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Activism Artist Homelessness Sociology Writing

The Unforgiven in the Eyes of Man

I found this “plea” in my Zoho Docs folder, a folder I rarely open.  I had long ago forgotten writing this on March 18, 2016.   I was homeless at the time, and had been homeless for quite a few years.   Little did I know that my exact plea was to be answered, four months and nine days later.   Not only did I receive the “lock on the door, window, and power outlet” for which I was pleading;  I even received the “community of like-minded Artists and visionaries”  that I was hoping would replace my homeless community.   So I cannot help but post this plea — verbatim and unaltered, in all its raw and fervent appeal.  The only thing that has been changed is that the words now appearing in italics were once in caps, since it was written on a Facebook timeline.  

I apologize for my recent mania. Although — I’m thinking. What exactly is wrong with mania? What is there to apologize for? People tell me I “exhaust” them. But to me, almost everybody else seems to be moving in slow motion. Is it morally wrong that I think and move so quickly? Of course not.  But I begin to develop a chip on my shoulder. I do not know how to express this dynamic clearly or articulately, or in a manner that would be persuasive of my case. My “apology” — such as it is — is placed before your eyes in order that it may be held distinct from the mania that was placed in another venue. I am banking on your objectivity to help me to believe that I can find words to express my position in such a way that will incur the empathy of the powerful.

This is because I, despite an empathic nature, despite an articulate presence, have been robbed of my natural power by a set of conditions and circumstances that have persisted far past the point of the conscious choices that initially set them into motion. That set of conditions and circumstances is called, in a word, homelessness. It has been going on for eleven years now. I do not know how I have made it this far. But I do know that I am not going to make it much farther without real help from someone who has the power to help and who cares to help.  So: let’s get real.  

I cannot live outdoors any longer. I mean – I can, but we may expect my life to end within the next two years at best. From eleven years of Homelessness I am finally breaking down. I, even I. No one can take the overwhelming conditions of homelessness for long without breaking in some way at some point. That I have endured this long is miraculous — especially in combination with the fact that every single person who is homeless understands my issue completely – whether they can articulate it or not – and every single person who lives indoors believes that my issue is something other than what it is.

Initially, this dynamic fascinated me. It fascinated me on an academic level, sociologically, as an item of analysis.  But it has grown to disgust me. Not on an emotional level — but on a revolutionary level. Let me articulate my issue as clearly as I can. I know you love me – and I know you have had your own overwhelming issues. And I am proud of you. But please hear what my issue is. Every homeless person I know will echo this issue. I might as well speak in the editorial “we.” I speak on behalf of the Homeless People of the United States of America.

Our issue is that we feel unloved.

Much as I know that you love me, much as I know that my brother loves me, much as I know that my best female friend loves me – and if I have a remaining male friend who has not rejected me totally, he probably loves me too, whoever he is — I do not feel loved. None of us do. We feel unloved because it is not possible for us to grasp the disparity between the love that we see in the eyes of those who profess it – the love that I hear in your voice and in the voice of my brother and of my best female friend – and the other side of that dynamic, which is that none of the people who love us so will let us into their homes, much less agree to rent rooms to us, even in exchange for good money that we promise to pay. This is a universal homeless phenomenon.

Apparently, it is thought that we do not bathe. That our clothes are filthy. That we cannot manage. We will do something horrible in your house. If this were not the case, then why are we not in houses of our own? Although we know that the demand for affordable housing far exceeds the supply – in America – we still feel somehow blamed for the fact that we are the one who got left without residence.  It’s as though we’re all in a competition, we are the ones who lost the game, and the booby prize is homelessness.

Rather than look at us as “losers,” why not view us according to reason?   Because of high demand and low supply, somebody had to get left. It just happened to be us. We feel like lepers. We are the ostracized, the rejected, the pariahs, the untouchables. We are the perennial round pegs who did not fit, despite ourselves, into the square holes of the society that has discarded us.

We feel unloved because we do not understand how all these people who love us are permitting us to persist in a pattern of life that we have pleaded with them to help us to escape.  For some of us, those pleas have been sent out for years.  In my case, for eleven years.  During that time there have been brief oases of residence that have lasted in some cases as long as six or seven months or more, before — before what? Something happened, and we are out in the wilderness once more.

