Bigger and Better than the Streets

I wrote this, like the one last Thursday, on request from Alastair Boone, the editor-in-chief of Street Spirit.  There might be a similar entry next Thursday.  

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. The only thing they didn’t do was to let me stay with them. Ironically, to have offered me housing, even temporarily, would probably have been the only thing that could have possibly helped me to get back on my feet. The depth of the gutter where the homeless are consigned to dwell is really that deep. For me, at the time, it seemed inescapable.

So I continued to live outdoors, where I found myself gathering with other homeless people at “feeds” and at places like the Multi-Agency Service Center (MASC) in Berkeley. Though I and my fellow homeless people had arrived at homelessness by a variety of different paths, we had one thing in common: we were homeless. To the social workers who tried to help us, there was no distinction between a man who had been an elementary school music teacher, and a man who had been brought up on the streets, taught by his parents to steal laptops from an early age. Graphic artist and con artist were one and the same. We were all in this boat together.

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We were all homeless – and we indeed bonded together. After all, the laptop thief was my equal, no more or less endowed by the Creator with inalienable human rights like my own. But the only people who still saw me as a competent, employable human being were the ones who had known me prior to my “fall.” My fellow homeless people saw me as a homeless person — as one of them, an equal. Social workers and police officers saw me as a homeless person, though by and large they did not see me as equal, but as someone who was somehow below them in the hierarchy of human rights. My old friends and family members saw me as Andy, the guy they’d known and loved all their lives, whether homeless or not. Of course I needed their support!

But were they helping me with the one thing I needed? That is, to “get inside?” No – they were not. They had their own concerns. Meanwhile, I watched while the sordid conditions of homelessness gradually transformed me from a naive, 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. They viewed my visible poverty as an unsightly blot on society, a piece of garbage to be swept off the streets, along with the rest of my fellow eyesores. Were it not for the bonding with my fellow homeless citizens, I’d have lost all shreds of human dignity.

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 — certainly less than most of my friends who still lived indoors. 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 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. They gave me some pills and told me to rest in bed for ten days. But I had no bed! 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.

Finally, 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/mo. – something that would easily have gone for $900/mo. 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 — and 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 still wishes I had made the decision earlier. It would have spared me the last three years of psychic hell, as the pain of my homelessness was doused with street drugs, and the combination threatened to plummet me toward an untimely death. But had I made the decision earlier, I would have abandoned the bulk of my support group. How thankful I am to have lost their support all the same! For at the moment when I finally decided to leave the Bay Area for a low rent district in a distant State, I had no one left to lose – and everything to gain.

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. It doesn’t matter whether we were music teachers or laptop thieves. 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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A little bit goes a long, long way.

 

Homeless in Mayfield, Part Three

This one will probably make more sense if you read this one and this one beforehand. It’s the conclusion of a three-part series, consisting of stuff I posted on my Facebook timeline in 2014, during my attempt at homelessness in a small suburban upper-crust community.   After this one, I suppose I’ll have to “move on.”  ;)

You know, I just thought of something. Did that cop have a “right” to run my record? I wasn’t doing anything illegal – I was just sleeping. I wasn’t on private property – I saw no signs. He approached and said: “What are you doing here?”

“I’m sleeping,” I replied. “Is this not a good place to sleep?”

He said nothing to answer me, but asked instead: “How long have you been on the streets?”

Now, isn’t that a rhetorical question? Who said I was “on the streets?” What does is that supposed to suggest?   Here I’m noted for sleeping as far away from the streets as possible, and this guy’s assuming I’m some kind of street-huggin’ hustler, just because I live outdoors.  I could feel it already — the stigma, the judgment. 

So I acted a little indignant, I suppose, and I said: “I’m not a street person, sir! I’ll be ghomelessness%20clipartetting a room next month. I’m on a fixed income, and I can’t afford to stay in hotel rooms. I’m just here till my check comes.”

“Let me see your I.D.,” he growled.

As I reached down for my wallet and handed him my California State Senior Photo I.D., he seemed uncomfortable about something.  but I didn’t know what it was.  

“Tonight’s your last night,” he said, looking down at my picture.  “After that, move on.”

“OK,” I replied, a bit puzzled. It was ironic, too. I had finally found a clean quilt – at a church after a meeting. This was supposed to be my night to actually sleep for a change. I love the outdoors, but I somehow don’t sleep well without a blanket. It provides a sense of security – of protection, perhaps.  But this one was a bright white. That was a drawback. It may have drawn him in.

Well, I’m glad he ran my record, because apparently there’s a $600 warrant out for me. Astonished, I asked him: “What for?”

“Traffic violation, Redwood City.”

Damn! I had so hoped he would have taken me to jail.  I almost begged him over it.  It’s supposed to rain the next two days and two nights. I’d have paid off the fine, and gotten three squares a day, and a roof over my head to boot. But he just shouted: “Take care of it!”

Then he drove off.

Pardon my naivete, peeps, but — was there any particular law I was breaking by — sleeping? Was it vagrancy? Can’t have been. Vagrancy involves the intent to commit a crime, doesn’t it Sherp? I’m curious. I would like to know.

Moreover, a “traffic violation” doesn’t fit my M.O. I haven’t driven a car since March 19, 2004. I certainly haven’t driven one in Redwood City. So – I can get that cleared – but my question remains — did that cop have a right to run my record? Do you know, Bruce? Bif? Boxcar?  I’m asking you smart guys. You probably know.

Me? I’m just the local idiot savant, masochistic purveyor of laptops and Chromebooks to thugs, on pain of brutal blow to skull.

© 2014 A. Pope

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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A little bit goes a long, long way.