Classism, Stigma and Long Distance Running

This is going to sound horribly crass, but I keep thinking that only rich people are supposed to be about long distance running.   I keep thinking that we poor people are supposed to be wasting all our money on drugs, cigarettes and alcohol in order to cope with all the miseries of poverty.

But as I analyze that sentiment, I begin to wonder about it.  Let’s cite three specific wonderments, for the record.

(1) Why on earth would I be relating something so simple as health and fitness to financial status?   

Well, I think it’s safe to say that criminalization of the poor is a real phenomenon.  Impoverished people in our society are not only criminalized by those who are well-off.  We are criminalized by some of the very poor people we find in our midst.

Often, when I mention to someone in my financial bracket that I am going on a “run,” the word “run” is interpreted differently than I intended.

“A food run?” one might ask, supposing I’m about to go to the Food Bank or grocery store.

“A drug binge?” one might ask, since a “run” is colloquial for a bender.

When I tell them what form of running I mean, I have sometimes heard this reply: “You’re not going to see me running anywhere, unless I’m running from the law.”

Why is it that when a poor person is seen running, it is associated with running from the law?

For one thing, I don’t exactly have fine Nike shoes and Gore-Tex running suits.  I run in my normal duds, wearing old beat up shoes with holes in the soles.  I’m lucky if I even own a single pair of shorts for that matter.  The ones I run in now have tears in the sides.  But hey – how much of a priority is it to get good running clothes when one goes broke midway through every month?   At the risk of further crassness, let’s get real.

If a person is a bit better off, they can afford expensive running gear, and expensive race registrations, for that matter.  Not so with the poor folks.   So we have the association of visible poverty with criminality.  This cannot be overlooked — but let’s move on to the second question.

(2) Who dictates what one is “supposed” to be doing in the first place?   

While this is a very important question, I don’t think it warrants much extra analysis.  Once a person is a grown adult, no longer under parental guidance, no one dictates what that person is “supposed” to be doing.

No one but God, that is — and even in the case of God’s “dictates,” there is plenty of grace and room for personal preference.   The idea that poor people are “supposed” to be spending all their money on cigarettes and alcohol is only a social stigma.   That many poor people do smoke is quite true, and quite sad.  Cigarettes cost a lot of money, and poor people do not have that money.  But cigarettes are also very highly addictive, and that addiction is hard to break — for rich and poor alike.

(3) Is poverty really all that “miserable?” 

Personally, I don’t associate poverty with misery.  I associate poverty with inconvenience.   But inconvenience and misery are two different things.

Say I have a number of errands to do, as I did yesterday.   Say my bicycle is in the shop, as it was yesterday.  The errands take a great deal of time.   At one point, a drug store that I was depending on turned out to have gone out of business.  I then balked at making it all the way over to the next nearest drug store, which was miles away.   All of this stuff is inconvenient.

But was I miserable once I had finished my errands?   Not at all!  To the contrary, I felt great satisfaction in getting them all accomplished, even though the process was time-consuming.   In fact, if I had a car, I would be paying for upkeep and maintenance, if not car payments.   The bicycle consumes more time than a car, but it’s a wonderful way of getting around — given good weather conditions — and one gets one’s daily exercise in the process.   It also points to the beauty of the “middle place” – that beautiful place where one finds a healthy balance between extremes.

The Bible makes it clear that many blessings are afforded to poor people.   And no one relates God’s blessings to misery.  In fact, the words “happy” and “blessed” are interchangeable in Old Testament languages.   The words “Blessed are the poor” appear verbatim in the Gospel According to Luke, and slightly qualified in the Gospel According to Matthew.   The words “blessed are the rich,” on the other hand, are nowhere to be found.

Now the Word does say: “The rich and the poor have this in common: The LORD is Maker of them all.” (Ecclesiastes 22:2.)  This is one of many fine Scriptures, along with Colossians 3:11 and Galatians 3:28, that point to egalitarianism.  (Even the Scriptures suggesting that women are to be submissive to their husbands are usually followed by Scriptures suggesting that husbands ought to be submissive to their wives — but for some reason we don’t like to look at those parts.)

Outside of Scriptural documentation, common sense suggests that we are all equal in the eyes of God, and that we should be equal in the eyes of each other.  In my opinion, the only people who need to be robbed of certain rights to liberty are hardened criminals who should remain behind bars, as they would otherwise remain threats to society.   But whether one is rich or poor — or anywhere in between — does not alter their essential humanity.  We have a lot more in common with people in other social classes than we think.   We are all human.

The Bible does however go a bit harder on the wealthy.   There are scores of warnings delivered in the Word to those of high stature.   James 5:1 and Mark 10:5 come to mind immediately — but there are many others as well.  On the other hand, very few warnings are delivered to the poor.  In fact, the Prayer of Agur is just about as close as they come:

Two things I ask of You—
do not refuse me before I die:
Keep falsehood and deceitful words far from me.
Give me neither poverty nor riches;
feed me with the bread that is my portion.
Otherwise, I may have too much
and deny You, saying, ‘Who is the LORD?’
Or I may become poor and steal,
profaning the name of my God.
—  Proverbs 30:7-9

This also points to the beauty of the middle class: the middle class that is gradually disappearing from our social structure.   We have recently seen billionaires in the Cabinet.   Decent people — I repeat, decent people — are strewn about the streets of Seattle and San Francisco, drowning in a culture that no human being should be forced to endure.

But in the middle place there is balance.  One will neither think of God as unnecessary, nor curse God for apparent failure to provide.

If this new job works out — which so far, I am sad to say, it does not appear to be — I may be able to reach that middle place.   If not, the words of St. Paul still ring true:

“For we brought nothing into the world, neither are we able to carry out anything. But having sustenance and coverings, with these we will be content.”  — 1 Timothy 6:8

There is a certain measure of comfort in that directive.   That comfort may be felt by anyone who is human, and who believes.   But to equate a quest for greater health and fitness with having the money to afford high quality health food and fancy running gear is to miss the mark.

Digest the Word.  Soak it in.  Find in the Word the Beauty and Truth thereof.   “It will bring healing to your body, and refreshment to your bones.”  — Proverbs 3:8

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From the Outside Looking In

This, the final column in a five-week series, was first published on Spokane Faith and Values on Wednesday the 17th of this month.   Reprinting it here (with significant edits).   I hope you like my work.     

In keeping with the imbalance of all of these inequities, this is perhaps the most profound.

It was often assumed that people who lived inside had a lot to teach those of us who were outside.  It was rarely supposed that we who lived outside had a lot to teach people who never had done so. 

When you stop to think about it, this one isn’t even a logical assumption. If someone were to have seen me flying a sign in 2016, they would have seen somebody who had lived inside for the first 51 years of his life, and was largely outside for the next twelve. Naturally, I knew what it was like to live both inside and out.  But the person approaching me, having always lived indoors, lacked a good half of that knowledge base.

How the outsider is perceived

This led to a serious cognitive dissonance in how the outsider was to be perceived. On the one hand, they were in an ostensibly superior position; that is, a position from which one might feel qualified to render assistance. On the other hand, they were in what was actually a foreign position. No matter how much better one’s lot in life may seem, if the variables of that life were utterly foreign, then how can one presume to be of help?

“How could they possibly be telling us anything we don’t already know?” we would query amongst ourselves. “Or worse, how can they advise us on matters we do know something about, that they don’t?”