What is that happened?  Why did we lose those short-lived residential sites?  It is because we didn’t want to sell used cars for our landlords, nor trim their marijuana plants. The housemates didn’t like the way that we paced the floors, or perhaps we were possessed of an annoying tick or snore that kept them awake at night. When asked to put something in the microwave, we who were absent-minded put it in the broiler oven instead. When it was discovered that we had been homeless, that somehow explained everything in the eyes of the potential landlord, and those eyes moved on to the next applicant — the one who had references and a credit rating, the one who either had not been homeless, or else was remarkably good at hiding the fact that they had. If the latter were the case, and one would possess that depth of discretion (I, by the way, do not), then one would probably have been shrewd enough to have avoided homelessness altogether in the first place.

In my case, after seven years of struggling, I finally became homeless by choice. That choice was made long ago.  Made gladly, as you know. The problem is that it is no longer my choice. But I am having the devil of the time acting on the new choice – which is not to be homeless – because the stigmata that is Homelessness radiates from my forehead like a scarlet letter, as though warning everyone who crosses my path that I, like the others, having dabbled in the darkness that is homelessness, am thereby marked and branded. I differ from Cain only in that I have not yet killed a man. But I am just as marked, living in the awful place of confusion wherein the love of God so fills my heart that I know I am forgiven, and yet I know not what it is for which one must forgive me. I know that only God has forgiven me, and suspect that only God can.  For we are those whom Man cannot forgive: The Unforgiven in the Eyes of Man. Not only that, but we do not know what we did that they won’t forgive us for. Ask ten people, we get ten different answers.

Homeless? You must be lazy. You’re not? Then you’re a loser. You’re not? Then you’re a dead beat. You’re not? Well then, shall we say, scum bag? Dirt bag? Piece of shit – that’s it! You must be a piece of shit. No doubt you are seriously drug-addicted. Hard drugs, the kind that ought never be discussed, much less indulged. You must be an alcoholic. Or severely mentally unhealthy – yes, that’s it. You’re a wing nut. Homeless? What do you mean by homeless? There’s got to be a reason for it.

Well, yes there is a reason. By definition, a person is homeless because he does not have a home. Whatever those other problems are – and believe me, if you’re homeless for long enough, you’ll encounter them all- they certainly cannot be solved until the problem of Homelessness that preempted them is solved. Otherwise, they will only recur again and again, because Homelessness feeds them. They come with the territory. We not only are homeless, but we will always be homeless, and we should always be homeless. We not only will never have a place to live indoors again, but we should not ever have a place to live again.  Through the impaired vision of America, homelessness is seen not as a temporary state of affairs, but as a permanent and insoluble, incurable condition of the soul.

It is not that I happen to be able to withstand cold temperatures and inclement weather. It is not that I sleep in thunderstorms without a bedroll, shouting “Bring it On!” and exerting mighty pelvic thrusts toward the stars with each successive lightning bolt or thunderclap. It is not that I have not worn a jacket since 1985, or that I ran my half-marathon PR in 35 mph gales high on LSD flanked by local city cops. It is not that I am gonzo. True – I got exactly what I asked for, and if my book on the subject, the book that has needed to be written for years now, the book that explains the conditions from homelessness according to an author who actually is homeless and not according to some detached liberal social worker or socio-economist or some other form of clueless ivory tower bleeding heart do-gooder – but from the card-carrying, gun-toting homeless bro in dick mode, the real homeless man, AKA Yours Truly. That book is being written faster than these words are being penned, however spontaneously. And people tell me I exhaust them?  Ha!  They ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

That I have pleaded persistently with people who do have the power to terminate this way of living for me and help me into dignified indoor situation  – not a “shelter” – nothing to do with “services” – nothing to do with a “program” – nothing to do with agencies, facilities, or institutions, but an actual living situation that entails outside the realm of homelessness, that (unlike the others) does not simply lead the homeless back to homelessness.   A dignified living situation, where it will not be assumed that I am a criminal, that I plot crimes when so visibly preoccupied – I do not – where my writings of music and text and script on all levels will actually be met with a supportive environment of like-minded Artists and visionaries,  rather than with further attempts to transform the vibrancy of this particularly uniquely gifted Child of the Most High into an impassive robot clone who serves the purposes of a sterile society consisting of those whose claim to fame is neither to threaten, not to make waves, not to cause wrinkles in time or similar anomalies that would disrupt the deluded flow of a culture gone awry.  I refuse to join the ranks of those whose brains have been suspended until further notice so that they no longer can think for themselves but only serve the purposes of the State and of spiritual wickedness in high places when I AM A CHILD OF GOD! I AM A CHILD OF THE MOST HIGH KING! I AM BORN OF THE UNIVERSE THAT IS UNFOLDING ACCORDING TO DIVINE DESIGN, and I HAVE A RIGHT TO BE WHO I AM!

