Third Column Published

The third story in my Homeless No More column has now been published on Street Spirit.  A link to the September issue — by far the best issue since Alastair Boone took over as editor-in-chief is below.   Following that is a verbatim transcript of my article as it appears in the September paper.  

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As the homelessness crisis worsens, cities all over the U.S. are desperately trying to come up with solutions. California, for example, is in a frenzy to build new homeless shelters that will fit thousands of new shelter beds. The state is so desperate to get more people inside that last month, Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg wrote an op-ed to the LA Times in which he said that “homeless people should have a legal right to shelter and an obligation to use it.”

Obligation?  To obligate homeless people to sleep in shelters would be a violation of their constitutional rights.  Where a person sleeps should be up to that individual, so long as they are not sleeping on private property without owner consent.

Now, it would definitely be a good thing to increase California’s shelter capacity.  But aside from the issue of human rights, there are many practical reasons why to force homeless people to sleep in shelters is not a good thing.  One of them is that there is no way that one shelter program will be able to fit the needs of the diverse group of individuals who make up California’s homeless community.

This seems to be a trend in how the general population thinks about “the homeless.”  Our society appears to be obsessed with putting people into boxes.  Rather than take the time to actually get to know an individual for who they are uniquely, we like to make snap judgments about them according to their appearance.  For example, if a man is seen flying a sign on a sidewalk, we think: “That guy’s a lazy bum.” Why a lazy bum?  Couldn’t that guy just be down on his luck?

In my personal experience, I have never been stigmatized more than when I was a homeless person. I was lumped into the same box as virtually every one of my fellow homeless people. And when solutions were offered to end my homelessness, I found there was an alarming “one size fits all” approach. My personal story, if even listened to, was disregarded completely.

“You’re homeless?” one would say. “Here’s what you do. I’ve got a lead on a live-in drug rehabilitation program.”

Now, there are a number of flaws with that kind of reasoning. First of all, it presupposes that homelessness and drug addiction are synonymous.  This is fallacious.  On the other hand, many people who live indoors are severely addicted to all kinds of drugs. They just don’t let anyone see it.

Secondly, suppose a person is a drug addict.  Is a “live-in drug rehabilitation program” necessarily the solution for them?  There are twelve-step programs, sober living environments, a program at Kaiser called LifeRing, and a program called Rational Recovery.  Similarly, if one is homeless, one might be directed toward a board-and-care home, a live-in psychiatric facility, a halfway house, or transitional housing.  And those options will work for many people.

I spoke with a formerly homeless woman who enrolled in in a transitional housing facility and spent seven months there, giving them a percentage of her disability check every month.  At the end of the seven months, she had enough money to pay the first and last months rent and security deposit on a studio apartment.  She seemed quite content with her situation the last time I saw her.

I myself received a call from someone at the Berkeley Food and Housing Administration shortly after I left Berkeley for another State.  It turned out that my name had come up on a list of senior housing options, and they were willing to offer me my own one-bedroom apartment near Lake Merritt.  While that might sound wonderful, it would also have kept me in a part of the world where I had developed far more detrimental associations than beneficial ones.  Although I was tempted to drop everything and move back to the East Bay for sentimental reasons, I knew deep down that it would be a step backward that could have landed me back on the streets.

This is just one example of two different situations that worked for two individual people.  If each of us had not taken care of our individual needs, the shelter we found may not have lasted.  Until, as a society, we slow ourselves down enough, and open ourselves up enough, to listen to the plethora of unique stories that homeless people generally tell truthfully, we will not come close to solving the “homeless problem.”

So, while transitional housing programs and halfway houses have their place, a true solution to the homeless predicament will never be reached until we recognize that the homeless person is an individual, endowed with rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness no more and no less than anyone else on the planet.  As long as the wall of division that separates a “person” from a “homeless person” still stands, no lasting solution will be attained.

Homeless No More is a column that features the stories of people making the transition from homelessness to housing.  Andy Pope is a freelance writer who lives in the Pacific Northwest.

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Gratitude List 1253

1. Slept about 5 hrs — an hour and a half from 10:30 till midnight, and then another 3 1/2 from 2:30 till 6. Grateful to have fulfilled the requirement.

2. Ran only 2 miles at a snail’s pace, neither for speed, distance, or tempo. It was a good warm-up for the Big Five tomorrow morning, hopefully combining all three.

3. Very nice talk with my friend Holly last night. She’s doing well, house-sitting in Grass Valley on a large acreage with swimming pool.

4. Sold another $45 worth of Abandon albums on Bandcamp yesterday, in addition to the $30 I made in hard copy CD sales. So, a $75 day yesterday, once all proceeds manifest.

5. Saw an amazingly gorgeous sunset walking home from the cafe last night. I took it to mean that the sun is setting beautifully on a newly completed stage of my life.

