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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(Talks 2018) – Talk No. 2

Here’s the second talk in my Talks 2018 series, intending to illuminate the realities of the Homeless Experience to those who have not yet been there.   This talk is entitled “Homeless by Choice.”  I hope you gain from it.

Homeless by Choice

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(Talks 2018) – Talk No. 1

A while back, I mentioned I was going to try to start posting a speech here every Wednesday.  Well, I never got around to doing it.  That is, until now.   Happy Independence Day — and God bless America.  

Homeless by Condition: Part One 

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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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Tuesday Tuneup Thirteen

Trigger warning – portions of this Tuesday’s tuneup are not for the faint of heart.  If your stomach is strong, read on.  If not, it’s a long one, and you might as well pass it by.

Q. Do you know who I am?

A. I don’t know, man. Some kind of gadfly I can’t swat.

Q. Why have you summoned me?

A. Because I’m a hypocrite.

Q. You? A hypocrite?

A. You heard me.

Q. Whatever makes you think a thing like that?

hypA. Revelation. Revelation of my own hypocrisy. You might say, my hypocrisy has been revealed to me.

Q. Why are you repeating yourself, in so many words?

A. Because it will probably take a lot of words to drum the Revelation of Hypocrisy into my own thick head.

Q. As though you don’t quite believe it yourself?

A. Exactly. I mean, look at it! Who wants to be thought of as a hypocrite? Let alone, by one’s own self?

Q. Do you expect me to answer that?

A. No – but I can. The only person who wants to think of their own self as a hypocrite is a person who doesn’t care. A game player. A sociopath. Someone who puts forth one face in front of one fellow, and another face in front of another.

Q. And you do not do that?

A. I didn’t say I don’t. I actually do. Especially when I’m — loose. In a good space. On a roll. Enjoying the sunshine. Having fun. You ought to hear the kind of b.s. that comes out of my mouth when I’m feeling good.

Q. Do you mean that you have to feel bad in order not to be a hypocrite?

A. That’s a good question. I would guess that ultimately, the answer will be no. I will eventually be able to accede to a place of Zero Hypocrisy without losing my ability to have fun in life. But in the meantime, I might have to go through some hell.

Q. What kind of hell?

A. This kind. The very kind in which you and I engage. The hell of ruthless self-examination, with an eye toward facing the bitter truth.

Q. Why is the truth bitter?

A. Because of what it tells me about myself. For example, consider the theme of social stigma. It’s all over my blog, and practically everything I’ve written throughout the past two years. I hate being stigmatized. I hate to be thought of, for example, as some kind of low life tweaker scum bag, just because I was homeless in the Bay Area for all those years. And I hate it when my fellow homeless or formerly homeless brothers and sisters are thought of that way. I will defend my family to the hilt.

Q. Doesn’t that sound rather noble of you? As though you have integrity? And courage? And not hypocrisy?

A. It might sound that way. But things are not always what they sound like. For one thing, as much as I abhor being stigmatized, I myself stigmatize whole huge groups of people. Not homeless people, of course. But other social groups.

Q. Like whom?

A. Like doctors, for example. I have this insane idea that all doctors are money-making control freaks who act as though they hold the keys to my Divine Human Body. The nerve of those damn doctors acting like they own me!

Q. Has a doctor recently acted like he owned you?

A. Maybe. Maybe not. The point is, I *think* that he has. And why do I think that? Because I stigmatize all doctors. I lump them all into one bag. They’re all a bunch of fat cats driving Cadillacs, for all the slack I give them. But the point of fact is that there’s a doctor in this very town who has performed the one good thing that a doctor has ever done for me, in all of my 65 years of wandering the surface of this mysterious planet.

Q. And what did that doctor do?

A. He yanked out my toenail.

Q. And this was a good thing??

A. Yes. Because he did it the right way, so that it wouldn’t grow back the wrong way.

Q. Had somebody else done it the wrong way?

A. Yes. I myself. I yanked it out myself one day. Didn’t feel a thing, by the way (thanks to the local anesthetic of choice.) Felt fine the next day too. But it grew back the wrong way.

Q. So this one doctor did something the right way?

A. Yes. There is therefore at least one good doctor on the face of the globe. Or at least, he’s good on a good day.

Q. And on a bad day?

A. Prescribed me an antidepressant which you’re not supposed to prescribe to people who have Bipolar One disorder. Almost lost my job on it the next time I tried to play piano at the church.

Q. You play piano at a church?

A. Not any more I don’t. I eventually lost the job anyway. Or quit, or something like that. I think it was mutual.  But that’s besides the point.