And I’m tired. Believe it or not, I — even I — tire. I exhaust even myself. So I close.

These could be the words of an asshole. But they are not.  They are the words of a person who has been chosen to receive a message that he will articulate with precision and persuasive power. It is a message that America needs to hear – and that the nation, yea the world, has not yet heard. It is not that the message has not been delivered. On the contrary, it has been submitted en masse. It is that those to whom it has been spoken either have not listened, or they have not needed to hear it. Who has not listened to the message? Those of you live indoors. Who does not need to hear it? The homeless people of America who, ironically, are the only ones listening to it.

I can no longer abide the fact that only other homeless people are hearing the message that needs to be heard by those who are not. Somebody somewhere please grant me a place to live indoors that contains three prerequisites:

(1) It must have a window. I will probably need air from the outdoors at all times.

(2) It must have a lock on a single door, and a hide-a-key under a stone outside.

(3) It must have at least one power outlet.

I will provide the rest. I will pay up to $460 a month. But no more, because I will need to have a grocery chain like Safeway deliver food to my door. If somebody wants to kick down a new pair of Size 11 1/2 New Balance running shoes, it will be greatly appreciated, but not necessary to the task. I need – obviously- to write.

To write – the Homeless Message to the Mainstream of Modern American Life. What we want – is to be heard. What we want – is to be understood. What we want – is to be believed. What we want – is to be respected. We could care less if you say you “love” us — because, we cannot believe that you love us, and yet never let us in your home to so much as take a shower in exchange for money. We will believe that you love us when you begin to listen to what we have to say.  

It will take me approximately five months to finish the book which currently is outlined in a 12 – page single space outline in standard outline form which I will submit to anyone interested.

My daughter, I love you. And I am proud of you. My brother, my sister, all of you — I love you.  But I have something to say and I am going to get myself into the position where I will be physically and technically able to say it. Somebody get me out of the situation where I have to spend 90% of my time searching either for outdoor power outlets or chump change for North Berkeley coffeehouses with attitudes.

Here is the ninth and of last of my speeches on the Homeless Phenomenon in America. It is called “A Parallel and Opposing Culture.” Please – don’t just listen to it. Believe it.

And whoever happens to have gotten to the bottom of this, if there’s a God in Heaven or Beyond, that Power will bless you richly.

AMEN.

Andy Pope
Berkeley, California
March 18, 2016

A Parallel and Opposing Culture

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Homelessness social justice social stigma Sociology stigma

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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Homelessness Sociology stigma

Different Strokes

This is one of a series of pieces written on request of Alastair Boone, the editor-in-chief of the social justice newspaper, Street Spirit.  

Our society seems 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.”

But what if that man is not a lazy bum? What if he’s someone who, for one reason or another, needs to fly a sign on that particular day, in order to raise money quickly for some certain necessity that he lacks? For all we know, he could be raising money for transportation to a distant town where someone has offered him a job. In that event, what would make him a “lazy bum?”

Pin by Margie Manifold on Science - Sociology & Cultural Practices
Erving Goffman

Sociologist Erving Goffman refers to this phenomenon as “social stigma.” He defines social stigma as the extreme disapproval of (or discontent with) a person or group on socially characteristic grounds that are perceived, and serve to distinguish them, from other members of a society.”

Many people are socially stigmatized in this fashion. A cop might be stigmatized, thought to be brutal or inhumane, only because some cops are inhumane. Naturally, those are the cops who attract the public eye. But we’ve all met good cops, haven’t we? When I was homeless, I encountered cops who treated me more humanely than some of the social workers whose job it was to help me.

Religious people are also often stigmatized. Some people think that just because I identify as a Christian, it means that I must be sexist, anti-gay, and a proselytizing Bible-thumper, ready to cram my theology down their throats. But anyone who actually takes the time to get to know me will readily tell you that I am none of those things.

