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My Story on Cancel Culture Published in the Spokesman

I had the honor this month of being the guest columnist in the Faith and Values section of the Spokesman-Review, the main newspaper of the city of Spokane, Washington.   The story may be found online here, and a verbatim transcript is below.  

CaptureWhat is cancel culture? In a nutshell, it’s a subculture that consists of people who have eliminated other people from their lives, based on perceptions of their having behaved inappropriately. Those who perform these eliminations also encourage others to eliminate them as well, on the grounds that their offenses are irredeemable, and so no one should have to tolerate them.

None of us particularly relish the futility of arguing against someone’s egregious conduct. But the problems with advocating such a full-fledged “cancellation” of another human being are ultimately more serious than those which arise from that person’s unacceptable behavior in the first place.

On October 29, speaking at an Obama Foundation event, the former president declared: “Among certain young people, and this is accelerated by social media, there is this sense sometimes of: ‘The way of me making change is to be as judgmental as possible about other people’ and that’s enough.”

That’s not activism,” Obama went on. “That’s not bringing about change. If all you’re doing is casting stones, you’re probably not going to get that far.”

It’s interesting that Obama stresses how this phenomenon is propelled by social media. I’ve often been aghast at what people get away with on social media that they couldn’t do in their real, non-wired lives – such as block someone from a group and still participate in that group. In real life, this wouldn’t be possible. You’d either attend the group or not. You wouldn’t be able to simply render yourself invisible to somebody you don’t want to deal with.

But when it comes to cancel culture, people come close to doing just that. Those who have been “cancelled” are not only blocked on social media, but in every aspect of their lives. From that moment on, there is no prospect for redemption on the part of the offenders. They are like condemned buildings, destroyed by the wrecking ball. And who has condemned them? Fallible human beings, who may later find themselves condemned as well.

What about the First Amendment? An open debate over difficult differences is a touchstone of democracy. As Obama said in a speech to college students, as early as 2015: “Anybody who comes to speak to you and you disagree with, you should have an argument with them, but you shouldn’t silence them by saying you can’t come because I’m too sensitive to hear what you have to say.”

What is at the root of such a twisted culture? In a certain light, it can be seen as just another instance of our human urge to seek personal glory at the expense of the greater good. When someone succeeds in calling out an adversary, of course that person feels exalted. As Obama explained: “If I tweet or hashtag about how you didn’t do something right or used the wrong verb, then I can sit back and feel pretty good about myself.”

The idea of removing others from our sight is not something that serves humanity on the whole. It’s self-serving. And it’s been around for a long time. People used to be “banished” in the Middle Ages. Even today, how often do we walk past scores of homeless people on the sidewalks, and act as though they don’t exist?

In my view, we could all open our eyes just a little bit more, and start doing the small things for others that will gradually help us to rebuild a broken society. If we don’t, historically speaking, something will happen to open our eyes for us. And those events have not normally been very pretty.

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Beware of Antichrists

This is a five minute talk related to what’s going on in the world today.  Also, the written transcript of this speech will be published in Spokane Faith and Values tomorrow.  

Talks 2020 No. 1

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Paralyzed

Meant to get this to you earlier.  It was first published in the October “special issue” of Street Spirit and subsequently submitted to the International Network of Street Papers, where it has been published elsewhere.   And now, here as well.   Hope you enjoy it.  

Paralyzed: The Demons That Prey on the Homeless
by Andy Pope

When one is homeless, one is by definition exposed to all kinds of elements that escape the confines of one who lives indoors.  Weather is only one such element.  There are also predatorial elements — people who invade the space of someone who has no physical barrier to separate them from intruders of the night.

There is also another kind of predator sometimes encountered in the darkness.  This is the supernatural predator, often colloquially referred to as a “demon” — an entity that invades one’s dream states, or states of half-sleep.

Homeless friends of mine reported being “hassled” or “attacked” by malevolent entities that seemed to hover over various outdoor spots where we tried to sleep.  I sometimes sensed these invasions as well.  Typically, I would become paralyzed, and suddenly feel as though an invisible hostile creature was grabbing me and rubbing or scratching me with things that felt like paws or claws.  Sometimes I would feel as though I were being pounded on.  I would hear abusive voices as this happened: “Andy, you scum bag!! You are a total piece of shit!!!!”

Whether these were truly alien invaders from outer space, or merely the subconscious reflection of my own low self-esteem, I cannot say.

I learned that these attacks have a name: sleep paralysis.  Sleep paralysis is a condition where one is awake to one’s surroundings but lacks motor control.  In other words, you’re not awake enough to move your body, but awake enough to know what’s going on.  It often strikes during times when the usual patterns of sleep have been disrupted.  In my experience, very few things have disrupted my normal sleep patterns as much as the overall conditions of homelessness.

As a person who has had sleep paralysis since the age of 14, I am among the 8 percent of the population for whom this condition is commonplace.  When I was homeless, I noticed that these intrusions would be different depending on when and where they occurred.  For example, intrusions in Ohlone Park were different than those that took place on the steps of St. Joseph the Worker church or outside the Rubicon building.  I always sensed that I was being assaulted by some kind of invisible entity, but the nature of the entity would differ according to where it was that I was trying (unsuccessfully) to sleep.