They should be listening to us!” we eventually concluded. It was such an inescapable conclusion that we marveled at those who would persist in its denial.

But persist they did. People would relentlessly assault us with bits and pieces of perfectly impertinent, irrelevant information. They would tell us where the feeds and services were, as if we did not already know. They would present us with fliers that any one of us could receive daily at the doors to any of those events. Even when I was busking, even with my own guitar, they would tell me what I should have been doing instead.

Granted, not all passersby were of this predilection. But the saturation was severe enough that those who were not really stood out. How great it felt when my friend Neil and I were busking, and someone simply put a $5 bill into the jar and shouted: “You guys sound great, keep it up!” At least our street craft was acknowledged for what it was meant to be — not for something else.

Given that the disparity in perception was so huge between those who observed us, and we who were being observed, how best could our own aggregate head-space be described?

While attitudes varied from one outdoor dweller to another, there was naturally a thread of common interest in the details of outdoor living that, for some reason, most of those who approached us from inside were not interested in.

Seeking Self-Protection

For one thing, talk of self-protection was very common. We all felt vulnerable — so much so that talk of vulnerability as it was experienced in the relative safety of indoor seclusion often seemed empty and meaningless. We were concerned with getting through the next night, with not being found by assailants in our sleep, with having the semblance of a visible weapon for self-defense, with having those nearby who could watch out for us.

In trying to get on in the wilds, I felt drawn toward guides from the past, bodies of knowledge I never thought I would ever revisit. The Boy Scout Handbook was one such book of knowledge.  Even knowing the right kinds of knots to use to secure my tent was a great bit of useful information, not to mention all kinds of things long forgotten: carving paths, leaving landmarks,  telling which way was North, starting campfires, and making them last.

I found myself also referring to more mystical works that had influenced my youth. “The Castaneda Series” came to mind. Principles from The Yaqui Way of Knowledge that clearly pertained to outdoor living surfaced in my psyche.  There was the principle of finding my place–or “spot”–wherever I decided to stay and sit, and thus maximizing my energy there. There was also the principle of disrupting the routines of life. These are skills that, while they seemed inapplicable to the workaday mainstream, were very useful in the new life that where I had found myself.

It was not uncommon for us to marvel in how separate this new existence seemed from the world to which we’d been accustomed all our lives. Indeed, those who still inhabited the previous mode of existence appeared to be strangers, and alien to us, even though they had once been our kith and kin.

The perception that even friends and family should in this fashion seem suddenly alien, combined with that of an unusually strong bond we who were outside together all shared one with another, further served to illuminate just how much we all looked to be outsiders. Indeed, we were but “strangers and pilgrims on the Earth,” similar to the identification of the sojourners among our progenitors, those who in Hebrews 11:13 lived by faith.

Turning to Scripture

As a believer, I found myself taking to certain Scriptures that, while they had always seemed true to me in a way that transcended the tedium of regular workaday life, now they took on even stronger, more glaring meaning.

I heard people talk about how the people who were still inside were unaware of how there was no hope in the “mainstream” — that meaning the vast social entity from which we felt we had been expelled and flung full-force into this new realm of being. We knew there was no hope in the mainstream, and we were thankful for having been released from it. In my case, I likened it to the “world” as used in the Scripture, Romans 12:2: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”

When I was still in the mainstream, struggling to fit in and to function, I was unable to see how it failed to form a foundation from which a healthy spiritual life might spring. It was more accurately the case that it rather replicated the world system to which we are not to be conformed. And now that I was outside, I saw this clearly.

Not only this, but the Lord himself positioned himself as an outsider, much the same as we living outside now experienced ourselves to be.

“So Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood. Therefore let us go to him outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured. For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come.” — Hebrews 13:12-14

So it was inevitable that we who believed and who were left outside discovered a deeper identification with our Lord and Master, at the same time as letting go of a much shallower identification with the world.

“Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.” — Philippians 2:5-7

Here was the sense in which our New Testament identification in Christ was made so much more accessible through the nature of the situation in which we all found ourselves, and its being opposed to the world.

“And Jesus said to him, ‘The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere He might lay the head.’” — Luke 9:58

This became our experience.  It wasn’t just His being a model or example.  It was we ourselves living out His life in that manner through ourselves and our present-day experience.  We felt it night after night, day after day.

For we brought nothing into the world, so we cannot carry anything out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these.” — 1 Timothy 6:7-8

It was interesting also in reading these time-honored words anew, how the author does not refer to “food and shelter.” We are to be content with “food and clothing.” Many people lived nomadically in those days, without shelter. Shelter is not a necessity in the sense that food is. This is one of the first things we learned, that we all came to accept, in order to cope with the radically different details of life outside.

“For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.”  — 2 Corinthians 5:1

Our Reality

While earlier in life I could see in this Scripture a note of hope, I now was able to embrace it as a living reality. For these indoor dwellings with which we used to be content were not our true homes. Rather, our true home is in the indescribable realm of the heavens, of which we, being freed from our indoor dwelling places, were now granted an ephemeral glimpse.

So, with all this naturally going on in one’s mind, as one continues to face the wildly unpredictable vicissitudes of life outside, do you see how much of the narrative we were made privy to, on the part of whoever had always lived inside, seemed frivolous and trivial in comparison? So complete was our absorption in this new kind of life, it came to baffle us that others, ensnared in physical boxes much like those we had already shed, still thought them to be containers of life.

For us, they were not, and really never could be, quite again.  For it was so often thought that those who lived therein had something to teach us about life.  It was rarely if ever thought that for those of us who lived outside, our lives had just begun.   

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A Hand Up

The fourth column in my five-week series on homelessness was published yesterday on the religion-related site Spokane Faith and Values.  Below is a transcript of the piece.  

It was when Nadine Woodward was running for Mayor of Spokane that I first heard Tracy Simmons speak. When I heard Ms. Woodward’s campaign slogan, “a hand up, not a hand out,” I felt compelled to comment. A handout to the homeless, she claimed, has a way of “enabling them.”

“It does enable them,” I blurted out.

Suddenly, I felt as though everybody in the room was looking at me.

“I was homeless for years in the San Francisco Bay Area,” I explained. “All that a constant string of handouts did for me was to keep me homeless.

Now perhaps that sentiment is misleading. We all need to eat. Jesus fed the hungry without qualification. Does anyone say, “All Jesus did was give them a hand-out?” That’s usually not the way it’s framed.

On the other hand, for five years I watched as a plethora of self-care items was freely distributed to whoever figured out where to find them. There were socks on Mondays, a laundry room on Tuesdays, and razors on Wednesdays. There were 35 free meals a week in the city where I slept outdoors. Many people took continual advantage of these services.

In fact, it began to look as though the same people were showing up for all these events, year after year. There was a noticeable tribe in the making, whose members were a mixed bag.

First, there were those who were disabled, who showed up with caregivers–those for whom the community meal was a part of their planned itinerary. A second group was of a criminal bent, in and out of jail, and discussing their adventures openly. Still others had merely fallen upon hard times. But by and large, the bulk of those who frequented homeless services were clearly sane, competent, and able to work.

So why did they remain there?