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 that 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 folly. Many homeless people have never used illegal drugs at all. 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 transitional housing and spent seven months in a group facility, 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 had 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 backward move.

I have had two places of my own since I left Berkeley. The first was reached by googling keywords such as “college town,” “small town,” “affordable rent.” Those and other keywords eventually pointed me toward a place of my liking. But if another homeless person were to start googling keywords, their keywords might not be something along the lines of “big city,” “multicultural,” “low unemployment rate.” One size does not fit all.

Until we, as a society, 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.” In my case, the first person to listen to my story was a retired music teacher. He knew I was truthful because he recognized a fellow music teacher when he saw one. For another person seeking to escape the throes of homelessness, the first person to listen to their story might be a construction worker or a restaurant owner.

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. But once that wall is broken down, the solution will be plain to see.

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Activism Classism Education Sociology stigma

Classism in the Schools

I wrote this essay on request from Denise Moorehead, the blog editor of Classism Exposed, where some of my other work is featured.  

Students begin to experience the effects of classism in our education system as early as kindergarten, or perhaps even nursery school.  Elementary school playgrounds reveal the effects of classism on a child’s education.

A child from an impoverished family will find that her parents cannot readily afford the latest toy or gadget that might be all the rage on the playground.   When all the other kids are excitedly exploring the newest electronic recreational device, the kid who is without feels excluded and somehow “less than” the others.   Sadly, that child cannot possibly grasp that this awful feeling of inferiority is caused by something called classism – an archaic system of values that favors the wealthy and punishes the poor.

EducationalInequalityposter-thumb.jpgWhen I found the kids in my 11th grade class making fun of me, I myself did not know that classism was the culprit.   My dad was a Navy man — an enlisted man who had just been stationed in a new town after a tour overseas.   Because my parents wanted to assure their children of a “high quality education,” they bought a modest house in the richest of four unified school districts in that city.   I remember that we barely made the border between that district and the next one down.

The kids at that school basically didn’t talk to me for about six months.   I was mocked and ridiculed for the way I dressed, the way I carried myself, and the way I talked.   Interestingly, all of that changed overnight when they happened to hear me play piano at a party.   Because of my piano playing, I suddenly became a popular man on campus — so popular, that I was advised to pretend I had been born in that community, since it didn’t look right for me to have that much on the ball socially, and yet have actually been born in a small “hick town” up in Northern Idaho.

For the next several years, my world was an environment where the indicators of privilege tipped people off as to who was “cool” and who was not, and appearances were more important than reality.   It was then that I learned how to schmooze with the jet-setters, and appear to be one of them, even though I was not.

Because of my musical aptitude, I was encouraged to apply to a Conservatory of Music at a nearby high-tuition private college.   Because my dad was going to school there on the G.I. bill at the time, and both of my parents had jobs at the University, I was eligible for a 90% tuition discount.   I received a very high score on the music placement test, and was accepted as a junior after having completed two years at another school.

Of course, I was overjoyed.  But when I got there, I found once again that I somehow didn’t fit in. It turned out that all of the other music students were from wealthy families who could afford the full tuition.  Moreover, most of them had done fairly poorly in high school, otherwise they’d have attended a lower tuition school such as a State college that would only accept students with higher GPA’s.  To top it all off, the professors seemed to take a special liking to me right off the bat, due to my musical prowess.

While it seemed that the faculty was oblivious to matters having anything to do with class, the student body was another story.  I was considered to be a “home town boy,” and the obvious fact that both my parents had low-level positions in the language lab and the library revealed that I was not exactly of the upper crust.  While I tried to “talk the talk and walk the walk,” the contrast between my background and that of the other students overwhelmed my effort to feign the social cues of privilege.  Discouraged and feeling alone, I dropped out of school after the first semester.

Although I never received a degree in Music, I was asked years later to work as an independent contractor for a public school that needed an accompanist.   The school was on the “other side of the tracks,” and the majority of students were Hispanic.   When asked about their professional aspirations, I could not help but notice that very few of the kids had any thoughts of ever “climbing up the ladder.”  Most seemed content to continue in agricultural or blue collar jobs, following their parents’ footsteps and guidelines.  

As I continued to take my skill set to schools of all kinds, I eventually received a high-paying job as a music teacher at a high tuition private elementary school.  There, by contrast, it was generally assumed that the kids would be pursuing leadership positions involving creative problem-solving and other specialized skills.  Why is it assumed that those of privilege are to become the leaders of tomorrow, while those who lack are supposed to be the flunkies?  Shouldn’t our nation’s leaders be comprised of those who have vision and fortitude, not of those who have wealth?