If I were to take a daytime nap on Bart, however, I noticed that I was free of these mysterious assailants.  However, when the train would stop, sometimes they would attack.  This gave rise to the theory that they lived in a reality that intersected the normal Earth-based reality at certain spots, but that they were unable to traverse the surface of the Earth — at least not at speeds corresponding to those of rapid transit.   This theory is reminiscent of the concept of the “tesseract” expounded in the book A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine l’Engel.  

Another theory had to do with the veracity of these demon-riddled reports.  How plausible were they really?   How credible were those who reported them?   And most of all, who was most likely to believe them?  I could not help but notice that those who were impoverished, homeless, on disability, working poor, or low-wage blue collar or assembly line workers were the quickest to embrace and believe my reports of sleep paralysis.  Often, people in the lower socio-economic brackets would share their own similar experiences of encounters with “demons.”  But people in the scientific community, upper level academicians, white collar workers, and corporate business people seemed often to scoff at our accounts, writing them off the same way that they wrote off all of our statements.  To be sure, this is another type of paralysis — one that is relentless, and occurs in broad daylight.

Whatever the cause or effect of these widespread stories, one thing seemed most disturbingly clear.  There were legions of demons haunting the realm of the disadvantaged, the underprivileged, the unprotected, and the abandoned.  Whether they meet us in dream states or in harsh reality, there are far more homeless demons than meet the eye.

Andy Pope is a freelance writer who lives in the Pacific Northwest, and the author of Eden in Babylon, a musical about youth homelessness in urban America.   

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Tuesday Tuneup 65

Q. What are you doing here?

A. Why do you ask?

Q. Isn’t it Wednesday?

A. So what?

Q. Aren’t you supposed to write these on Tuesdays?

A. How consistent have I been with that? 

Q. Didn’t I ask you?

A. Well then.  You have your answer.   It’s Wednesday morning.   It’s Christmas.   I wrote two of them yesterday and hated them both.   I’ll be tempted to delete this one, like I deleted both of the others.  I hate this day.  It’s a day of celebration for others, and of mourning and grieving for me.  It’s this day that I used to love and have come to dread.  It’s finally here.  It’s upon me.   And I’m miserable.

Q. Aren’t you forgetting the “reason for the season?”

A. Thanks for reminding me of the most ludicrous cliche imaginable.  If Jesus Himself  down and expressed His own disgust with this ridiculous sham of a so-called holy day, would you ask Him that same question?

Q. Aren’t you only projecting your own disgust onto Him?

A. I beg your pardon!   I’m only asking a question.  To be honest with you, I don’t believe Jesus has any particular opinion about this holiday at all.   I believe He relates to individuals on an individual basis, whoever it is who seeks relationship with Him.  He is therefore pleased with some people on Christmas, and not others.

Q. And you are one of the ones He is pleased with?

A. I didn’t say that!   How can He possibly be pleased with me if I am not at all pleased with myself?

Q. Are you suggesting that He would suddenly become pleased with you if you were to become pleased with your own self?

A. Of course not!   I could become pleased with myself over the slightest success or victory at damned near anything — whether Jesus was tracking with it or not.

Q. Seriously?

A. Yes – seriously!  I’m the type of person who feels good when he’s accomplished something successfully, and feels lousy when he hasn’t.  Isn’t that obvious?  Aren’t I transparent?

Q. When was the last time you accomplished something successfully?

A. Too long ago.  It’s been days, at least.  Maybe weeks.

Q. So then it’s not really Christmas that is the issue, is it?

A. No, not really.  But I’ll make no bones about it.  I do not like this holiday!  I don’t believe it has much to do with the birth of Jesus, or His life or teachings, much at all.  We hear the stories at church, if we go to church, and then leave them behind.   It’s a sham; it’s disgusting – but yes, you’re right.  That’s my own disgust, not His.

Q. So why the disgust?

A. Because — it used to be — there was family.  There was connection, there was warmth.  We opened gifts.  We had a Christmas tree.  I played the piano, and we sang carols together.

Q. What happened to all that?

A. At some point, I just became  —  I don’t know.  Uninvited.   Mom and Dad are long gone, there isn’t a “parent’s house” anymore.   I tried to reestablish family, but I failed.

Q. Why is everything about your personal success or failure?

A. I don’t know.  My dad was kinda hard on me, kept saying I couldn’t do anything right.   I just want to prove that I can do some things right.  When I get something right, I feel warm inside.  Like loved.

Q. Loved?

A. Yes. Loved.  God loves me because He lets me get some things right.

Q. Isn’t that a rather limited view of love?

A. It’s a start.

Q. Wouldn’t you have started long ago?

A. Of course.  But maybe I was barking up the wrong tree.

Q. What do you mean?

A. It might not be in my destiny for me to be a very successful family man.

Q. But are you content to be alone?

A. Usually.  But not on Christmas.   And not lately, to be honest with you.  Ever since my daughter left, just kinda — lonely, and feeling like I failed.  

Christmas loneliness and grief 'very, very common', says clinical counsellor | CBC News

Q. How is it that Christmas brings about these feelings of discontent?

A. It is on Christmas that the pain of knowing that other people are with family, seeming to have a good time, is most highlighted.  The pain that I am excluded — for some reason.  Naturally this leads to misery.  Especially when combined with the fact that everything closes down.  No food services.  No Starbucks, no MacDonald’s.  No library.   No restaurants.   How do I get food?  I have to stock up — well, you know, you get through the season, you get through the day.   I’m thinking MacDonald’s might be open till noon on some kind of truncated schedule.   Might as well hoof it down there once this thing’s over.

