Welcome to Homelessness

I make a point of remembering important dates in my life.  One would think that the first night I slept outdoors, inaugurating twelve long years of homelessness, would be a very important date.  That I don’t know the date is telling.  Who wants to know a date like that?

I do know that I was prescribed the psychiatric drug klonopin on the morning that my mother was to die (unbeknownst to me) on October 9, 2003.   I do know I was asked to resign my teaching job on February 17, 2004.   I know that I was illegally evicted from my place of residence on April 1, 2004.   Though I became legally homeless on that date, I still had enough money for motel rooms to keep me afloat for another month or more.

The day when I stopped using klonopin was certainly one that I remember.   I went off of 4mg of klonopin cold turkey on May 10, 2004.  I never even had the seizure they told me I would have, as they tried to convince me to keep taking that God-awful drug that had lost me my shirt.  I was so relieved to finally be free of that stuff.  My short-term memory returned, I began to speak coherently again, and I started to remember the names of the people with whom I was conversing.

Though my living situation by that time was sketchy — an illegally parked motor home in the back yard of a friend of mine – at least I was still indoors.  But then, by May 20, 2004, I had lost my reading glasses after sleeping in Golden Gate Park. It was that day that inspired the first piece of literature I ever had published on the subject of homelessness: A New Pair of Glasses.

So it was at some point between May 10th and May 20th that I sat on a bench at a CalTrain station all night long, sometimes nodding off, sometimes waking with a start — to the sound of a roaring engine, or laughter from late night carousers, or some other noise in the night.   Cops would drive by, and I feared interrogation.  But they never stopped me.  Eventually, the sky grew light.  I grabbed a coffee at a nearby doughnut shop, then walked up to the church where for several years, I had been the Director of Music.

Pete, the pastor, had known of some of my recent struggles, and we seemed to be on good terms.  I had visited with him more than once in the past few months, and I figured he might be able to help me get up to San Francisco, where my friend Tony had promised to help.   As I strolled to the church on that bright sunny morning, I pondered how easily I had made it through the night.  There was nothing so far about homelessness that seemed intolerable.

When I arrived at the church, I saw that the Hispanic minister was there, along with two friends.  He did not recognize me from the 90’s, where he had seen me at the church organ many times.  Walking up to shake his hand, I told him that I remembered him from all of those joint preaching sessions, where he and Pete would take turns behind the pulpit on days when the Spanish-speaking congregation joined in with us English-speaking folks.

But he eyed me cautiously, as though I were somehow suspect.  The others looked at me strangely, too.  It seemed they did not believe me.  I could understand if the Hispanic pastor would not have recognized me.  But I couldn’t understand why I wasn’t being believed.  That seemed strange.  I had provided at least enough information for him to have made the connection.

“Pastor Peter will not be in today,” he said, in a guarded fashion.  “This is his day off.”

“Oh that’s right,” I said.  “He takes Mondays off after preaching on Sundays.  Well — I’ll just come back tomorrow again at eight.   Just let him know that Andy stopped by.”

“He won’t be in at eight tomorrow.  He never comes in before noon, you know.”

“He doesn’t?” I asked, perplexed.  “I just saw him a couple months ago.  He was in at eight as usual, the same way he always came in at eight every morning for years, when I worked here before.”

“Please, no more, sir,” he said.  “I cannot help you, and Peter will not help you.   Please go back to wherever you came from.”

love thy neighborAt that, a strange mix of fear and anger ripped through my body.  The man had not only lied to me about Pete’s schedule, but he blatantly refused to even consider that I might have been telling the truth.  Moreover, I had recognized him; I knew exactly who he was, and I could not possibly have changed my appearance so hugely in the past seven years, that he would think I was anyone other than who I said I was.

“And you call yourself a Christian pastor?” I said, outraged. “I’ll have you know I’m a decent guy who’s down on his luck, and you’re treating me like a scum bag.”

“Go!” he shouted, as his friends joined in.  “Go!  Go!  Go away!!”

Talk about your Monday morning! 