Classism is a venom that seeps through every crevice of what some still dare to call a Christian nation.  People of privilege are shown favoritism at every level — or if they’re not, those who are have to hear about it — as was the case when I was at the Conservatory.   On the other hand, poor people are made to feel that there is something wrong with them — like the child whose parents are too poor to afford to buy her the latest toy.  

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Activism Classism social justice Sociology Spirituality

Tuesday Tuneup 26

Q. Where would you like to be?

A. In a place of greater confidence.

Q. In what areas do you lack confidence?

A. In many areas.  But only  one area is important to me at this time.

Q. What area is that?

A. It has to do with integrity, as we discussed last week.  I lack confidence that I will be able to act according to my integrity, and not according to hypocrisy.

Q. Why should you ever prefer hypocrisy over integrity?

A. I don’t, in my heart.  But at certain moments, I find myself choosing a hypocritical course of action, only because I lack confidence that I can find a way to act according to my integrity at that same moment.

Q. Can you provide an example of that?

A. Sure.   Say I’m at an idle moment.  I’m bored at that moment, and I don’t quite know what to do.  I see before me a certain door.  I am compelled to open the door, because on the other side will be people who will alleviate my boredom.  But the only way that these people have ever been known to alleviate my boredom is that they provide me with an audience for the Entertainer in me.  I will proceed to entertain them.  They will laugh when I say  funny things, and do comic imitations of people, and put on humorous expressions and mannerisms.  And then, I will be gratified.

Q. Who are these people?

A. That’s a good question.  They could be just about anybody, I suppose.  In this case, they were a number of people I saw sitting behind the back door of the Recovery Center where I have been volunteering, that back door being made of glass.

Q. Did you then go inside and entertain them, in order to alleviate your boredom?

A. No, I did not.  I turned and went next door, to a cafe where it was quiet, and I would find a way to alleviate my boredom, without having to entertain anyone.

Q. How did you manage that?

A. By doing what I am doing right now.  I am sitting down at a quiet table in a quiet cafe, among many quiet students studying, and professors preparing their lectures.  To entertain these people would be to interrupt their work, which would be quite rude.  So instead I logged on my laptop to do my own work, and therefore blend perfectly into the atmosphere.

Q. But aren’t you still being an Entertainer?

A. How so?

Q. You’re entertaining me, aren’t you?

A. It’s not my intention.

Q. What about your readers?  Aren’t they being entertained?

A. I hope not!

Q. And aren’t you still a hypocrite?

A. No!

Q. But what you’re doing right now – sitting in this academic cafe the way you are — isn’t this just as hypocritical as ever?

A. I think not!  I’m not hypocritical at all right now.

Q. You’re not?

A. No I’m not! I mean – what makes you think I am?

Q. Well, you’re not a student are you?

A. No – not in the strictest academic sense, as in pay tuition, take classes, and all that.

Q. And you’re not a professor, are you?

A. I am neither student nor professor, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have work to do on my laptop.

Q. But by trying to blend in with all the academics. aren’t you trying to pretend to be one of them?

A. I see your point, but no I’m not.  Plenty of people come in here to work on their laptops who are not students or professors.

Q. But still, you’re trying to look like a student or a professor — and isn’t this hypocrisy?

A. I don’t believe so, no.  Even if I’m not an official student, I sort of feel like one.  I’m always studying, doing research of various sorts.  Especially, I research classism, and inequality, and poverty culture, and homelessness.  This is who I am right now; it’s not hypocrisy.

Q. But haven’ you been an entertainer for most of your life?  How is it hypocritical to keep being who you are?

A. Because I don’t think the Entertainer is the real me.  The real me actually is more of scholar than an entertainer.  Besides, a spiritual scholar is one who is seeking the truth.   That describes me to a tee.  But an entertainer?  An entertainer tries to take people’s minds off of their troubles.  In a way, the Entertainer keeps people from looking for the truth.

Q. But haven’t been there entertainers who also were spiritual truth-seekers.  What about Dick Gregory?

2012 Summer TCA Tour - Day 1
Dick Gregory

A. What about him?

Q. Wasn’t he a comedian?

A. That he was.

Q. And didn’t he going on numerous hunger strikes, frequently fasting for forty days and forty nights for the sake of social justice?