Q. So that is your idea of Christmas?   Spending the morning at a McDonald’s?

A. No.  My idea is still to gather around somewhere where there’s family and play a piano — but that’s long past.

Q. Could it not also be future?

A. Do I have a very good history at holding a family together?

Q. Could you have given up too easily?

A. Perhaps.

Q. Might you be blaming yourself too much?

A. Maybe.

Q. So what is your strategy?   How will you get through the day?

A. Well – I can start by repenting.

Q. What sin have you committed?

A. I mean – repenting of my attitude.  Whatsoever is not of faith is sin.  I lack faith right now.

Q. How can you get faith?

A. By choosing it.

Q. And what then?

A. Um –  I can pray.  I’ll start praying again.

Q. Why and when did you stop?

A. It was a few days back, after — something horrible happened personally, involving the loss of a friend — or maybe just the misplacement of the friend — she did wish me a happy Christmas back this morning, by text —

Q. Then she has not abandoned you, has she?

A. Maybe not.  Then again, she might have just been being nice.

Q. Isn’t that a start?

A. Yeah.  Lots of things can be starts.

Q. So what’s the strategy?

A. You make it sound like I’m fighting a war.

Q. Aren’t you?

A. I shouldn’t be.  I should just be surrendering, trusting in God, having faith, looking expectantly for the good that will inevitably come . . .

Q. On this horrible day of Christmas?

A. You said it.

Q. I’m curious, though.   Why did the severance with your friend cause you to stop praying?

A. She has always reflected Christ in my life.  I can’t explain it.  Maybe I put too much of a burden on her.   There were times when nobody else even believed I was a Christian, and yet she still had faith in me.  And now she’s gone.

Q. Can you — pray anyway?

A. And not be reminded of her?   I can’t even read my Bible anymore.  I read it — but it’s not the same.  It’s as though I’m reading her Bible, not mine.   

Q. So you’re — experiencing loss?

A. Loss upon loss.  Here I’ve already given up.  I’ll just say it:

Christmas in America is a time for people of privilege to enjoy the presence of other people of privilege.   They could at least invite those who lack over to their houses.  But they don’t.   And what’s that got to do with the so-called spirit of Christmas?  It’s not spiritual in any sense to exclude others from a gathering that is supposed to be held holy and pleasing in the eyes of God.

Q. Come on now!   Do you truly believe that Christmas has been reduced to only this?

A. Only this and worse.  I used to have a friend.   And I don’t any longer.

Q. But don’t you have a friend in Jesus?

A. I do.  And honestly, thank you for reminding me.  If I can just make my mind turn to Him – maybe when I’m on the way to that McDonald’s — I bet they’re open — and it can’t possibly be as bad as that one Christmas was when I was homeless and it was raining — and nobody would let us in  . . . 

Q. Your Christmas has been a lot worse than this one, hasn’t it?

A. Well yeah – it beats that one year, I think it was 2015, the only people I saw all day were about twenty-five other angry homeless people, it was pouring rain, I remember logging onto Facebook and just screaming at everybody — it just seemed heartless that they could keep flashing all these festivities on their timelines — if one even suggested being invited over on Christmas Day, they made you feel like you were a horrible person for even thinking such a thing . . . 

Q. But you are not homeless now, are you?

A. No I’m not.   

Q. And have you not become heartless in your own rite?   

A: I have not!

Q. How many homeless people are you letting in on Christmas?

Pause.  

A. I’ve let a lot of homeless people in this house, and you know it.

Q. What about Christmas?

A. You know I have my reasons.

Q. Didn’t they all have their reasons?

A. No doubt.  To put it mildly, to let strangers inside your house is risky business.  But I wasn’t a stranger to any of those people I was buzzing on Christmas Day on Facebook in the rain that day.   They all knew me.   They knew exactly what my situation was.

Q. And their response was?

A. Denial and disdain.   

Q. Why do you think that was?

A. Who likes a party–pooper?   Why should I be raining on their parade?

Q. You’re not raining on them now, are you?

A. Not that I know of  —  unless some of the more lurkish among them are reading these words, and feeling the storm.  

Q. And you’re not being rained on now either, are you?

A. More like snowed on.  But not at the moment, no.   I’m indoors – and I should be grateful.

Q. Are you?

A.  Grateful?   One wishes the word did not apply.   But yes, come to think of it, I am grateful.   I should be, after all.  Things could be a lot worse.   I could be robbed of anything approaching a First Amendment right in some parts of the world.   I could be put to death just for writing these words.

Q. So – what’s your strategy?

A. Well . . .  I don’t know how strategic it is, but I just made a decision.   This tuneup needs to be wrapped up anyway.   It’s dragging on kinda long.

Q. What’s your decision?

A. I’m going to go down to that McDonald’s and find someone more miserable than myself.

Q. Then what?

A. I’ll take it from there.   I’m at least usually a happy person.  I can share my happiness with them, even if I don’t experience it at the time.

Q. But won’t you just be just like the people on Facebook, flaunting their festivities?

A. I’ll try not to be.  Thanks for the warning.

Q. Anything else?

A. Not that I can think of.

Q. Cold feet?

A. Some.

Q. Just do it?   

A. Wish me luck.  

The Questioner is silent.  