I stormed away in torment.  Somehow I knew at that moment that the worst was yet to come.   The worst thing about homelessness, I somehow sensed, would have nothing to do with weather conditions, or malnutrition, or even sleep deprivation — or any of the other things that people always ask about when they find out that one is homeless.  It would have to do with something they never ask about: the way I would be treated.   I would be cast out like a leper, as though one would contract a deadly disease just from being in my presence.

But if nothing else comes of my recounting this horrible memory, at least I have finally learned the exact date.   After all, it was Monday.   There is only one Monday between May 10, 2004 and May 20, 2004.   So the first night I slept outdoors was May 17, 2004.

How could I forget?

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White Without Privilege

I like to post a youtube of my piano playing here each Friday.  Although I prepared something yesterday, by the time I got around to uploading it, I noticed that my screen was cracked.  I am now on my older, spare computer — but unfortunately have not yet determined an avenue to get the video onto this computer, and thus onto youtube, from here.  My apologies.  Here’s a Quora answer explaining my theory why there are more White homeless people per capita in the homeless populace in America than there are per capita in large urban areas where homelessness is prevalent.

Briefly, I am not certain (as someone suggested) that the question is “racist.” I believe that statistically, the homeless populace actually is over-saturated with the evidence of White people than those of other races, proportionately speaking.

My general feeling is that it relates to privilege and class distinction. In America, people of privilege are predominantly White, especially as we get into the upper middle and wealthy classes. I have found that among those of privilege, poverty (especially sudden and inexplicable poverty; i.e., such as may have resulted from an unrecognized or misdiagnosed mental health crisis) is often viewed as a sign of moral or practical failing on the part of the person who has fallen into straits.

homeless white man will work for foodIn such instances, there is a widespread feeling that the person can “pull himself up by his own bootstraps” and that this will “teach him” to manage money better, become more responsible, and so forth. This translates to less sympathy for the homeless on the part of the privileged classes, which are predominantly White.

In less privileged classes there is a greater saturation of people of color. Also, the “class gap” separating people in the middle and lower middle classes from those who land on the streets is not so wide. People in the lower classes are more likely to identify with the types of struggles that can lead to homelessness. Combining these factors, one will find that there is not nearly the degree of “blaming the victim” placed upon sudden victims of financial crises as there is among those who view the person in crisis as having “blown his privilege.” Therefore, there will be more compassion toward those who are struggling in the classes that are more multiracial.

I state this perception at the risk of coming across as a racist or a classist. However, I take that risk because I think it is a valid perception. It might explain in part why in a large urban area with a highly visible homeless populace, there really *does* appear to be a disproportionate number of Whites, with respect to the actual proportion of White people per capita, in that same area.

I’ll try to have the piano youtube of my song “Midnight Screams” posted later on today for your pleasure.  In the meantime, if anybody wants to kick down some filthy lucre to help me get a new computer screen, you know what to do. 

DONATE 

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The Missing Homeless Person

A few days ago, this question was posed on the site Quora: “If a homeless person I see on a regular basis suddenly disappears (and no dead body is found), what would police do if I reported him missing?”  I could not speak on the behalf of law enforcement.  But since I was twice the subject of a Missing Persons Report, I did my best to speak on my own behalf.

Twice, during the 12 year period when I was homeless, a person concerned about my whereabouts filed a Missing Persons Report.

The first time, I received a mysterious message from “Joe” on my Facebook that read: “Welfare Check.” The person named Joe identified himself as a Marin County detective.

I did not understand what a “welfare check” was. I told him, quite naively, that I was not on General Assistance (i.e., “welfare”) and that I received no such check.

He explained that a young woman whom I had been working with had been concerned about my whereabouts after having received an alarming email stating I was alone in Golden Gate Park in inclement weather. (This is true, because I sent the email to her and others from a cafe that was near G.G.Park.)

Once I put the twos and twos together, I was able to tell him I was fine and staying temporarily in a motel, and that I was sorry I had caused anyone any consternation.

flying empty signThe second time was a bit different, and actually was more of an inconvenience than anything else. I had been in a halfway house, and I left before the two week term was up. I left because I couldn’t stand being around all the strangers, and I wanted to be alone, and sleep alone outside. (This was always my preference, during the years when I was homeless.)

