio-economic factors, mental health, company downsizing, landlord owner move in evictions — none of those more disturbing, complex factors need come into play.”

“That is very disturbing,” I agreed.

“Quite so,” she nodded.  “But now?” Now you’re not homeless.  You don’t this big visible problem that everybody’s trying to figure.   Now you can write as much music as you want, and nobody’s going to fault you for it.”

Needless to say, I was quite relieved.   Now if only I could turn back the hands of time, and get them all to see that it was never my “problem” to begin with . . .

Or was it?

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