For one thing, it isn’t easy for a person who lives outdoors to find a job. Homeless people are disadvantaged. I recall how one of my applications was rejected because I didn’t own a cell phone. Another time, I couldn’t afford the fingerprint check. There was a $35 fee, and I wasn’t able to come up with the money fast enough. It isn’t easy for a homeless person to impress a prospective employer.

Numerous obstacles stand in the way of a homeless person arriving at an interview. They may not be able to shower in time, or obtain decent clothing. They may not be able to manage the public transit to get them there. Even if they succeed at showing up on time and looking sharp, the interviewer may notice that they lost a job three years ago, and haven’t landed one since.

Their credit score may not be pristine. Worse yet, their mailing address may only be a Post Office Box. Why are they not providing their home address? Could they possibly be homeless? How can a homeless person be trusted with a responsible position? Aren’t they all lazy, and perennially unemployed?

“On to the next applicant,” the interviewer frowns.

Ironically, the fallacy that all homeless people are lazy is often what prevents them from being hired. This leads to the sixth inequity that I have wanted to discuss:

It was often thought that because we were homeless, our lives were consigned to a countless string of handouts. It was seldom considered that our lives might be changed through a single hand-up instead.

Here’s How a Hand Up Works

Consider my own experience. Over a period of twelve years, how much money do you think went into feeding me and occasionally providing me with temporary lodging? Easily, thousands upon thousands of dollars, subsidized by the taxpayers of America.

How much money went into ending twelve years of homelessness in the Bay Area?

Exactly $600.

Seriously! That’s all it took. Once I was finally ready to get inside, I found someone who believed in me enough to front me $200 for a one way ticket to a brand new life. Shortly later, that person spotted me $200 for a deposit on my first place of residence. Granted, the place was an old, run-down hotel whose rooms had been converted to “apartments.” But it was still a roof over my head–with a decent mailing address, to boot.

On July 27, 2016, I arrived in the State of Idaho. On September 1st, I signed a one-year-lease. On September 6, I interviewed for a church job. Shortly later, I was hired. This was after years of being considered “unemployable” in California — only because I lived outdoors.

Over the next few weeks, I received four $50 loans from my benefactor. The money went to necessities such as clothing, toiletries, and a photo ID. He and I stayed in touch for a while, and then, by and by, parted ways.

Would it be too much to ask the privileged people of America to walk up and down the sidewalks, talk to the people who sit there daily, get to know them, and decide for themselves who would benefit from a $600 hand-up?

To be sure, many would decline. And even those who accepted would face a rather daunting task. It isn’t easy to discern who would put the hand-up to good use. It takes time to get to know people – and homeless people are no exception. The hand-up I’ve described did not take place in a single day.

But it did take place — and it did work. The role of a single benefactor cannot be discounted. But the main factor in my success was that I left all of my homeless stigma behind.

Think About It

I am not alone. There are millions of people scattered about the streets of North American cities. People who once were your next-door neighbors — who once looked very much like you. And now, due to the pandemic, a new upsurge in homelessness is on the rise. This consists largely of people who, just over a year ago, were working and faithfully keeping up on their rents and mortgages.

How logical is it to assume that all of them are “losers” and “lazy bums?”

How compassionate is it to turn a cold shoulder? To shrug and say: “There are services for people like you!”

How realistic is it to suppose that “services” will suffice to do what must be done?

How courageous is it to wash your hands of the matter, and refuse to associate with people who don’t look like me and you?

How open-minded is it to shun the homeless on the streets, and walk past them as though they were things — and not human beings?

The Answer Begins with You

I challenge anyone who has $600 to spare — and granted, that may not be many — to walk up and down the streets of Spokane and talk to homeless people, as you would talk to any other human being.

Talk about the ball game. Talk about the concert. Talk about your relationship hassles. Get to know these human beings who are no less human than you are. Find out their interests, their passions, their fields of expertise. Find out how much you have in common with these people who are just like you.

And if you have $6000 to spare, you know what to do. I guarantee you there are a lot more than ten people on those streets who don’t need to be there. If you have $60,000 to spare, you know where to spare it.

I’m not saying it will be easy. But the solution to the homeless problem in America does not lie in programs and institutions. It lies in removing the veil of stigma from the picture of the homeless individual.

Shelters and services may play a part, but they will never work effectively until this one thing has been secured. Just as I said in my very first column, we need to strengthen our weakest link. We need to see in every homeless person the book of humanity that we have judged by its cover. And our common humanity, one to another, must be revealed.

That book of humanity is a far more informative document than you might think. And that’s what my next column will be all about.

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Further Inequities

The third column in my five-week series on homelessness was published yesterday on the religion-related site Spokane Faith and Values.  Below is a transcript of the piece.  

Since this series began, I have been observing the nature of comments and reactions to my words.  As a result, it strikes me that a few things may need to be clarified.

When I use the word “we” in reference to my experience, I refer specifically to the Berkeley-based homeless community in which I participated between the years 2011 and 2016.  But I have also found that my statements generally hold true for those who have experienced long-term homelessness in other urban areas. 

Also, when I speak in past tense, I refer to specific events that took place throughout the entire 12-year period when I struggled with homelessness.  But again, I believe it stands to reason that the nature of such events is universal.

I am not here to discuss shelters and services. Such discussions can take place anywhere.  I am here to issue a call that we accept and respect those who continue to live outdoors — at a time when more and more people are beginning to do so. 

That said, I’m going to breeze through the next three inequities, to further fortify my statement.

There Are Other Topics of Conversation

If was often thought that homeless people should discuss only homelessness, at the expense of other topics.  It was seldom thought that homeless people, like all other people, should be permitted to discuss any topic they please.

A young person said to me once: “I would have no idea what to say to a homeless person.”

“That’s easy,” I replied.  “Talk to them about anything except homelessness.

You have no idea how refreshing it was when somebody approached me and began to discuss the ball game, the concert, or their most recent argument with their partner.  Conversations in which we were treated as human beings, not as homeless people, were a breath of fresh air. 

It was alarming how many people seemed to think that the only thing that should have been on our minds was our homelessness. Can you imagine if your new neighbor were Black or Hispanic, and the first thing you did was to approach them and discuss their ethnicity?  That’s the way it felt when people insisted on discussing our homelessness with us. 

So, if like my young friend, you are uncertain what to say in the presence of a person who is experiencing homelessness, consider my advice. Unless they bring it up first, talk about anything other than homelessness. Try it – you just might make their day. 

A Homeless Person Has a Need for Privacy

It was often thought that because one was homeless, one had sacrificed their “right to privacy.” It was seldom considered that homeless people need as much privacy as people who live behind closed doors.  

While it is debatable that our right to privacy is guaranteed in the 4th Amendment, I will assert that the 4th Amendment ought to apply equally to homeless citizens as well as to those who live indoors. The problem with a homeless person’s “right to privacy” stems from the fact that, living outdoors, most of the time there simply isn’t any. 

Yet homeless people need to relieve themselves, just like any other kind of person. But indoor bathrooms are often inaccessible. I remember walking the streets of Berkeley for an hour and a half once, trying to find a public bathroom that wasn’t locked. When I finally sneaked behind a bush to do the job, can you imagine how it felt to be viewed with suspicion?

Of course I was viewed with suspicion! Why does somebody sneak behind a bush? Doesn’t everybody have a bathroom? Surely the homeless person was bugging out to “do some drugs.” If a homeless person sneaks into an alleyway, that person probably needs to urinate. But how often is this the public perception? People are more likely to think that the homeless person is sneaking off to “do a drug deal.” And then, once found urinating, they risk getting a scolding, if not an indecent exposure charge.