Again, it came back to me — through Facebook, of all places — that an MPR had been filed and that police were looking for me.

Because I felt I had left the halfway house responsibly, informing the case workers there that I was leaving, I was incensed. I called them up and said:

“How on earth can anyone file a Missing Persons Report on a homeless person? Missing from where?”

Everybody at the North Berkeley Senior Center who had surrounded me at the moment thought this was very amusing, but of course the social worker on the other end of the line failed to see the humor.

So – again this is only my experience. It does show that the police did care, and that part’s good. But it also shows part of the reason why I no longer use Facebook. I value my privacy. If you ever become homeless — if you haven’t been already — I suggest you value yours as well.

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Tuesday Tuneup Three

Q. Do you know who I am?

A. Not exactly, to be honest with you.

Q. Then why on earth have you summoned me?

A. I’m in existential conflict.  Whoever you are, I have found in the past that you have of helping me through such angst.

Q. Helped you?   By asking you questions?  Incessantly?  Obnoxiously, as it were?

A. Yes.  Despite your incessant obnoxiousness, the many questions you ask have a way of causing me to question my own inclinations.  I therefore examine those inclinations more carefully.

Q. What inclinations?  What are you talking about?

A. I’m inclined to think that a decision I have recently made is going to work against me.  I suspect it will overload me, and thus interfere with my mission.

Q. And what is your mission?

A. Well – “mission” may not be the exact right word.   But I tend to think I’m on this planet in order to make a social statement involving some serious questions and suggestions to my fellow Americans.

Q. Isn’t that somewhat grandiose?

A. Perhaps.  This is where I am conflicted.

Q. What is the essence of the conflict?

A. It is as follows. On the one hand, I want to live a quiet, reclusive life, so that I can write poems, songs, stories, plays, blogs, articles, and perhaps even a novel – or even a thesis – because I strongly feel that I have something  important to say about homelessness, classism, and social stigma.

home sweet homeless 2Q. And on the other hand?

A. On the other hand, I have a strong desire to help out particular homeless people in need; specifically, by letting them stay here in my house, where I have a spare room.

Q. What’s wrong with that?

A. Isn’t it obvious? I need my space in order to write, in order to create.   What if they get in the way?

Q. Why would they get in the way if you have a spare room?

A. Well, it’s not the biggest house on earth, and – and – there are other variables that have me a bit nervous — it could have to do with the nature of the specific individual whom I have recently invited to stay in the room — it could have to with a lot of things — and — and —

Q. Will you please stop beating around the bush?

A. All right.   You painted me into a corner.

A. I invited a Trump supporter to live here.

Q. A Trump supporter!?  To live with you, of all people?

A. I felt for him because he was homeless.   Mercifully, he declined.

Q. And then?

A. I invited a Satan worshipper to live here.

Q. A Satan worshipper!?  To live with you, of all people?

A. I felt for him because he was homeless.  He too declined — although admittedly, he wouldn’t have been nearly as bad as the Trump supporter. 

Q. And then?

A. Somebody else a wee bit closer to home was also facing homelessness.  For the first time in her life, at the age of 59.   Never having been homeless in her life, mind you.  And coming from a farm out in the country, to the cold cruel realities of impending Homelessness in the Big City.   I invited her to live here, and she did not decline.

Q. Who is this person?

A. My ex-wife.

The Questioner is silent.

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Homelessness, Family and Identity

The other day on the Q&A site Quora ,someone asked why homeless people don’t go stay with their families.  The person who asked that question seemed a bit naive, so I thought I’d enlighten them.  

Again, I can only answer by sharing my personal experience. However, it might point to a generality.

I first became homeless in April 2004. In May of that year, I asked my brother if I could stay at his house, where I knew he had a spare room. He said no. I asked him why? He said: “I won’t expand.”

It hurt me. I was not drinking. I was not on drugs. I was out in the cold. Although at the time, I took it as rejection, I later realized that he needed privacy. He probably had some private practice that he wished not to share with anyone, let alone his brother, who might be disdainful of whatever private habit he indulged. That’s just a theory. But I’ll go on.