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Fourth Column Published

At some point, I slacked on getting these Street Spirit columns posted on Thursdays in a timely fashion.   Here’s my 4th column, as it was published in the November issue.  More to come.   

The Homeless Habits that Followed Me Indoors
by Andy Pope

One of the many unexpected challenges that arose during my transition from homelessness to indoor living stemmed from the fact that I had simply gotten used to living outdoors. This caused many of the practices that worked for me when I was homeless to be carried over into the context of indoor living. While some of these lingering habits clearly didn’t apply indoors, others of them worked fairly well, both inside and out. In any case, all of them were surprisingly hard to shake. These hard-to shake habits fell into four main categories: Sleeping, eating, livelihood, and self-esteem.

Sleeping

When I was homeless, I got used to sleeping on two or three layers of cardboard placed over a hard surface.  I often slept on sidewalks, stairways, ramps, and cement alcoves positioned beneath awnings.   To off-set the hardness of such surfaces, I would pile on layers of cardboard until it simulated the effect of a mattress.

The problem with this, as far as my transition is concerned, was that I found I needed to use the same set-up in order to functionally sleep inside.  I tried sleeping in the bed that was provided in my first indoor room, but it just didn’t feel right.  I wasn’t used to sleeping in a bed.  So I set up three layers of cardboard on the hardwood floor, piled on an ample amount of blankets, and found I went right to sleep.  In fact, I slept much better than I’d ever slept outdoors.  I had combined the comfort of my preferred set-up with the added security of sleeping inside, where I was no longer vulnerable to the numerous assailants that roam the outdoor nights.  So I got the best of both worlds.

Another thing: Even though I had moved far away from Berkeley to a place where the temperatures were often below freezing in the winter, I found that I had to leave my window wide open at all times.  I had gotten so used to sleeping in the open air, I felt suffocated if I wasn’t getting a huge blast of fresh air in my face.  Also, for a long time I had to visualize one of my former outdoor sleeping spots in order to calm my mind enough to get to sleep at night.  This eventually faded with time, but evidenced an overall nostalgia for the homeless experience that flew in the face of reason.

Eating

My ideas around food, its availability, and one’s ability to feed oneself also changed radically as a result of my years of homelessness.  When food came my way while I was on the streets, I cheerfully shared it with those in my midst, assured that others would do the same for me.   Generally, I was right.  This is one of the small ways in which people on the streets take care of each other.

But without a street community to share resources with, managing my grocery shopping and eating habits was a struggle.  Having a kitchen for the first time in years, and being on a fixed income from Social Security, I naturally stocked up on food after I had paid rent and other bills.  But with this surplus of food available to me, I found myself overeating, using up my food supply long before the month was over, and thus gaining weight.   It took some time for me to become comfortable with stretching my groceries to last all month.

Livelihood 

I had also become accustomed to flying a sign on a sidewalk in order to accumulate pocket change to get through the day, as well as an occasional sandwich or other form of foodstuffs.  But in my current situation, there weren’t any panhandlers, let alone “silent sign-flyers” as I would have characterized myself.  Had I showed up on Main Street with my sign, I’d have stuck out like a sore thumb.  The local cops would have been on me in a heartbeat.  But I missed flying a sign for many reasons, not the least of which is that I simply was used to that means of livelihood.

In fact, I so missed flying my sign that on two occasions I invested over $50 on a round trip bus ticket to the nearest large city, when I hooked up with the homeless people who hung out by the station, and flew my sign until it was time for the bus to leave.   Unfortunately, I made less than $50 each time, so it as not even a cost-effective venture.  But it did satisfy my enormous urge to earn money in my customary fashion, if only for a day or two.

The overall inability to panhandle in a small rural community resulted in a form of food insecurity I had not at all anticipated.  After all, it was difficult to experience true food insecurity in Berkeley, where there were up to four free community meals each day.  Now, without community meals or the ability to fly a sign, I found myself suffering midway through each month.  I scrambled to make more money without the option of having a “street hustle,” and found that my job-related skills had suffered greatly as a result of years of unemployment.

Seeing the people in my midst who seemed not to have a problem feeding themselves, jealousy burned within me.  Whereas before, I had been jealous of practically anyone who had a roof over their head, I now found myself jealous of homeless people who were able to feed themselves more readily than I was, such as many of the homeless people in the city of Berkeley, where so much free food is abundant.

low self-esteem.png

Self-esteem 

By far, however, the most difficult transition to navigate was in the area of my self-esteem.  As much as I despised seeing the way that privileged people who lived indoors treated homeless people who were suffering, I had simply gotten used to being treated like a piece of shit.  Unbelievably, when people began to treat me humanely, as though I were “one of them,” I found I couldn’t handle it.  

For example, I had been quietly hanging out out at a local coffee house for a couple of weeks before one of the baristas extended her hand and asked what my name was.  Afterwards, I literally had to go into the bathroom and cry.  I could not believe that an employee in a public business establishment cared what my name was. I had gotten so used to being viewed with suspicion, as though it were assumed I could only be a troublemaker, that the experience of having an employee actually treat me with dignity was almost too much for me. While I soaked it all in with a natural delight, it also caused me to wonder why on earth I and my homeless brothers and sisters had put up with such pejorative treatment to begin with. 