A. That he did.  But he was different.  His comedy was about social and racial inequality.  Observe:

Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. I understand there are a good many Southerners in the room tonight. I know the South very well. I spent twenty years there one night.

Last time I was down South I walked into this restaurant and this white waitress came up to me and said, “We don’t serve colored people here.” I said, “That’s all right. I don’t eat colored people. Bring me a whole fried chicken.”

Then these three white boys came up to me and said, “Boy, we’re giving you fair warning. Anything you do to that chicken, we’re gonna do to you.” So I put down my knife and fork, I picked up that chicken and I kissed it. Then I said, “Line up, boys!”

Q. Well then why don’t you do like Gregory did?

A. What do you mean?

Q. Why not use your social activism in your comedy routine?

A. I sort of do that already.  Among friends, that is.  But what I’m trying to say is that, I am not a comedian at heart.  I’m not an Entertainer at heart?  I’m a spiritual man, and an Artist — a man of integrity, at heart.  The Entertainer is just a facade.  It’s just that I lack confidence I can ever shed that facade.

Q. Why bother?

A. What do you mean, why bother?

Q. Just what I said – why bother?  Isn’t the Entertainer a part of who you are?

A. Maybe.  This is all becoming very confusing.  And a wee bit annoying, I might add.

Q. But aren’t I just asking logical questions, spinning off the things you’re saying?

A. I suppose you are, but it’s still kind of irritating.

Q. Should we adjourn till later?

A. Probably.  I really do tire of this.

Q. Well, at least you’re not bored anymore, are you?

A. Get out of here!

The Questioner is silent.

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Activism Homelessness Sociology stigma

The H-Word

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

People who have been so privileged as to always have lived indoors often don’t grasp that the H-word is not just a neutral label used to describe one’s state of living. It also packs a punch that has the power to keep you from finding a place to live, and from leaving the experience of homelessness behind. Simply put, this word carries in it a certain violence. Because of this, I prefer to talk about those who live “outside” or “outdoors,” rather than “the homeless,” whenever possible. I feel called upon to emphasize that the main difference between those who are homeless and those who are not is that the homeless person lives outdoors—exposed and vulnerable to all kinds of external influences, human or inhuman, foul or fair. Whoever is not homeless lives inside and as such is protected from the vast array of such external elements.

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

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Activism Classism Homelessness Sociology stigma

The Homeless Buzzwords

There were a number of words used predominantly by those who lived indoors that had a precarious ring in the ears of those of us who lived outside.   These words often had a way of revealing our homelessness in a situation where it would have been wiser to conceal it — for example, when one was seeking a place of residence among numerous applicants.   

homeless still humanEven if the situation were such that there was no reason why our homelessness couldn’t  remain  “out in the open” (so to speak), these words still had a way of making us feel that we were in some way distinctly set apart from the rest of the human race.  At times, the words suggested that possibly we were not even truly human.  After all, the humans who lived inside never used these words in reference to them. 

So let me list four of them.  Conveniently, the first two are what I will call the two “s-words.”  The last two will be the two “h-words.”  And I assure you — we who have been forced to live outdoors for prolonged periods of time could easily  come up with numerous similar “buzzwords,” possibly one for every letter of the alphabet.  But these four will suffice — for now.

1. SHELTER

Once on Facebook, a friend of mine announced on his timeline that “Andy was looking for shelter.”  Now, of all the friends on his timeline, how many of them would have known that I was homeless?  Probably only him, his wife maybe, and his kids.   Does a person who isn’t homeless ever look for “shelter?”  No, they don’t.  They look for a place to live.

I asked him to remove the post.  Although he was trying to help, he didn’t realize that the revelation of homelessness in this fashion would work against me in trying to secure residence.  I knew from experience that if there were ten applicants on a rental application, and one of them put down that he had been homeless, there would soon be only nine applicants on that application.

2. SERVICES

This one wasn’t nearly so bad as the other “s-word.”  But it still pointed to certain stigmata associated with poverty and disability culture that could conceivably work against us in many circumstances.  A person trying to find residence, for example, is generally reluctant to say that he or she has had to have access to “services.”  A prospective landlord would much rather hear about “gainful employment” than “services.”