The fact of the matter is that those who live outside do not have easy access to bathrooms. Those who live inside generally do.  

As for the cops who often woke me in the middle of the night, in order to “search my backpack for drugs” and “run my criminal record,” I can truthfully attest that there were never any drugs in my backpack, nor did I have a criminal record.  But if searching my backpack against my will was not a violation of my 4th Amendment Rights, I’m not sure what it was. 

Many Homeless People Have Jobs

It was often thought that because a person was homeless, their homelessness would be cured if they got a job. It was seldom considered that if a person were homeless, their homelessness would be cured if they found a place to live.  

It was also often assumed that a homeless person didn’t already have a job.  Yet, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless,  40 – 60% of people experiencing homelessness move in and out of jobs. It is also estimated that about 25% of homeless people are working at any given time. I myself took at least four jobs in my field when I was homeless — temporary contracts as a musical director or accompanist at places like Children’s Musical Theatre San Jose and Peninsula Teen Opera. 

While 25% might seem a relatively low figure, it actually testifies tremendously to the fact that homeless people generally want to be working. When we consider the obstacles that homeless people face toward becoming employed — many of which are listed in this excellent article, the figure begins to look quite high.  Moreover, while it is often thought that people become homeless due to “drug addiction,” it is factually evident that most people become homeless due to having lost their jobs.  

There was a common catch-22 that abounded in the realm of outdoor living: “I can’t get a job until I have a place to live, and I can’t get a place to live without a job.” 

But because of rising costs of rents, many of us would rather avoid rentals entirely, and focus on making enough money to survive. It wasn’t the most pleasant use of our energies, but often it was the most essential.

All five of the inequities I have thus far delineated stem from a single evil.  That evil is in the dehumanization of the homeless individual. We were not regarded, in general, as people who were equal to others. It was not considered that we were human beings having inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It was instead believed that we had to sacrifice our rights — only because we lived outdoors.

Many of us were unwilling to make that sacrifice. And this leads to the inequity that will be discussed in my next column. You may expect it to validate everything I’ve been trying to express since this series began.

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Bridging the Gap

In case anybody caught yesterday’s podcast, I had a weird realization when I got up this morning.  The Kids of course know my story — and I’ve told my story elsewhere on this blog.   But if you didn’t know that story, there’s a big gap in the information provided on that particular, spontaneous podcast.  It seems I never really explain how I got from living in that big mansion to being homeless on the California streets so quickly.    It then occurred to me, perhaps you would like to have that information as well.

So I dug up this talk I gave into my then-partner’s Motorola smartphone on July 3, 2018.  It tells the story, and then some.   Seems I was a lot more patriotic in those days, and I also knew a lot less about psychiatric conditions.  But the essence of the talk is neither my patriotism nor my lack of savvy.  It’s about classism in America, and social stigma, and the hope that one day, we will bridge the ever-widening gap between the super-rich and the super-poor in our society.   We are, after all, all human – and only human – each and every one.

Andy tells his story on July 3, 2018
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A Homeless Person Has a Life

The second column in my five-week series on homelessness was published yesterday on the religion-oriented site Spokane Faith and Values, where I have been writing throughout the pandemic.  Below is a verbatim transcript of the piece.  

I recently raised a public objection to the notion that I ought to change my phraseology from “homeless” to “houseless” in everything I write. I felt a bit miffed that the person who made this suggestion had never actually lived outdoors.  

But I am someone who has lived outdoors — not just for a while, but for years on end. During those years, I associated largely with others who were in the same boat. I learned how such people generally speak of themselves.   As a result, I use the words “outside” and “outdoors” more than either of the other two–and I feel compelled to explain why.

In a way, I have the same motive as those who wish to replace “homeless” with “houseless.” The word “homeless” has a lot of pejorative connotations.  But both of these words end with “less.” They still suggest that the person who lives outdoors is necessarily lacking something. But this is not always the case.

In my case, after struggling in and out of untenable living situations in the San Francisco Bay Area for seven years, I made a conscious choice on April 15, 2011 to join an intentional homeless community. While most of us had experienced a crisis that led to a loss of residence, we unanimously believed that to live outdoors was the lesser of evils. For one thing, we found it preferable to live outside rather than to pay exorbitant rental fees for acceptable living situations (not to mention paying decent rent for unacceptable situations). 

In short, we had a heck of a time finding living situations in the Bay Area that were both affordable and acceptable. So for the time being, we were content to stay outdoors. 

It was there that I found the language most prevalent among all who shared my predicament. This was a simple exchange between the words “inside” and “outside.” If someone had a roof over their head, we said they were “inside.” If they didn’t, they were “outside.” This is how homeless people speak of themselves in the Bay Area. It’s also how they speak of themselves in Moscow, Idaho. And while I have never been homeless in Spokane, I wouldn’t doubt that this parlance is common there as well.

Is there a reason for this linguistic preference? I think there is. It speaks to the essential difference between two disparate camps. Some people have roofs over their heads, and some people don’t. Furthermore, there is nothing morally wrong with sleeping outside — so long as one is not sleeping on someone else’s property.  The landmark decision in Martin v. Boise would seem to support this.

This leads nicely into the second of the seven inequities I have wanted to discuss.

A Homeless Person Does Have a Life 

It was often assumed that, because we had wound up homeless, all of the conclusions we had drawn throughout our entire life span were in need of revision.

This led to an amusing observation. If a person had been a lifelong conservative, and they became homeless, that person was supposed to “become a liberal.” Why? Because the liberal social workers were feeding them.

If a person had been a liberal all their lives, and they became homeless, they were often told that they should “become a conservative.” Why?   Because the Salvation Army was feeding them. 

How many people in those days approached me in order to proselytize their particular version of Christianity? Very many. How many people asked me first if I already knew Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior? Very few. 

This imbalance appears to have evolved from some of the preconceptions I discussed last week. It was rarely considered that someone might have become homeless due to a lack of tenable housing. It was almost universally assumed that they became homeless because there was something wrong with them.

Homelessness is Not a Disease

In the rooms of 12-step programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous, there are many “clichés” or sayings intended to assist people who have hit huge “bottoms” in their lives. One of these is: “Your best thinking got you here.”  That statement is then followed by suggestions as to how the recovering addict or alcoholic might change their way of thinking, in accordance with the 12 steps.

I can understand how this would apply to the enormous losses one might incur through drug addiction or alcoholism. People do “drink themselves out of house and home.” Many people with drug problems wind up alienating friends and family, as well as landlords. Many do wind up outdoors. This cannot be denied.

But here I found myself having consciously chosen homelessness as the lesser of evils in a precarious life-situation that had yet to be resolved.  Numerous people approached me saying, in effect:”Your best thinking got you into this position. I have suggestions how you might change your way of thinking.”

I felt like saying: “I agree that my best thinking got me into this position.  But you have never been in this position; therefore you cannot advise me as to how to get out of it.” 

This is how the details of homelessness differ radically from the details of drug addiction or alcoholism. The A.A. member who makes that suggestion is a recovering alcoholic and does have valuable information to share.  But the person who, having always living indoors, makes such a suggestion to a homeless person, has no relevant personal experience. Therefore their suggestions, however well-intended, are not often useful.