LGBT Homeless YouthI asked my sister if I could stay at her house. She said no. She, however, gave me a reason. She had a very small house, was aging with health concerns, in a wheelchair, and with live-in care. My presence in the house would not have helped her health, and I can understand that. (She is since deceased.)

I was already running out of relatives, but the point is that once I had asked them all if I could stay there, all of them had said no. At the time, I took it as though there were something terribly wrong with me. But that was not the case. They all had reasons why they couldn’t permit another person in their space.

My best female friend while I was homeless was a woman who had had two strokes, and difficulty speaking. Again, she did not use drugs. But it took great patience to understand what she was saying or trying to do. Her relatives responded by never having her over to their houses, even on holidays and special occasions.

She would cry. “I used to play tennis. I used to wait tables. I used to ride a bicycle.” She would be arrested while she was sleeping, and once spent four nights in jail because the cops had no empathy for her condition. They woke her up because she wasn’t sleeping in the right place – a parking lot — and when she began to talk in strange half-words, they clamped handcuffs on her and put her in a jail.

In other words, she was criminalized for being gravely disabled, and for sleeping.

Believe me, I was homeless for a lot of years. People seemed to think it should have been easy for me to have pulled out of it. But for the better part of twelve years, all roads in the San Francisco Bay Area only led back to homelessness. People would ask me: “What about the halfway house? The rehabs? The shelters? The board and care homes?” Board and care, maybe, I can see that — if I were the type who wanted to completely give up all his freedoms. But I’m not that type – thank God. So it wasn’t too long before I realized that all the well-meaning advice was useless. Those advisers had never been homeless, and they had never been me.

All roads led me back to a quiet spot beneath the stars where nobody could find me and where I could say my prayers. That I am now living indoors and free to illuminate the sordid realities of homelessness to those who do not know, is the answer to those prayers.

I hope this helps.

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Classism, Stigma, and Addiction

Statistics often point to the large percentage of homeless people who are drug addicts.  Recently, I read the figure “26%” in such a context.  That would mean that about one out of every four homeless people is a drug addict.

I don’t doubt that this statistic might be true.  But do you ever hear anybody asking what percentage of upper middle class and wealthy people are drug addicts?   Of course not.  Why would anybody even bother trying to find out?  

This is sheer classism.   I have associated with lots of hard-working people whom I would consider to be “industrious rich,” and you wouldn’t believe the level of legally sanctioned drug dependency that runs rampant in their circles.  Addictive medications such adderol and ritalin, ostensibly prescribed for “Adult ADHD,” are essentially used as high-power wake-up drugs.  It is also not uncommon to see klonopin and ativan used as tranquilizers or as “come down drugs” to ensure sleep after a long hard day.  Pills are routinely popped, often publicly, in an overt effort to manage the stress of an insanely fast-paced life.   

When I was an itinerant music teacher in cities like Burlingame, Foster City, and Menlo Park, almost every person I worked with openly proclaimed that they were using psychiatric drugs.   In fact, they would refer to their psychiatrists as “dope dealers” in a colloquial way.   Often, the doctor had no knowledge whatsoever of their issues.  His or her only role was to dish out drugs.   Less talked about, but just as prevalent, was the usage of marijuana.  I certainly found no fewer “stoners” among the upper middle class than I did among those who struggled to keep their sanity on the streets.

rich cocaine addictsThis says nothing about the “idle rich” — people who are rich by inheritance and may never have done a lick of work in their lives.   They have so much time on their hands, and so much money, that many of them become addicted to heroin and cocaine — and they buy top grade.

The idea that there are more drug addicts among people who have lost their homes than there are among people who live in big huge mansions is simply a lie.  There are plenty of practicing drug addicts among those with privilege.  It’s just that they’re so rich, they’re not at risk of losing their homes over it, unlike the other 99%.  The only difference between the homeless drug addict and the wealthy one, is that one has lost his privilege.  The other one never will, no matter what he does.

And here’s another thing that bugs me.  If a homeless person is on drugs, it is often assumed that his drug problem caused his homelessness.    This is another lie.  Why cannot people understand that in many cases, the homelessness came first, and the drugs further on down the road?