Even in the context where no discrimination would be involved, there was still the inner sting of feeling that we somehow weren’t employable, able, or competent.  Nobody likes to think of themselves as incompetent.  We all want to think that we are at least capable of earning our own way in life, even if circumstances — personal, medical, or financial – are temporarily preventing us from doing so.

As I wrote in an earlier post, in all the years when I flew a sign on a Berkeley city sidewalk, only once did a person walk by and shout: “Get a job!”

It was just about the most refreshing thing I’d ever heard.   It was very common for passersby to point me to where all the services were — as if I didn’t know already — and the overall effect, after a number of years, was to drill deeper and deeper down into the depths of my psyche the disconcerting notion that I was somehow “less than” all the more worthy sorts of people — those who were capable of holding down jobs.

And I’m pretty sure that I speak, if not for all of the middle-aged homeless men and women in my position at the time, then certainly for a vast majority of them.

3. HOUSING

The first of the two “h-words” is akin to that of the two “s-words.”  Who needs to be “housed?”  A person who doesn’t already have a house, of course.   So when a social worker would refer to finding us “housing,” it only served to remind us of the essential difference between us and that other kind of human being, the one who was so privileged to be living indoors, who could conceivably delight in having moved to another place — a place of their choice, and more to their liking.

We could take no such delight.  The homeless person, even when told to move (which we very often were told to do), doesn’t really get to move to a new place.  Wherever we “moved” to, we were still homeless.  If a homeless person did find a place to live, it was because we had been “housed.”  It almost felt like we were animals being assigned to cages.  Compare that feeling to that of a person who had lived in a rental and who then succeeds in buying a house.   Possibly he moves out into the suburbs, or even into a gated community.  He gets to do what he wants to do, and take his pick of places of residence until he finds the one he likes.  That’s the sort of person who actually gets to move, and gets to move up in the world. 

Homeless people only need to be housed – and quickly.  It was a huge obsession of many of the indoor-dwellers in our midsts, especially of the ones who were trying to help us.  Something had to be done with us — hopefully as soon as possible  — and our own personal say-so in the matter was of limited importance in their minds.

And that says nothing of the kind of indoor dweller who didn’t even care if we were ever “housed.”  They only wanted us out of their neighborhood – and fast.  

4. HOMELESS  

Now for the big one.

I have probably used the word “homeless” ten times as much in the past two years indoors than for the past twelve years outdoors.  Even now, I prefer to use words like “outside” or “outdoors,” rather than “homeless,” whenever possible.  Partly this is because I feel called upon to emphasize that the main difference between those who are homeless and those who are not is that the homeless person lives outdoors — exposed and vulnerable to all kinds of external influences, human or inhuman, foul or fair.  Whoever is not homeless lives inside and is as such protected from the vast array of such external elements.

But the word “homeless” for some reason carries a number of unrelated connotations that obscure the real issues of those who live outdoors.   For this reason, many homeless people do everything they can to conceal their homelessness from those who live indoors.  The word “homeless” carries so much stigma, it drives the average homeless person into the realm of invisibility.

These kinds of homeless people, though far from the most conspicuous, are undoubtedly in the vast majority.  When I was homeless, any amount of money I was able to secure at in excess of my usual $17/day quota was considered to be license for me to take a bus or a BART train to someplace far away from places where I typically slept and attempted to earn my keep.  I did this so that I would not have to deal with the annoying barrage of repeated questions and irrelevant information that was sent my way as soon as someone figured out that I was “homeless,” or heard that word used in the context of my person.

Typical connotations on the word “homeless” include”drug addict,” “alcoholic,” “nut case,” “loser,” “lazy bum,” and a whole plethora of stigmatic labels that serve amazingly well to obscure the more essential information about the homeless condition.  As I said, these labels are unrelated to the real issues of those who live outdoors.  Plenty of people who live indoors could easily have any one of these labels attributed to them, and the homeless person may in fact have none of them attributable to his or her identity.  Even if these attributes are part of the homeless person’s experience, it serves no purpose to dwell upon them, other than to create a diversion from dealing with their true top-priority issue; that is, to find a place to live.  A dignified place to live.  A place to call their own, just as an indoor person buying a house can call their house their own. 