This disparity — or inequity or imbalance — is something that can be solved through better communication. But before we can even begin to make that effort, we need to dignify, not only the homeless human being, but the homeless experience itself.

In short, there is nothing wrong with being homeless.

We need to understand this simple truth, and to have it acknowledged far and wide. Look how many people are on the streets! Despite the best efforts of all involved, that number is only bound to increase — especially now, when more people than ever are losing their homes.

We need to stop moralizing, and start accepting. We need to stop obligating people who sleep outside toward quick entries into undignified indoor living situations.  Homelessness is neither a crime nor a disease. We need to stop criminalizing the homeless, and we need to stop treating them as though they are sick. 

If we cannot truly help them to get inside, let us please make it easier for them to live outdoors.

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A Man of Integrity

I was very impressed with the psychiatrist I saw on the single day referenced in this story.  In fact, I put a call into the clinic this morning to see if I could use his name.   It being six years ago, however, he might not remember me.  It being a very memorable event, however, he just might.   Then again, he struck me as such an amazing individual, it’s quite likely that all his visits are just as memorable.  So maybe he won’t remember me after all.  We’ll see.

I believe it was the year 2015 when I decided I would try to get a $20 monthly disabled bus pass, rather than continue to hike up my transportation bill with two dollar drops here and there.  Because a regular bus pass was $80 in Alameda County at the time, I figured it was worth a shot.

As I strolled into the clinic where a psychiatrist was to evaluate my case, I saw a young doctor approaching me from down the hall.  He seemed a bit distraught, or perhaps preoccupied.

“Mr. Pope,” he addressed me.  “Right this way.”

He sat me down in his office and started us off with something unusual.   Apparently, he needed a twenty-minute recording for some sort of presentation before some kind of board.  Thinking I might fit the bill, he asked if he could interview me.

“There is methamphetamine abuse in your history,” he began. “Would you mind if I recorded your answers to some questions first?  Then we can see about getting you your disabled bus pass.”

“I don’t mind at all,” I agreed — even though I did mind.  I never could shake the “tweaker tag” that followed me around, year after year, via medical chart.  I believe I signed something, and the interview began.

Although I don’t recall the exact line of questioning, I was quite surprised when he stopped the recorder about five minutes into the interview.

“I don’t believe you!” he cried. “You are not coming across like a tweaker.”

“Thank you,” I said.  

“In fact, you are coming across like a highly intelligent, perfectly capable and competent man.  I’m sorry, Mr. Pope, but I do not believe you have a legitimate disability, and I am hesitant to sign for your disabled bus pass.”

“Well, um — it probably says on my chart that I am bipolar.”

“Yes it does.  And you are showing no symptoms of bipolar disorder either.”

“That’s probably because I’m not bipolar,” I continued.  “Ever since I had an episode in 2004 that I believe to have been medication-induced, doctors have been reading the word ‘bipolar’ on my chart and not questioning it.  In fact, you are the first clinician who ever has.”

“Does this disturb you?”

“Not at all,” I replied.  “I take it as integrity.”

The doctor paused for a moment.

“I take your statements as integrity, as well.”

“I appreciate that,” I replied.  “But I must say, there really is something wrong with me, and it really does keep me from being employable.”

His interest piqued.  “What do you think is wrong with you?” he asked.

“Well, for one thing, I am able to perform complex tasks that most people find almost impossible — such as typing at an extremely fast speed and playing a piano just as fast.  I have no trouble organizing my thoughts into complex sentences, and to create impressive improvisational music comes natural to me.  However, I am incapable of doing the simplest things that most people do routinely.  I have a really hard time buttoning my shirt and zipping up my pants.   My hands seem only designed to type and play a piano.”

“Go on,” he said, seeming to be intrigued.

“I have great difficulty concentrating.  Oh, I concentrate fine — until I come up against a snag.  Then my mind drifts off into outer space, and I have the devil of a time returning to the intended point of focus.  Although I write profusely, I can count the number of books I’ve read cover to cover on two hands.   My mind spaces out when I’m reading, and sometimes even finds itself rewriting the book I’m reading — all before I realize what I’m doing.   Couldn’t get a college degree, in fact.  Couldn’t handle the reading load. “

“Stop right there!” he exclaimed excitedly.  “Now I have something I can use.”

He turned the recorder back on and let me speak for another twenty minutes.  Then I watched as he immediately picked up my papers, and signed for me to receive a disabled bus pass.

My jaw dropped open.  “Wow!” I shouted.  “What is wrong with me?”

“You’re ADD, man!!”

I tend to doubt that the good doctor will remember me — at least not by name.  And with the fast pace of the business in the Bay Area, he may well choose not to return my call.  It was that very fast pace, however, that led one doctor after another not to question the misdiagnosis they were reading on my charts.  In such an environment, it was certainly refreshing to encounter a doctor whose professional integrity exceeded his sense of hurry.   We’ll see if he returns my call.  

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No – NOT on Drugs . . .

One day I was sitting at my Spot on the corner of Shattuck & Allston in Berkeley, California, leaning my back against the red brick wall of the Downtown Berkeley BART station, as usual.   A young man approached, conversed with me casually for a few minutes, then asked me a question.

“You seem to be a pretty bright guy,” he began.  “What is it about being on drugs that makes a person not want to eat?”

“Do you mean, physiologically?” I asked.

“Yeah,” he said. “Do they do something to the body that takes away the appetite?”

“Why do you ask?”

“I just asked a homeless guy across the street if he wanted a sandwich, and he said no.”

Something didn’t seem quite right.  So I asked him: “Well, what drug do you think he was on?”

“I don’t know.  I don’t know much about drugs.”

“Did he seem intoxicated?” I asked.  “Or dopey?  Or more like, spun?  I mean, were his eyes darting around to and fro, back and forth?  Did he seem paranoid?”

“No, none of those things.”

“Then how do you know he was on drugs?”

“Well, he must have been on drugs.  Why else would he have turned down the sandwich?”

“Did it ever occur to you that he might not have been hungry?”

“Well, no I hadn’t thought of that.”

“How did he respond when you offered to give him a sandwich?”

“He just kinda smiled and said ‘No thank you.'”

“Well then, I would say, he simply wasn’t hungry.   That’s all there is to it.”

“Yeah, but you guys are here suffering all the time, having a hard time finding food.  Couldn’t he have just saved the sandwich for later?”

Teens Give Back - SA - Home

“I suppose he could have.  But around here a person who isn’t hungry usually says no, in the expectation that you’ll go give somebody else the sandwich — someone who actually is hungry.”

“That’s what I did.”

“Good for you.”

I remember looking away and smiling at passersby, in what was I suppose a none-too-subtle way of conveying that it might be a good place to end the conversation.

“But it’s been bugging me,” he went on.  “I felt like he wasn’t grateful.  He should have been thankful.  I mean, I was offering him food, wasn’t I?”

“Well, he smiled, didn’t he?   He had probably just eaten something.   But I’m interested in why you thought he was on drugs, when he didn’t particularly seem to be.”

“Aren’t homeless people on drugs?”

“Some,” I said slowly.  “Not all.”

“Yeah,” he nodded.  “You don’t seem to be on drugs.”

“But that guy didn’t seem like he was on drugs either, right?”