This is sheer stigma.  Sure, if a person is working poor or lower middle class, and that person develops a drug problem, they are likely to lose everything and land on the streets.   But the overall conditions of homelessness could easily drive a person to drugs who had previously been living a completely sober life.

I know a certain fellow who became homeless pretty darned fast due to a first-time manic episode.  Suddenly, this man was thrust from an insular world of parents, principals, teachers, and elementary school students into a world where all kinds of drug dealers were roaming the streets.  Here is a typical conversation that he would have with a drug dealer:

“Hey!  You good?”

“What do you mean, am I good?”

“You good!   Do you need anything?”

“Need any what?”

“Never mind.”

Four years down the road of homelessness, the conversation looks a little different:

“Darn, it’s cold, and I don’t even have a blanket.”

“Go up to People’s Park and steal one.”

“I don’t want to be a thief.”

“You’re gonna freeze your buns off.”

“Yeah, I know, it’s scary.”

“Well, I got something that will keep you warm all night.”

“Yeah?  What’s that?”

“This.”

And if anybody were to question that there are proportionately as many drug addicts among the 1% as there are among the 99%, I doubt I would even dignify such a question with an answer.  

There is nothing about having a lot of money that makes a person superior to one who does not.  Rich or poor, the Lord God made them all.  But try telling that to some of the more sheltered of the wealthy.   Half of those guys are so out of touch, they don’t even know the meaning of the word “rich.”

I know one thing for sure, though.  Once they learn the meaning of the word “respect,” we’re all going to be a lot better off.

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What Should You Know Before Becoming Homeless?

Somebody posted this question on the site called Quora over the weekend.   I figured I might be able to answer it.  I was homeless for a long, long time.   

You should know that people will not treat you as a full human being with needs, rights, and sensibilities akin to those of the rest of the human race. You will be continually dehumanized in ways that will confuse you, anger you, and seriously affect your self-esteem and your sense of dignity. By and large, you will either be faced with severe judgment by those who assume they are innately superior to you, or with a pathetic show of feigned empathy that will come across more like condescension than true compassion. You will often be lectured by those who have never been in your shoes and have no idea what your life is actually like. These people also will never listen to you, because they assume that you have nothing to say to them that is meaningful.

no humanityYou will be kicked out of your beauty sleep by cops, security guards, property owners, business owners, and worst of all, other homeless people. You might as well divest yourself of all remnant of worldly possessions — cell phones and laptops included — because they are all going to be stolen anyway. At food services and “feeds” you will be herded around like cattle, and orders will be barked at you as though you were a criminal in a jailhouse. Your 1st and 4th Amendment rights will routinely be violated by rookie cops who wake you up in the middle of the night and immediately search your backpack for drugs. During these violations, the cops will also run your “criminal record,” since it is also assumed that you are a criminal.

They will be surprised to find out that you are not a criminal, since obviously anyone who loses their house in a foreclosure or their rental in a California Owner Move In Eviction must be a criminal. After they do find out you are not a criminal, they will callously tell you to “move on” and sleep somewhere else. When you ask them, “where else can I sleep?” they will of course provide no answer, since obviously there isn’t one. Severe sleep deprivation will eventually set in, and it is likely you will become a bit delusional in your thinking. Your confusion will constantly disguise what your true issues are. Tired of harsh judgment, tired of false sympathy, you will rack your brains out trying to figure out what is wrong with the way people approach you, and what is lacking in their attitude toward you.

Finally, you will realize that what is lacking is respect. They will not respect you; they will not treat you as an equal; they will ask you inane questions that do not pertain to your situation at all, and then will not bother to listen to your answers. You will get tired of hearing people ask you about the weather, because the weather will be the least of your worries. You will ultimately conclude that the worst thing about being homeless has nothing to do with hygiene, sleeplessness, malnutrition, weather conditions, difficulty sustaining basic needs, difficulty focusing on anything at all other than your day to day survival, or any of the other things that make homelessness miserable for most people.

The worst thing about being homeless, you will undoubtedly conclude, is the way that you are treated. Good luck.

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