6. Set up Discord to chat with Emily, and fixed Google Hangouts. Had a great talk with my daughter on Hangouts & squared some things away.

7. Remembered something about the psychic stage where I get onto the massive creative roll (which I call “Stage Three.”)  It’s not good to let the high creative flow be interrupted, because it can transform the passion to total frustration and irritation, if not outright outrage. Next time I’ll remember.

8. The September Street Spirit is the best since Alastair took over, and my column the best of the three.   Expect a pertinent blog post on Thursday.

9. Looking forward to good work on the 4th draft today and to playing piano at 4pm at the hospital.

10. The upstairs section of the cafe, where nobody from next door is likely to find me, and the Muses hover almost visibly over my comfortable creative chair.  God is Good.

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Gratitude List 1214

1. Slept well from about 10pm till 6:30. First woke at 2:30, used sleep aid of choice, woke fairly solid.

2. Rode 9.5 miles into the nearest town West and stopped at the foot of the six mile weaving country bike trail. Easy ride and didn’t seem that long, checked on GoogleMaps from where I live, the way I rode. Rode 9.5 miles back this morning, very pleasant both ways.

3. Spent my first night outdoors and outside of present-day city limits in over three years. Stripped myself of phone and Internet, camped out in the wilds, and thought things through.

4. Was able to help a homeless guy with a ten dollar bill. It was interesting because I’d bought some food with a twenty dollar bill and the cashier commented how it came out to exactly 10.00. I said: “There’ll be a use for that ten dollar bill!” The homeless cat appeared in the morning, and it’ll come back around.

5. At the doctor yesterday, my weight was down one lb. (from 205 to 204), pulse 56, bp 116/78. Nothing else was decided other than to maintain the status quo for now.

6. Woke this morning having a hard time believing I did 15 quick push-ups the morning before yesterday. Nothing’s sore yet. Well, I’m probably in better shape than I thought. I feel lighter than 204, it’s misleading due to somatotype. Thankful for being in good shape, and usually vigorous. In fact, the recent exercise, including running and lots more walking, has seemed to have soothed my spirit.

7. Though I’d felt emotionally compelled to depart from my geographical community indefinitely, I realized during a single night outside the city limits that the best thing to do would be to make the most of it and return home in the morning, where I had left cell phone charger, prescription medication, and all kinds of other responsibilities. I was easily able to rationalize the mini-vacation on the basis of health and sanity, but not so much on the basis of finances, until I remembered that a coming paycheck from Berkeleyside will pretty much cover the costs. (Pretty much).

8. Alastair had me sign a consent form to publish my previously published articles along with future articles of my consent in any of 200 other INSP guild newspapers. (It’s still not syndication, as there is no pay for these reprints, only exposure. It’s just a heck of a lot of exposure.)

9. Phone conversations with my daughter, Danielle, Kent, Nick, Holly, and other good friends have been precious lately. Looking forward to catching up with my friend Alex today. Also very thankful for the brothers and sisters at my church and for their ongoing tolerance of my every peccadillo. Thankful for support from other Artists and Writers as well as spiritually principled and disciplined individuals. God has blessed me with good support and fellowship, not to be taken for granted.

10. I re-outlined the Last Scene last night according to what we learned in rehearsals, and also adjusted my attitude toward the impending script and vocal score revisions. This was unsurprisingly timed with running into Dave, who reassured me of his same commitment, only he can’t commit to an exact date. I’ll return the commitment and do what I’m supposed to do. Thankful for this ongoing opportunity. Don’t give up the ship.

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Published in Berkeleyside

Good news.  Recently, as you may know, my work began appearing in a regular column called “Homeless No More,” published in the newspaper Street Spirit, which has a 25,000 monthly distribution in Berkeley and Santa Cruz, California.  As of yesterday morning at 8am, my first story in the column, entitled “How I Got Inside,” has now been taken up by Berkeleyside, the award-winning, independent news site covering Berkeley and the East Bay.  

How I Got Inside

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How I Got Inside

Attached is a verbatim transcript of the first story I had published in my new column in the new Street Spirit.  My column is called “Homeless No More,” and my story is entitled “How I Got Inside.”  This is based on a blog post called Bigger and Better than the Streets, also written on request of Alastair Boone, the new editor-in-chief of Street Spirit.    However, this version involves signature edits and additions.  As such, it stands on its own.

Note also the illustration provided.  The caption reads: “A drawing of Andy getting on a bus and leaving the Bay Area, soon to be housed elsewhere.”  Outside of being an outstanding illustration in its own rite, the work of one Inti Gonzalez, portions of it are charmingly telling.  Note how the homeless Andy is haggard, with a more unkempt beard, wearing a helmet, carrying a sack on a stick, eagerly boarding the bus for greener pastures.