“That’s right.”

“So how do you know I’m not on drugs?

“Good point,” he replied.  “I guess I don’t.”

“Say, let me ask you something.  Do you think that if a person is homeless, it must be because they’re a drug addict?”

“Well, isn’t that true?”

“No, not really.  Homelessness and drug addiction are not synonymous, you know.   There are drug addicts who live in big mansions, and there are people experiencing homelessness who have never used drugs in their lives.”

At around that point, he took out a dollar bill and tossed it in my hat.

“Thank you,” he said.  “I think I just learned something.”

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Somebody Gave Easily (Part Two)

In four days, it will be four years that I have lived indoors, after years and years of living outside, mostly on urban city streets.   And I’m not sure if anyone’s noticed this, but I am often very disappointed in myself. 

It seems to me that these days I have been granted a huge amount of freedom, compared to how restricted my freedom has been in the past.   Yet I do not use this new freedom to its highest advantage.  My life is full of the very opportunities I so longed for, during all the years when I was homeless.   But I do I use those opportunities to their fullest?    

I have a shower – a bathtub even.   How often have I relaxed and sat down and drawn a nice hot bath?    Twice, I believe, in three years inside this apartment.   I have a dishwasher.  Do I use it?   I have a carpet.   Do I vacuum it?   I have an ironing board.  But do I iron my shirts?   What’s wrong with me?   I have a bed, a couch, and a few comforters.   But do I even have a pair of pajamas?   Half the time I sleep in my street clothes — just as I used to, when I slept on the streets.  

I have a piano now.  I have two home computers now.  I have music production software.   I have the capability to create high-quality sound files and videos, both on computer and on smartphone –– which is something I also have.  Not to mention, I can type all night if I want to, and nobody is going to complain about the constant pitter-patter.  I have space.  I have options.  I have freedom.   But do I fully utilize that freedom?  I don’t think I do.   Why am I not more grateful?

When I was homeless,  I didn’t have any of those things.  Like, for years.  Thoughts of “if only” often intruded my prayers.  I would be looking up to the sky at night, and saying things like: “If only I can ever get inside again — and not one of these facilities where they throw all the homeless people — places with all kinds of restrictions and curfews, where they confiscate your laptop along with your belt and your shoelaces, and they won’t even let you outside without supervision, much less trust you to go out for a jog and back.   If only I could ever have my own place  — if only . . .”

The inner assumption with “if only” is that it will never actually occur.  It was therefore painful to dwell on it.  Painful, yet inevitable.  All throughout my day to day existence, I was feeling the lack.    (Again, just the opposite of what I feel nowadays.)

Lack of money to get myself inside temporary situations where they would let me do my thing.   Lack of free power outlets where I could plug in my laptop.   Lack of sufficient change to warrant stays in coffeehouses.  Lack of supportive people who respected me as an Artist — or even as a man, as a father, as a human being.   And of course, there was the big one — lack of a roof over my head.  

And even worse: lack of confidence that there will ever again be a roof over my head.   

To get that roof, I would need money.  Usually, there was a direct proportion between the amount of money I raised, and the number of recommendations for affordable living situations that then came my way.

Invariably, these recommendations carried with them a price that was equal to or greater than the monetary price of admission.  The price was not only in the area of a restriction of personal freedoms, but also in the area of an imposition of potentially punitive rules and regulations, geared toward keeping the peace in an environment comprised largely of street criminals, practicing alcoholics and drug addicts, and people with severe, untreated mental health conditions.

The places I refer to are halfway houses, rehabs, homeless shelters, transitional living facilities, psychiatric institutions, board & care homes, and other group living situations.  All of these naturally carried a price tag that exceeded the relatively low amount of money one would need for admission.  Naturally, huge manuals full of restrictions and ultimatums were developed in order to accommodate such a freaky clientele.   But between the excess of regulation, and the intimidating influence of the inhabitants themselves, I found I had a very low tolerance for these kinds of living arrangements.  I might have lasted a few weeks or even months, but ultimately I always came to a place where living outdoors seemed preferable.

Living outdoors, there was at least the semblance of freedom.   Living in a shelter felt like being trapped in a glorified jailhouse.  Now — one might be taken aback by the expression “glorified jailhouse.” So let’s look a bit more closely at what it means.   

A jailhouse is a place where one lives if one has committed a crime.   While one may not necessarily have committed any crimes in order to be admitted into a homeless shelter, there are certainly enough people entering into shelters who have committed crimes, that the criminal element of the clientele must be taken into consideration.   So restrictions and ultimatums are developed according to the least common denominator.

The problem with this is that the person seeking shelter who is not criminally minded is suspected of criminality just the same as another person to whom the least common denominator might more justifiably apply.  This criminalization comes not only from the higher-ups at the shelter, but also from many who are living there and coexisting alongside each other.   One gets the sense that, while one had left the streets in order to remove oneself from an atmosphere that entailed great suspicion, one had instead relocated to an atmosphere of even greater suspicion and distrust.  

In leaving such an facility, on deciding to return to the streets of preference, I always felt as though I were leaving a place where my freedoms were very severely restricted, in favor of a place where my freedoms were less severely restricted.   And the cost factor was less, as well.  

But the cost factor involved in acceding to a dignified living situation was greater.   I remember having $1000 once, because I had been prepaid half the fee of musical-directing a children’s show.   The director hired me over Craigslist, and she didn’t know I was homeless.  I was in San Francisco at the time, so I took the $1000 down to what they called a Twelve Step House, which was really a cheaply run rehab organization that then offered me a room with a roommate in a house with twelve other men in exchange for $700.  This seemed the easiest way to get inside quickly, which after all I would need to do, now that I had a job.

But what would have been the cost factor involved in getting my own place?   As a renter, that would mean a first and last month’s rent, plus deposit.  I remember at the time of my leaving the Bay Area, a friend of mine was paying $1800/mo. for his one bedroom apartment.  By that gauge, I would need $3600 to start, plus whatever the security deposit turned out to be, could be another $1800, not unlikely.   The point is that the obstacles toward my securing a place of my own liking were pretty sizable.  That is, as long as I remained in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Moving up to North Idaho was about the smartest thing I did in maybe fifteen years or more.   Here I have a one-bedroom for $450 in a nice secluded spot with quiet, friendly neighbors, in a town with an extremely low crime rate.   An apartment like this could cost me $3000 or more right now in San Francisco.  And yet, my retirement income is exactly the same, here there or everywhere.   

I always wonder why I didn’t do it sooner.  But I stop wondering when I remember the true reason.

Low self-esteem.   If you’re treated like a criminal, if you’re continually demeaned and brought to think that you are somehow worse or lesser than the people around you — only because you have become homeless — it eventually gets to you.   I imagine people of higher self-esteem might have brought themselves up by their own bootstraps a bit sooner than I did.  But I basically felt so ashamed of having become homeless, that I bought into all the self-definitions that people were laying on me.  The upside of this ultimately was that it took a gigantic leap in my self-esteem for me to decide, in July 2016, to make the relatively few moves I needed to make in order to start a new and better life.

Don’t get me wrong.  It wasn’t just being criminalized.   Poor people and people of color are criminalized.   Homeless people are criminalized too — but there’s something that affects homeless people that is even deeper than criminalization.  It’s dehumanization — and people of color will know about this — you’re not just a “criminal” but some kind of “animal” or in some other way, not quite fully human.  Even when your humanity is acknowledged, you are then often not regarded as mature or adult, even though you many be a couple generations older than the authority figure who passes that judgment upon you.