The closest I’ve come to an answer is that we all simply got used to it. We didn’t think things would ever be any different or any better. The overall message that society gave us was that we would always be homeless, and that we were without hope in a world where an uncrossable gulf was fixed between those who were within and those who were without. We even got the feeling that we should always remain homeless – that we belonged, not in the privileged world of renters and homeowners – but in the leprous realm of the ostracized, the abandoned, and the untouchable. For we were not such as were worthy of dignified indoor living.

When such a bombardment of dehumanizing messages is blasted at a person day in and day out, it messes fairly severely with one’s head. Had I not known the amazing community that existed between me and my fellow homeless people, I would never have found the strength to come out alive.

Homeless No More is a column that features the stories of people making the transition from homelessness to housing.  Andy Pope is a freelance writer who lives in the Pacific Northwest, and the author of Eden in Babylon, a musical about youth homelessness in urban America.   

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To Those Who Are at Ease

Woe to those who are at ease in Zion,
and to those who feel secure on the mountain of Samaria,
the notable men of the first of the nations,
to whom the house of Israel comes!
Pass over to Calneh, and see,
and from there go to Hamath the great;
then go down to Gath of the Philistines.
Are you better than these kingdoms?
Or is their territory greater than your territory,
O you who put far away the day of disaster
and bring near the seat of violence?

“Woe to those who lie on beds of ivory
and stretch themselves out on their couches,
and eat lambs from the flock
and calves from the midst of the stall,
who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp
and like David invent for themselves instruments of music,
who drink wine in bowls
and anoint themselves with the finest oils,
but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph!
Therefore they shall now be the first of those who go into exile,
and the revelry of those who stretch themselves shall pass away.”

— Amos 6:1-7

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The Homeless Link

Below is a verbatim transcript of my column Rebuilding Trust by Strengthening the “Homeless Link” as it was recently published on the independent news site, Spokane Faith and Values, under the editorship of Tracy Simmons.   

When asked to write about our need to address the erosion of trust in our national consciousness, the first thing that crossed my mind is that I’ve never fully succeeded at rebuilding trust on a personal level. But I don’t think this failure is unique to me alone.

In today’s society, when friendships or business relationships go sour, it is much more likely that one will simply “move on” than that a person will expend the energy needed to repair a broken relationship. After all, such an energy expense is often painful, and people don’t like to endure pain unless it’s absolutely necessary. And with so many options for replacing unfavorable associations with more promising ones, why should one concern oneself with mending fences?

Through increased mobility and the phenomenal interactive potential of social media, it’s more accurate to depict people as jumping several fences in succession – more-or-less like hurdles in a track meet – than going back to mend any of them. The unusual ease with which people sever their personal contacts these days is assisted by the fact that through electronic communications and social media, one is able to block, delete, or ignore someone completely unilaterally. People take advantage of this convenience, often without prior word of warning or common courtesy.

Though social media has the potential to build bridges, it also helps us to burn them. Our worlds have become increasingly fragmented, and it is common on instant messengers for people to drop out of conversations abruptly and leap over to a new conversation without answering the last question or even saying goodbye. How can trust possibly be built when so many interactions are left incomplete?

Moreover, busy people may receive 500 emails a day and not have time to answer five of them. We have come to accept non-response as a response, but what does that response say? We have no idea, really. We only know that they won’t talk to us, we don’t know why, and the mass phenomenon of all this electronic dismissal, one of another, has eaten away at the morale of an entire nation.

If we’re going to think about rebuilding trust, we need first to consider that there will never be trust at the expense of communication. This applies not only to personal relationships, but to human associations at all levels of society. We don’t trust our educational system, we don’t trust our clergy, we don’t trust the politicians whom we have elected to represent us, and we certainly don’t trust corporate officers. While I would be the last to advocate a reactionary return to a less inclusive era, I will be the first to propose that a revival of misplaced values such as common courtesy and mutual respect would be a good place to start if we are to go about rebuilding trust on a grander scale.

Our devaluing of respectful communication is, to my view, a function of our inordinate love of personal pleasures. It is natural that in a culture so fraught with danger, we would seek escape in diversions that distract us from our troubles. But for many, it has become more important to feel good than to do good. When given a choice between feeling good and doing good, we often choose the former.

A man storms out of the house after an argument with his wife. Instead of returning to bless her with a surprise bouquet, he takes that money to a poker game and escapes into a night of male bonding with the boys. We take our ten dollar bills to the movie theater in order to entertain ourselves, and we ignore the beggar outside the theater whose life might end in the cold that night if he doesn’t get two dollars for an all-night bus pass. We justify our self-serving nature by rationalizing that the person on the other end of our avarice has made bad choices in their lives, and that they need to learn from their mistakes by being deprived of basic needs. But we are neither gods nor goddesses, and no human being is in the moral position to judge another for their station in life, especially when we have no idea what the conditions were that got them there.

As cities become more congested, and the rapid pace of life accelerates, we stigmatize. We hesitate to take the time to listen to the unique stories of those who cross our paths. Instead, we view people according to what “box” we can place them in. The box of leftie. The box of drug addict. The boxes of codependent, feminist, fundamentalist. The list goes on and on. We judge people according to their “boxes,” rather than recognize them as the unique individuals whom they are.