And then, on his arrival!  Suddenly his beard is trim, his hair short and styled – he’s even wearing a Hawaiian shirt – as he bounds into his pristine new place of residence with a shit-eating grin on his face.  I see “white male privilege” reflected all over, which makes  sense in the context of my having moved to a largely all-White State.  But the white male couldn’t have felt too privileged a few weeks back, flying a sign on a Berkeley city sidewalk all those years.

In any event, here’s the text.  You can see for yourself what I wrote on the subject.

When I was homeless in the San Francisco Bay Area, I relied to a large degree on the moral support of lifelong friends and family who were not. For one reason or another, it was not feasible for any of them to let me stay in their homes for any substantial length of time. Still, they frequently provided me with encouragement, and on occasion sent me money. While I was often upset that nobody was “letting me in,” I nonetheless was dependent on their emotional and financial support in order to endure the ongoing conditions of homelessness.

One of the reasons why I delayed the decision to leave the Bay Area for so long was because I was attached to my support group. I felt that my old friends and family members were just about the only people who knew that I was a competent guy who had landed on the streets as the result of a costly medical misdiagnosis. They were the ones who knew that a mistreated health condition had led to a mental breakdown, as my inability to properly manage a health condition threw me into first-time homelessness at the age of 51. They were the ones who watched in horror, as one by one I lost all my accounts, and could no longer keep up with the high cost of living on the S.F. Bay Area Peninsula. But still, they believed in me, and they did what they could to help me get back on my feet. Of course I needed their support!

The only thing they didn’t do was to let me stay with them. Ironically, to have offered me housing, even temporarily, would have been the only thing that could possibly have helped me to get back on my feet.

But they could not do this. They had their own concerns. Meanwhile, I watched while the sordid conditions of homelessness gradually transformed me from a naïve, overweight singing teacher to a scrawny fraction of my former self. Gradually, I got to be half-crazed from protracted sleep deprivation. Often, I became fully crazed from feeling that I was treated like a sub-human mutant, rather than an equal. Passersby sneered at me in disgust.

In order to cope with this massive sense of ever-increasing dehumanization, I turned at first to marijuana, though I’d smoked no more than twice since the 80’s. Then, during the last three years of my homeless sojourn, I turned to a harder drug. I used speed to desensitize me from the cold—both the physical coldness of temperature, and the spiritual coldness of the condescending mockers in my midst. One by one, my old friends and family members, with rare exception, abandoned me. One of them recently told me: “We were all just waiting to read your obituary.”

Finally, in June of 2016, I picked up my social security check and walked out of the city of Berkeley without saying a word. “If the drugs won’t kill me,” I told myself, “the thugs who dispense them will.”

For a month I wandered the other side of the Bay in search of a permanent answer. But nothing seemed to work. In a shelter, I caught a flu, and was kicked out for that reason. The hospital wouldn’t let me in, because if they let me in, they’d have to let all of us in. I got kicked off of the all-night bus for fear of contaminating the other homeless people, who relied on the all-night bus as a shelter.

In desperation, I got down on my knees. I told the Universe that all I wanted was “a lock on a door, a window, and a power outlet.”

Then I took action. I began googling keywords until I found a place in the Pacific Northwest that rented for only $275/month—something that would easily have gone for $900/month in the Bay Area. It was a tiny room in a converted hotel—but it would do the job. I called an old associate, someone whom I’d worked with long ago when he was a music teacher at a middle school. Hearing my story, he agreed to front me $200 for a one-way Greyhound ticket to a new life. After that, I told my story to the prospective landlord, whom I called while still in San Francisco. To my amazement, he agreed to hold the place for me until I got there.

Forty-eight hours later, I was sleeping in my new room. It had a window, two power outlets, and three locks on the door. Four days after that, I signed a one-year lease. Three weeks later, after years of being considered unemployable in the San Francisco Bay Area, I landed a part-time job as a piano player at a small-town church.

A part of me wishes I had made the decision earlier. It would have spared me the last three years of psychic hell. But had I made the decision earlier, I would have abandoned the bulk of my support group. For me, leaving my support system and moving out of town was what it took to lead me to housing. However, it is a common misconception that the homeless crisis would be solved if homeless people just picked themselves up and moved out of town. This is not always the case, nor is it always readily possible.

I was lucky to have found a sympathetic person who would front me the money for a one-way-ticket to another state and help me with an apartment deposit and a few other odds and ends. Not everybody can find such a benefactor. Also, we cannot deny the obvious fact that I am a white male brimming with the semblance of “white privilege”even while living on the street—if only for the ability to decide to move to a state largely composed of other white people. While I obviously did not possess a whole lot of privilege per se, I looked as though I could conceivably be, or become, a privileged person. Let’s face it: Had I been Black or Hispanic, to show up in a largely white neighborhood would not have worked to my advantage.