It is not thought that you can make decisions for yourself.   It is assumed that you need caseworkers, and caregivers, and people to make your decisions for you.  Even the simple decision to leave the city of Berkeley was met with much resistance.

Once, when I was considering leaving town, I made mention of this to someone who was in a position of some power in the community, whom I believe was the Director of the Homeless Action Center.  She then asked:  “Where will you go if you’re not in Berkeley?”

“Well, my friend in Georgia might have a room for me.  She has to talk to her husband.”

“Well, I don’t know anything about your friend in Georgia, but I know what it’s like when someone’s starting to have a manic episode!  You start thinking of wanting to take long trips to distant places.”

True.  Sudden spontaneous trips out of town are hallmarks of mania.   But this is besides the point.   Why could this person not “know” that my friend in Georgia might have provided a roof over my head, and that sleeping on the Berkeley city streets would naturally be less preferable than staying with a friend in Georgia inside a house?   Why was it a problem in me — “manic episode” or what-have-you —  to want to not sleep on the Berkeley streets anymore, and sleep inside a warm house — even it meant moving to Georgia?   Did Berkeley own me?

Of course not.   But there were many in that city who acted as though they did.  It was thought that I could not make my own choices.   It was assumed that, because I had become homeless, I had no ability to fend for myself, and someone else ought to be doing it for me.

Once I became friends with somebody who had an official position in the City, and she came and saw me at my Spot after one of the times when I had escaped the halfway house.

“Andy, what are you doing back here?”

“I’m in my sixties, Carmen.   I don’t like being treated like a juvenile delinquent.”

Now another type of person might have said: “Okay, I’ll suck it up.  I’ll be treated like a truant schoolboy for another seven months or so.  It will be worth it to get myself into a better place.”

I respect that reasoning and the implicit patience and strength of character.  But I don’t buy it.   Why not?

There is no evidence that people who treat other people like that have any power to get them into a “better place.”   That power, when it did come — either came from deep inside me, or from God – or some combination thereof.   I had to get to the point where I believed in Andy.   I had to get to the place where I stopped buying into every negative self-definition that was being thrown my way by people who were doing materially better than me.  I had to somehow get with Andy, and know what would work — for Andy.

To be honest, I don’t know how I did it.  I don’t know it how it happened.  There was that prayer I always talk about, that I’ve written about  And there was a lot of sudden resolve.   I don’t know how it happened, really.   I’m just glad it did.

What I’m not glad about is that I’m not more grateful, and that I don’t have as much to show for myself throughout these past four years than I’d hoped.   But maybe I have more to show for myself than I know.

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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.

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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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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.”

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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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Inequity (Part Three)

There are many strange disparities that entail between the worlds of those who live outdoors and those who do not.   Few, however, cause as much difficulty as the naked fact that people who live outside have no privacy whatsoever.

In fact, the relationship between privacy and freedom is something I hadn’t really examined prior to having lived outdoors.   When I first decided to join an intentional homeless community in Berkeley, a large part of what I was after was freedom.  You see, I was writing a lot of music at the time, and I just felt that in the living situations I was able to afford, I never had enough privacy to be able to focus on it.   What that meant for me was that I was not free.  

I wanted so desperately to be free!  I wanted to be where the musical ideas would flow in an uninterrupted fashion — not in an environment where I was frequently interrupted by roommates or landlords, or by their friends, lovers, and children.  Somehow, the outdoor venues of the San Francisco East Bay provided that freedom for a good year and a half or so, between around April 2011 and October 2012.   I wrote a lot of music then, and I remember how blissful it felt to plug my laptop into an outdoor power outlet on the U.C.Berkeley campus and enjoy an uninterrupted creative flow in the open air.

Of course, that happiness was short-lived.  After a while it became known to the local thieves that I was a scatterbrained O.G. with a laptop – and therefore an easy mark.   I may have had freedom for a while, but I certainly was deluding myself if that freedom could be any substitute for the kind that is found in privacy.  

If those of us who were homeless began to bicker and squabble amongst each other, that bickering and squabbling was made known to whoever was within earshot.   We couldn’t even enjoy a mild debate or political discussion without it becoming privy to whoever happened to pass by.   And if we had to use the bathroom?   Good luck.  

I remember more than once spending over two hours looking for an open bathroom when I had to go No.2.   Finally, I would take matters into my own hands.  But what else could one do?   One does what one must  — of course.   But then, when homeless people are in search of privacy, and perhaps even locating a semblance of same, how do those homeless people appear in the eyes of ubiquitous observers?

“They appear as though they have something to hide.   And who has something to hide?   A criminal!  We better investigate!”

So we would find ourselves, even as we sought out privacy as quietly as possible, being pursued in that very search — by those who suspected us of subterfuge.  The more we sought after privacy, the less private our lives became.   

The fact that homeless people are often in search of privacy in order to conduct normal, routine business that is ordinarily conducted behind closed doors feeds into the criminalization of the homeless.   That there are criminals among the homeless is no secret.  Often criminals duck behind stairwells and into back alleys in order to conduct criminal business.   And they certainly look suspicious when they do.  But what if a couple of non-criminal homeless people need to have a private conversation?   Where do they go?

Chances are, they will go behind that same stairwell, and into that same back alley, where criminals are found engaging in illicit transactions.   Why?   Because there is nowhere else to go.   And any time a homeless person seeks privacy — whether their motives are benign, malicious, or neither — it makes them appear to be criminals with evil intent.  

If I have a personal habit today that one might frown upon — and God knows whether  I do — at least I know that I can go behind closed doors to engage that private practice without concern for onlookers.   When I was homeless, I had no such luxury.   Any peccadillo of mine was made public information, visible to an entire city.   Can you imagine the effect such a phenomenon would have on one’s sense of self, especially when perpetuated over months and years?

It wasn’t until long after I had gotten inside that I began to make sense out of it all.   The bare truth was that the very things I did outdoors that aroused disdain under public scrutiny are those which my observers themselves did, behind closed doors, unabashedly.  If that is not an inequity, I do not know what is.   

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Inequity (Part Two)

Another function of long-term homelessness — at least of the kind of homelessness that I and others experienced in an urban environment as part of an intentional homeless community — was that it was hell trying to get off the subject.   Of homelessness, that is.

Phrased positively, it was always refreshing when I found myself engaged in happy small talk, say at a McDonald’s or a Starbucks early in the morning.  These were spots where those of us who were homeless would eagerly gather come daybreak, these being the two places that opened the earliest.   Of course, our motive was to get out of wandering mode and become situated within a seemingly normal context.   If we were lucky, we might even blend with the early risers having themselves emerged from the indoors.   After all, what was to distinguish us from those who dwelt inside?   Maybe an unkempt appearance, possibly a smell.  But we were usually pretty good about taking care of that stuff.  And in a college town?   You didn’t really expect everyone to be doing the three-piece business suits.