Nowhere is this stereotyping more flagrant than in typical attitudes toward the homeless. Every homeless person has their story, and I have found that these stories are generally told truthfully. But because of our fast-paced agendas and stigmatic notions as to what the homeless are about, we don’t stop to engage these fellow citizens, especially if we feel interrupted. People do not like to witness visible poverty in all its ugliness, so we turn our heads away from the very people who may need our attention the most.

In hearing any stranger’s story, of course we will have doubts as to its veracity. In the case of a homeless stranger’s story, one often suspects it is only a covert plea for financial assistance. But how do we know that if we don’t stop to hear them out? The fact is, unless the homeless person is visibly drunk or loaded, we have no idea how they are going to spend that money. A recent study by the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Addiction estimates that 27 percent of homeless people are drug-addicted. Yet I have lived in big cities where homelessness and drug addiction are thought to be synonymous in the eyes of passersby.

Well, we think, if we give the homeless person food, then we’re still doing good, and we’re on the safe side. So we drop some food off every now and then and wash our hands of the matter. What matter? The matter that we haven’t engaged them, we haven’t heard their voices. We haven’t made no effort to discern whether a hand-up might be more applicable than a hand-out.

I’m not suggesting we cease to feed the hungry. I’m suggesting we get to know the hungry. Talk to a homeless person about something other than their homelessness. Take the time to learn what kind of person they are. Do they want to remain homeless all their lives? Some do. Most don’t. The only way we come to find out is by involving them, by treating the homeless with dignity — as equals, with respect — and not as lesser sub-human mutants or inanimate objects to step over around and over whilst they sleep.

That is the core of the true homeless problem, and it also would be a great place to start in rebuilding trust within the society as a whole. If we want to restore unity in a divided culture, why don’t we first bring inclusion to those who have been the most abandoned? In doing so, we could conceivably inaugurate a chain reaction, and trust may be ignited all the way up the scale. A chain, after all, is only as strong as its weakest link. What link could possibly be weaker than that of the homeless?

I say we strengthen the Homeless Link. Provide for a homeless person neither pity nor judgment, but encouragement, hope, and respect. Maybe — just maybe — this is what it will take to renew the lost strength of an entire nation.

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Inequity (Part Five)

Of the five “inequities” that I have chosen to discuss in an effort to illuminate how the world appears from the eyes of those who have been chronically homeless in large urban areas, this one will probably be the most controversial.   There is a huge disparity among all those who dwell on this subject as to how the homeless person can actually be helped.  

When I made the decision to join an intentional homeless community on April 15, 2011, I was thrown into a group of people who were predominantly White, mostly male, and mostly people who had worked all their lives until some costly crisis landed them on the streets.  Most of my fellow White male homeless people were lifelong conservatives, and it was bizarrely expected that all of them were supposed to change their lifelong political ideologies, and become “liberals,” only because they had fallen on hard times.

Why?  Because in the failed social experiment that is the City of Berkeley, the pseudo-socialist leaders of the churches that were feeding us believed that, because we had become homeless, our life-philosophies must have failed us, and they were eager to teach us another way.  The idea that anybody in the San Francisco Bay Area could have become homeless due to socio-economic factors entirely beyond their control — viz, a one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco might rent for upwards of $3000/mo — was never brought into consideration.   So we, who comprised approximately 35% of the then one thousand visible homeless people in Berkeley, were lumped into the same group as practicing thieves, hustlers, and hardened criminals on the one hand, and completely developmentally disabled (or at least chronically unemployable) individuals on the other.

In the process, we found ourselves continually demeaned and dehumanized by social workers whose politics invariably leaned to the Left.  My lifelong identity meant nothing to these people, and the none-too-subtle message that I would be homeless for the rest of my days — and rightly so — was hammered into me day in and day out, until I found myself beginning to believe it.

Those who leaned to the Right were another story.  I usually did not feel dehumanized per se, but I often felt stereotyped and stigmatized.  An example would be in Salvation Army workers trying to “save” me or convert me to Christianity, when the truth was that I was already a Christian who was clinging to Jesus more than ever during an uneasy, unsettling time of life.

My first experience at a homeless “feed” was that I and others were treated with complete indignity.  It was assumed that we were either criminally minded, completely mentally handicapped, or both.  Security guards barked orders at us and herded us around like cattle.  All this to get a bite to eat?   No, thanks!

Somebody I met throughout this process told me I ought to try “flying a sign.”  I had no idea what the expression meant at the time, but he showed me that all I had to do was sit silently on the sidewalk with a piece of cardboard and an explanatory statement, and I would probably get cash and food within a three or four hour shift.  (I’m glad he included the word “silently,” because I tried using the words “can you spare some change?” once and only once.  The judgmental shaking of the head and scornful reply, “Not for you, buddy!” was enough to convince me that verbal begging was not for me.)

But in displaying my sign in silence, making eye contact with passersby, I found that I averaged about $17/day working three hours daily at my “spot,” and often got a sandwich or two as well.   I usually sat there between about 9 am and noon.   After that, I felt free to vacate the homeless pandemonium, get on a BART train, and find a place where I could chill out, plug in my laptop (if it hadn’t gotten stolen) and gather my bearings for the next morning on the streets.

Those with whom I associated agreed with me that all of these homeless services, aside from being demeaning, primarily served to keep homeless people homeless.  And as far as the homeless “feeds,” it became clear after a while that they were simply feeding the wrong people.