So in a way, I had it easy. At the same time, however, I believe that there is a way out for everyone. Though the sheltered world does not know it, homelessness is not the same thing as alcoholism, drug addiction, or incompetence. It’s not the kind of thing where one needs to “change their ways” in order to overcome it. In order to overcome homelessness, what one needs is dignity. We are all created equal; we are all endowed by our Creator with inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We are all bigger and better than the streets.

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Gratitude List 1125

My gratitude list from Sunday afternoon, after a nice long nap.

1. Napped for an hour and a half solidly between 1:30pm & 3pm.

2. Saw my Yamaha electronic piano first thing on awakening, and thought “it’s so nice to have this place of my own.”

3. Actually ate a banana this morning.

4. Am drinking orange juice now instead of coffee.

5. I’d been having a bit of difficulty getting along with this one person at the church, but after she came up and sat behind me in the pews and we started talking, I wound up sitting next to her.  Then I wondered why I had been having a hard time getting along with her.  It all seemed nice, normal, natural & no-big-deal.

6. Despite drowsiness, I got more out of the sermon than usual.  I think this new ADHD medication is helping me be a better listener.

7. Had a good talk with that one guy about that one thing that was bugging me.  He wasn’t passing judgment against me as a person; he was just a bit exasperated with the general situation in question.  Goes to show how we can’t always tell what someone’s thinking by a look on the face, and our own insecurities will often read too much into stuff.

8. Finished the second of the five new assignments with the paper.  I’m calling it “My Life Has Just Begun.”  Sent it to Alastair, telling her I’d rewrite the 1st one again, and call it “Bigger and Better than the Streets.” It feels good that the block has been removed and that I’m on a roll with the articles for the new column.

9. The more I think about it, the more the talk with my daughter last night was encouraging.

10. Really beautiful day today.  I think I’ll head down to the cafe and chillax.  Life is good.

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Lillian

I found this story in a folder containing old timeline posts from around 2015, when I was still homeless.   I submitted it to Alastair Boone, the editor of Street Spirit, for consideration in the January issue.  I hope you gain from these words.   

To say that there are not criminals roaming the streets at all hours of the day and night would do a severe disservice to the truth. But to assume from that observation that every homeless person is a criminal seems a bit pejorative, if you ask me.

Of all the people whom I regularly see at events like the Sunday morning community breakfast, I’m trying to think of who do I know who has not been to jail. Well, let me see here — I haven’t been, and my best African American 50-something friend hasn’t been. That’s about all. Even my best female friend, whom I shall call Lillian, was recently in the Berkeley City Jail for four days.

Which is sick. The woman has had two serious strokes. As a result, she doesn’t speak normally. She has to speak at a louder volume than most, and it takes her a long time to find the words. During the period of time when she is looking to find words, her face makes unusual contortions. But I can guarantee you that her highly intelligent mind knows exactly what she is intending to say. Her neuro-physiological condition only makes her speaking very difficult and uncomfortable.

Homeless Bill of Rights - Building Opportunities for Self ...

This woman has never used drugs other than marijuana, nor does she drink alcohol. People think she is “retarded” because of her stroke. I have even heard people say: “She needs to get off the meth.” I know this person, and others who know her will affirm that she has never used methamphetamine. I am one of the few people who has bothered to get to know her well enough to realize that not only is she not “retarded” — she is actually quite brilliant.

So she’s sleeping in a parking lot on Bancroft, near Peet’s Coffee and Tea, where she meets her Payee in the morning. Three Berkeley City Police cars pull up, tell her she is charged with Trespassing, and hand-cuff her. She tries to explain, in her odd way of forming words: “I was only trying to sleep.” She is then charged with Resisting Arrest.

Two days ago, she comes to my Spot to say she had been in jail for four days. She’s laughing, because she thinks it’s hilarious that someone like her would be sent to jail for something she does every single night; that is to say, sleep. She couldn’t wait to tell me, because, as she says: “I knew you would be sensitive enough to be outraged on my behalf; and insensitive enough to think it was hilarious.”

People who are “retarded” do not come up with such statements. But it’s not hilarious, really. These idiot cops couldn’t tell the difference between a 50-something woman with a serious physical disability, and an irresponsible crook or drug addict invading U.C. campus property. That is just plain sick.

What is the world coming to? It’s getting to where, if you see someone approaching in a wheelchair with a missing leg, you don’t think: “Oh, that’s awful. I wonder how he lost his leg?” You either think: “There’s another hustler, and what does he want from me?” Or else you think: “Look at that screwed up degenerate scum bag.” I swear to God, on a stack of Holy Bibles — this is not the America that I was brought up in.

I am not even asking America to open up her eyes to the plight of her own people. Her eyes are well wide open enough. I ask America to open up her heart – because I am old enough to remember when America was a compassionate nation.

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