Now, the Starbucks was a different scene than the McDonald’s.  I needed more money to get in, and it opened a half hour earlier (at five in the morning, rather than 5:30.)   There was no such thing as a Senior Cup for 65 cents.  I had to at least get a tall coffee, and probably spend $1.75 at the time.   But there was also the advantage that, once I had consumed the coffee, they were in no particular hurry to kick me out.  The McDonald’s, however, had a twenty minute sit-down limit — obviously targeting the myriad homeless people seeming to invade the joint upon opening.   And while others were permitted refills, they had an unwritten policy not to give a refill to a homeless person.   So obviously, the MacDonald’s was the less savory — though less expensive — of the two options.

At times, I had the advantage of owning a laptop I could plug in at the Starbucks.  Once I was working away, I differed in no discernible way from an older student, or perhaps a professor.   If I happened to be at the counter, and no one was around to “out” me, I stood a good chance of blending.   I recall once a fellow sat near me on the counter with a newspaper.  He nodded at me, “Good morning!”  I did the same.  I liked that feeling.  No wall had yet been erected between us.   We were just two human beings, and the homelessness of one of the two human beings had not yet been so imposing as to have erected one.

“You following the Warriors?” the man asked casually, looking up from his paper.

“Not a big basketball fan,” I replied.  “I hear they’re having an unusually good season.”

“Yup.”

So far so good, I thought.   Waiting a moment or two, I decided to comment on the music being piped through the Starbucks speakers.

“I love this Wagner, Symphony in C Major.   Seems to match my mood swings somehow.”

“Oh really.  How so?”

“Well you hear it — it’s almost dissonant, then lands on these big blasts of major chords — you enjoy classical music?”

“Not so much.  The wife always gets me to go to the San Francisco Symphony.”

“Ah, Michael Tilson Thomas.”

“I guess,” he replied softly, looking back down at the paper.

Returning to my work, I felt a clear sense of satisfaction.   Almost ten minutes had gone by.  I hadn’t managed to out myself, and nobody else had come by to — uh, oh here comes Hunter, I thought, literally worried that I was thinking too loud.

“Hey Andy, do you have any change?”

“Am I going to change?” I replied, dodging the question.  “No, I wasn’t planning on it.”

“No, I mean, do you have any change?  Have you even been at your Spot yet?  Oh, never mind.”

Obviously having displayed some familiarity with me, my friend walked away quite randomly.  But it wasn’t random at all to the fellow with whom I’d been chit-chatting.

“You’re HOMELESS??!!” he cried out.  

“Well, uh, yeah,” I admitted, still trying to keep things “low key.”

“Aargh!” he barked.  “Well, here’s what you do.  You dial 2-1-1, you do know about 2-1-1, don’t you?”

Of course I knew about 2-1-1, but that’s beside the point.  The wall had been erected between us, that wall has proven to be virtually insurmountable, and it would be downhill from here.  I’d thought I’d been going to get away with having a normal conversation for once.  But I thought wrong.  As soon as I was outed, and my homeless credentials revealed, the subject reverted back to the usual topic of homelessness.   And it might have been very fresh for the one who picked up that ball, possibly even an exciting first-time conversation.  But to us it was one we’d heard all too often. It was one thing to be living it 24/7.  It was quite another to be expected to talk to every Tom, Dick & Harry about it, total strangers that we would literally meet off the streets, daily.

“You know, you don’t look homeless.  I’m having a hard time believing you’re really homeless.   It just seems like you don’t belong there, and there must be something you can do to get yourself out of it.  Ever think of that?”

Nope, never thought about it once at all!  I mean, really!  Can you imagine if I had been Black, or Hispanic, or any other easily recognized minority in such a context?   Would a stranger, on realizing my ethnicity, immediately launch into a monologue about my being Black or Hispanic, and what I ought to be doing about it?  Of course not!  But that’s the extent to which homelessness is unrecognized.   When one is homeless, one is not generally recognized as representing a legitimate minority in our culture.  This is why a stranger with no true knowledge of the homeless person’s individual circumstances will often feel qualified to lecture the homeless total stranger on how they are to go about living.  It stems from a lack of respect for the obvious human fact that the homeless person has a right to govern their own life, no more and no less than any other kind of person in society.

Until we honor this basic human fact, and respect each homeless individual’s right to have made choices that have seemed most prudent to them under the circumstances, no real progress will be made in solving the “homeless problem.”  This is because the essence of the problem is in the dehumanization of a massive group of human beings in our culture, those being they who are without homes in society.   If many of us extended to a homeless person the same courtesy and dignity we might extend to one of different race, gender, genetic culture, or sexual orientation, we might be surprised at the results.

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Inequity (Part One)

When I made the decision to join an intentional homeless community in the city of Berkeley on April 15, 2011, it was widely assumed that I had become homeless due to having lived a completely mistaken life for 58 years prior.

In this light, I noticed that if a person were a conservative, and they had become homeless in that community, they were often told that they should be a liberal “because the liberals were feeding them.”

However, if a person were a liberal, and they had become homeless in that same community, they were often told that they should become a conservative “because the Salvation Army was feeding them.”

dont judge etcIn general, no conclusions that any of us had drawn in all of our lifetimes prior to becoming homeless in Berkeley were regarded as being of value by anyone other than homeless people.   You don’t know how many people came up to me in an effort to proselytize their particular brand of Christianity, without even bothering to ask me if I identified as a Christian in the first place.

Why should a person change all the conclusions that they had drawn throughout 58 years of living, only because they had fallen on hard times?   If anything, my faith was needed more than ever.

The reason for this, simply put, is that it is widely assumed that a person becomes homeless due to some flaw in their character.   It is almost never supposed that the person might have become homeless because of a lack of affordable housing.  Yet, if that were not the case, I wouldn’t be sitting here today.   A renter in San Francisco might be paying $3000/mo. for a one bedroom apartment.  Here, I am paying $450/mo. for the same.

Yet the number of people who think that I experienced a total psychic change during a one way 48 hour bus trip to a low rent district in other State is staggering.  Some people even insist that it was then that I “found God.”  The fact of the matter is — and I hate to break to anybody — I did not change on that trip at all.  As for having “found God,” the notion is equally ludicrous.  I prayed more prayers to God when I was sleeping in that gutter than at any previous time in my life – and I’m fairly sure you would have too. 

What I found was an affordable place to live.  When will people listen to reason, and to the simple truth?

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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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The Refuse of the World

For who makes you so superior?
What do you have that you did not receive?
And if you did receive it,
why do you boast as though you did not?

Already you have all you want.
Already you have become rich.
Without us, you have become kings.
How I wish you really were kings,
so that we might be kings with you. 
For it seems to me that God has displayed us apostles
at the end of the procession,
like prisoners appointed for death.
We have become a spectacle to the whole world,
to angels as well as to men.

We are fools for Christ,
but you are wise in Christ.
We are weak,
but you are strong.
You are honored,
but we are dishonored. 
To this very hour we are hungry and thirsty,
we are poorly clothed,
we are brutally treated,
we are homeless. 

We work hard with our own hands.
When we are vilified, we bless;
when we are persecuted, we endure it; 
when we are slandered, we answer gently.
Up to this moment
we have become the scum of the earth,
the refuse of the world.

–1 Corinthians 4:7-13

Talks 2019 No. 2

I promised to get a new talk to you guys by 7:30 this morning, so here it is.  The purpose of this talk is to describe how the conditions of homelessness can easily lead to a PTSD diagnosis, and what the triggers can be like.   I hope you enjoy & gain from this. 

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The Perception of Inequality

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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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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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