Think about it.  If you were a street hustler who never cared to do a lick of decent work in your life, and you wanted to get food without working for it, where would you turn?  Of course you would head to one of those community meals.   You would do anything you could to get something for nothing — even steal.

The sad thing is that people with legitimate disabilities who needed caregivers and case workers, and who would thrive best in situations like board-and-care homes, were also mixed into the batch.   Many of them were stuck in the cracks of the system, and I saw quite a few die on the streets.

Another sad thing — or rather a maddening thing — is that it was assumed that I and my similar companions were unemployable, assumed we had landed on the streets due to drug addiction or alcoholism, assumed  we were insane, and basically assumed that unless we thought as they did, acted in the manner they wanted us to act, and believed the ideology that they wanted us to believe, then there was something wrong with us.  

Although I did vacate the premises after 19 months in order to rent a cottage in a rural area in the Central Valley — and there created nine talks on the subject based on what I had learned thus far — I wish I hadn’t been so eager to get inside.  The place I landed was in a horrible area, surrounded by tweakers, and it dawned on me that there weren’t too many places in that part of California where I could get a place in the $400/mo. range that were going to be any different.   So, once I finished the 9th talk, I returned to Berkeley for more research.

That might have been a mistake.

Three years later, I was having the devil of a time digging myself out of the hole that had been dug.   Years of sleep deprivation began to wear on my mental health.   I was constantly being awakened in the middle of the night by other homeless people (if not cops or security guards), my belongings would disappear over night, and I even dabbled in street drugs in an effort to keep my sanity and desensitize myself from all the chaos.

My self-esteem grew lower and lower.   Social workers who wanted to “help” me referred me to all kinds of programs with strict regimens, and I found I didn’t belong in any of them.  Not to mention, I’m one of those Introverted types who cherishes his privacy, and I learned that I would rather sleep outdoors in secluded spots on the outskirts of town, than stay crammed into a homeless shelter with about fifty other guys, where the rate of theft was even greater.

Finally, after one particularly disturbing instance when I was kicked out of a homeless shelter because I had caught the flu there, I got down on my knees and shouted to Whoever might hear my prayer:

“I do not care who they are telling me I am!
I do not care about drug addiction, alcoholism, mental illness,
or being a loser, or being a lazy bum, or being a worthless piece of crap!
I care about HOMELESSNESS!!
Please God put on end to all these years
of totally unpredicable, totally unreliable,
anything can happen, anytime, anywhere, HOMELESSNESS!!!”

I literally screamed that petition to the stars of a seemingly indifferent sky, hurting my knees from the impact of the concrete outside the Sequoia Station in Redwood City.

Long story short (and it’s a story that has been often told elsewhere), within three or four weeks, I had an affordable room in North Idaho, renting for about one fourth of what it would have rented in Berkeley, and a job playing piano at a small church, after being considered unemployable and mentally insane in the State of California for years.

How did I get there?  It wasn’t from a handout.  It was from a hand-up – in the form of a $200 bus ticket granted by an old associate of mine, a retired music teacher whom I’d worked with years ago on the San Francisco Bay Area Peninsula, before all of the sordid homelessness began.

Which brings me to my point.  The only homeless people who are into receiving “hand outs” from the system are those who either cannot fend for themselves, or choose not to, because they’d rather work the system.  The rest could use a hand-up.  I got one, and three and a half years later, on Thanksgiving Day, I must say I am thankful.  I’ve paid my rent on time in a place of my own choosing, a place of solitude and dignity, since September 1st, 2016.

So let that be food for thought on Thanksgiving Day.   You may use this information as you choose.   Maybe if somebody gives a hand-up to a person who could truly use it, then Somebody will give a hand-up to you.

Can I give you a hand? (Words and phrases for helping others) – About Words – Cambridge ...

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Inequity (Part Four)

Apparently, some people don’t think I know how to spell.   I’m referring to my recent use of the word “inequity.”  Some think I am referring to “iniquity.”  Others believe I am talking about “inequality.”   Neither is the case.  The truth is that I have spelled the word correctly: “inequity.”

inequity.JPG

Of the three nouns cited, the second one corresponds to the usage of the word as it pertains to this series.   The first “instance of injustice or unfairness” has to do with how homeless people are assumed to have done something terribly wrong in order to have become homeless, and that therefore homelessness is their due.  The second has to do with the notion that the homeless person is not qualified to engage in normal conversations or activities that people who live indoors are permitted to indulge.   The third has to do with privacy — how homeless people are deprived access to it, and regarded with suspicion if they seek it.

Today I would like to discuss a fourth inequity: how it is assumed that the homeless person does not have a job.  In some cases, it is even assumed that he could not have a job, and in other cases, that he should not have a job.  This is all part of the Overall Homeless Inequity.

A 2017 report by the Washington Council of Governments concluded that 22% of single homeless people, and 25% of homeless people in families, are employed.   These figures are remarkably similar to a report citing that 22% of homeless people are drug-addicted.  While it is often supposed that nearly all homeless people are drug-addicted (and no homeless people are working), the two statistics have a striking commonality.  Both of them equate homelessness with something that homelessness is not.

Homelessness is not the same thing as drug addiction.  Yet many people assume that a homeless person is an addict.   It is not the same thing as unemployment either.  Yet people will pass a homeless person on the street, and shout: Get a job!   Having been homeless for a number of years, I can tell you why I think people are content with these misconceptions.   Simply put, they justify the idea that the person is homeless because of some factor that that they can control; and that therefore, homelessness is their choice.  These comfortable fallacies free people from having to sympathize with the homeless person’s plight.