So to avoid having to cut through the quagmire of all this unrelated labeling, I had to start by avoiding the label of “homeless” in the first place.  For it would be from that label that all the other distracting labels would spring.  If instead I somehow managed to be seen only as a fellow human being, in as many situations as possible, and not as a “homeless” person, then my chances of attaining a place to call my own were greatly enhanced.  And in the end of my homeless sojourn, that was exactly how I found a place I could finally call my own — by leaving all trace of “homeless” out of my persona, and finding a landlord who had no reason to see me as anyone other than a fellow human being.

Perhaps you saw the episode of Northern Exposure in which the character Maurice approached a disadvantaged man on the street and asked: “Are you homeless?”

The man replied: “I prefer the term hobo.”

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

Not to mention, when somebody asked me recently, after I’d been living inside for almost two years, “Are you homeless?” — my reply was published in the post that bears that name.  

So when I finally succeeded in achieving the dignified dwelling place I had long sought, how many times do you think I used any of those four words, the two s-words and the two h-words?   Of course, the answer is zero.  I avoided all four of these words completely.  I hope that by now, you understand why.  

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Activism Homelessness public speaking Sociology Spirituality

(Talks 2018) – Talk No. 3

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

Homeless by Condition: Part Two

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Activism Classism Homelessness Sociology stigma

Homeless Shelters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Classism, Stigma and Mental Health

If a white collar worker is diagnosed with a mental health disorder, the medications given are intended to make it easier for that person to function in the mainstream workplace. But if an impoverished person is diagnosed with that same mental health disorder, the same medications are given with the idea that the person will be directed toward disability culture, and never work again.

If a person is arrested for a non-serious crime in which alcohol is involved, the Courts order daily attendance at A.A. meetings, where the paradigm of the Twelve Steps is geared toward reacclimating such people into the mainstream of modern life.   These meetings, by the way, are free of charge.  But if a person with a mental health problem is arrested for the same crime, the Courts will direct that person toward a community counseling center with a “sliding scale.”  In other words, the support is at cost.  In fact, the options for cost-free mental health support groups stop at the level of a MeetUp.  Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) groups, for example, are difficult to find without paying good money.  A one-to-one Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) counselor will certainly expect to be paid.  Those in poverty culture can’t possibly afford the fees for mental health support, and often wind up finding them in psychiatric facilities only, where the price they pay is complete loss of freedom.

Step Two of the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous reads: “Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.”  Note the use of the word “restore.”  This implies that the alcoholic was, at one time, sane, and that through the application of the Steps, they may again become sane, and thus able to reintegrate themselves into mainstream culture.    So, even though the condition of active alcoholism is regarded as “insane,” a path toward sanity is indicated.

But for a path toward sanity to be recommended for one who has a mental health diagnosis, that person must have privilege from the start.   People of poverty with such diagnoses are considered to be unemployable.  This is pure stigma against those who have mental health conditions.  People of privilege with those same kinds of conditions are routinely encouraged to keep their jobs, their families and their social lives; the idea being that the very same treatment will enhance their ability to function in mainstream society.  But impoverished people with identical diagnoses are thrust into disability culture, made to subsist on minimal income, classified as “legally incompetent,” and threatened with loss of their cost-of-living income if they even try to go out and get a job.  This clearly amounts to class discrimination, when it comes to treatment of the mentally ill.

To understand why such discrimination is directed toward those thought to be “mentally ill” but not toward those considered to be “recovering alcoholics,” I think we need to examine the grounds on which mental illness is determined.    My theory is that one is considered to be “mentally ill” as soon as one displays an inability to function healthfully within the “box” of the status quo.   Those who flourish within normal expectations based on the work ethic and success model are considered to be mentally healthy.  Those who are focused on “climbing the ladder” are considered to be “successful,” and as role models for others.   But a person who thinks outside the box is somehow seen as a threat to society, and therefore limited to confinement within the realms of those labeled “incompetent’ and “unemployable.”

I would not doubt it if well over half of those who have mental health diagnoses are actually quite eminently sane, even perhaps brilliant, perhaps luminous visionaries.  Such people often focus, not on scaling the ladder of “success,” but on actualizing their own true selves, to make the most out of their own innate design and potential.  They often develop ideas and visions that would truly benefit society if given a chance to bloom.  But how can one be in orchid in a petunia patch?  The Powers That Be will continue to uphold the status quo, despite classism and social stigma on the grandest scale.  How sad it is that those who have vision are seen as pariahs by those who do not!

different drummer

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