Now when I became homeless by choice, it was a choice made after seven years of struggling in and out of homeless and borderline-homeless situations, all the while finding my entire set of options for personal progress completely negated by the detrimental effects of any living situation I was able to afford.   While people assumed my main problem was something other than this, the fact of the matter is that I was making $50,000 a year and doing quite well before circumstances led to homelessness.  I then found homelessness nearly impossible to escape.

Many people have no idea how deep the hole of homelessness is dug.  Again and again, I tried my hardest to climb out of it.  But in the urban Bay Area reality, where studio apartments often rent for $2500/mo. or more, I could not get back on my feet.  The situations I could afford were limited to shelters, halfway houses, board-and-care homes, and (if I got desperate) psych wards and rehab facilities.  All of these resorts were undignifying, the last two were downright dehumanizing and criminalizing, and every one of them wound up leading me back to the streets.   Finally, I figured I better start learning how to be a functional homeless person, since that is where I continually found myself landing.  So on April 15, 2011, I left the last of numerous lousy living situations in order to join an intentional homeless community in Berkeley, California.

In Berkeley, where there were over one thousand visible homeless people on the streets, it wasn’t generally supposed that any of us were capable of working.  Combine that with a “progressive” quasi-socialist climate, and one was more likely to be encouraged to seek government aid through mental health disability than to get a job.  In short, it was assumed that I was unemployable.  This is another facet of this inequity.

Only once did someone shout at me: “Get a job!”  And when he did, I was damn near ready to go to the Social Security Office and ask them to cancel my disability paychecks.  It was so rare that someone believed I could work that what was intended to be a demeaning insult was actually refreshing.

Then, when I left Berkeley and moved to low-rent district in the Pacific Northwest, I found that within five days, I was able to secure a one year lease on a studio room, within three weeks, had secured a job, and was employed part-time shortly thereafter.  This was after being considered unemployable for years in Berkeley!   And as I always am quick to say, despite what many of my old associates in California believed, I did not change at all on a 48 hour one way bus trip.

What this points to is that when dealing with homeless people, we need to consider the socio-economic factors first and foremost, before we make judgments as to their personal character and choices.   The exact same person who secured a lease and a job as soon as he moved to Idaho was the one who flew a sign on a sidewalk for five years in California.

To those who still think people generally become homeless because they are drug addicts, alcoholics, nut cases, losers, or lazy bums, I say, please think again.   While this is sometimes the case, it is more often true that prolonged homelessness brings about any or all of those factors.  Please think a lot.   This culture gone awry needs the best thinking of us all.

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Tuesday Tuneup 59

Q. What are you doing here?

A. Killing time.

Q. Have you ever really stopped to think about that expression?

A. What expression?

Q. Killing time?

A. No, not really.

Q. Well, think about it!  How can time be killed?

A. But — it’s only an expression.

Q. Why do you not answer my question directly?

A. All right, all right.  Literally speaking, I have no idea how time can be killed.

Q. Then what makes you think you can kill it?

A. That would seem rather presumptuous of me.

Q. So!  What are you really doing here?

A. Waiting.

Q. Waiting for what?

A. For it to be 11:24.

Q. What time is it now?

A. 11:05.

Q. What happens at 11:24?

A. The bus comes.

Q. Are you sitting at the bus stop right now?

A. No, I’m sitting in the Courtyard Cafe with my computer.

Q. How long will it take you to get from the Courtyard Cafe to the bus stop?

A. About two minutes.

Q. Then shouldn’t you have said you were waiting for it to be 11:22?   Won’t you miss the bus if you wait all the way till 11:24?

A. All right, then.   I’m waiting for it to become 11:22.

Q. What time is it now?

A. 11:08.

Q. So for how many more minutes will you need to keep this up?

A. For 14 minutes, sir.

Q. Why did you call me “sir?”

A. I don’t know.  It seemed — courteous.

the GADFLY - Music Venues - 117 Elm St, La Grande, OR ...Q. But what makes you think I’m a man?   Couldn’t I be a woman?   Why didn’t you call me “madam” instead?   Why did you assume I am a man?

A. I don’t know — uh maybe some kind of unconscious sexism of some sort?

Q. Sexism?   Don’t you believe in equal rights for women?

A. Equal, uh, er, rights, yes — and equal opportunity — but perhaps not equality in terms of — of —

Q. In terms of what, may I ask?

A. Well, I mean, anybody knows there are innate differences in the way men and women process information . . .

Q. Are you saying that women are less intelligent than men?

A. Don’t put words in my mouth!   I said nothing of the kind!

Q. Well then!   Just what are these innate differences you’re so convinced exist?

A. Um . . . for one thing, it’s well-known that men are more solution-oriented, and that women are — are —

Q. More problem-oriented?!   Is that what you’re suggesting?   That all we do is cause problems??

(Awkward pause.)

A. What time is it?

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

A. All right, it’s 11:14 already.

Q. And just how do you propose to spend the next 8 minutes?

A. In total silence, preferably.

Q. How the hell are you going to get that to happen?

A. Probably only if one of us stops talking.

Q. And who might that be?

A. I would hope that you would be the one to stop talking first!

Q. And if I don’t?

The Answerer is silent.

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