Q. And what, may I ask, is the point?

A. The point is that not all doctors are insensitive fat cats driving Beemers treating my Divine Human Body like a set of nuts and bolts. And not all homeless people are worthless low life scum bags. In fact none of them are. Yet homeless people are stigmatized by the society. And doctors are stigmatized by me. Doctors – and whole other groups of people.

Q. Like whom?

A. Technocrats. Rich kids. Trump Supporters. Juggaloes. All kinds of people. Even gang bangers.

Q. Um – how can you *not* stigmatize a gang banger?

A. What do you mean?

Q. Aren’t gang bangers by definition a bunch of mindless thugs?

A. Not necessarily. Let’s take Arthur for example. (Not his name.) Brought up on the streets of Oakland California, gang affiliations, twenty year old kid who followed me from my spot on Shattuck near the Berkeley BART station one day, him and his buddy, knocked me on the head with a gun, threatened to kill me, and barreled me over the head (him and his buddy) about ten or twelve times while shouting: “I’m gonna kill you, White Motherfucker! I’m gonna kill your fucked up white ass, bitch!”

Q. And you survived?

A. Obviously I survived.  All they wanted was my Chromebook.   I gave it to them and they ran off, looking back at me.   They didn’t really want to kill me.

Q. But still, how can you not stigmatize people like that as heartless scum bags?

A. Oh don’t get me wrong.  I could.  Sure I could.  But not after a couple years had rolled by, and I’d had quite a few serious conversations with the deluded young chap.

Q. What did these conversations entail?

A. Lots of things. Ideas how he could better his life. How he was happier when he was with his girlfriend. How he was actually a pretty intelligent guy. And on his end, how he wished he could help me get inside – because he was inside –

Q. Inside?

A. Means, living indoors, like a non-homeless person.

Q. But wasn’t he brought up on the streets of Oakland?

A. Yes, but eventually fell in love, met a gal, moved in with her. I’m pretty sure that’s what happened. In any case, he came up one day to tell me he was “in house” and that because he knew I was an Old Guy and I still had to live outside, he wanted to help me in any way he could.

Q. And you believed him?

A. Yes and no. I didn’t believe he could help me. But I believed that was what was in his heart.

Q. But couldn’t he just have felt guilty?

A. Sure! But that in itself is a good thing. It’s the thugs who never feel guilty that you have to worry about.

Q. Why did you keep hanging around this guy?

A. (laughing) Oh brother, you do not know the streets! Down there, you have no choice but to keep hanging around with everybody. It’s not as though there’s any escape from anyone else out there. People stalk you, they approach you in the dead of night, they wake you up to ask you for cigarettes, and they don’t believe you when you tell them you do not smoke. They are always engaging with you, one way or the other. Best you can do is try to be on as good terms with everybody, and be ready for anything.

Q. How did you put up with it for as long as you did!?

A. That’s an easy one. I didn’t believe I had a choice.

Q. Seriously?

A. Seriously. The message I kept getting, from all sides, was that I had no choice. I was homeless, I was therefore a mere mutation of a true human, with defects so severe that I was consigned to permanent, everlasting homelessness — in this world and the next.  Not only would I not ever be anything other than homeless, *could* not be anything other than homeless, and should not be anything other than homeless. I was regarded this way with such unanimous agreement, I figured they must all be right. How could they all be wrong?

Q. But how could they all think such a thing?

A. Ha – you drive a hard bargain.  Let me correct myself.   They did not all think these things. Some of them even thought the opposite. They thought I had as much choice, as much privilege, as they did. They thought that the easiest thing in the world should be to pick myself up by my bootstraps and pull myself out of the damn mess. Yet it wasn’t nearly as easy as some of them thought.

Q. But who were they? I mean, who were the ones who thought you had no choice?And who were the ones who thought you had all the choice in the world?

A. In general, the homeless social workers were the ones who figured I didn’t have a choice, and my old friends who still lived inside were the ones who thought I had all the choice in the world. But you ask me to stigmatize, which is the very thing it has been revealed I must avoid. So I won’t. I will instead generalize – as I just did.

Q, Generalize?

A. Generalize.

Q. How is that different than stigmatize?

A. Big difference. Stigmatize is when you judge an individual based on general characteristics of a social group to which it is perceived they belong. That individual may in reality have none of those characteristics whatsoever. Generalize is when you correctly assess the overall characteristics of a social group, and describe the group according to that generalization.

Q. Do you have a degree in Sociology?

A. Don’t hit my sore spot!  You know I can’t read worth beans. I tried a music degree but couldn’t get through the Music History reading load, though I tried four times. And my philosophy major? You can only imagine how poorly that one went! But don’t press my buttons, please.

Q. Consider them unpressed, or depressed — or something like that — and I promise not to repress them — but really, if you have no trained educational certificate, however did you come up with this distinction? And what gives you the hutzpah? The daring? The audacity to presume that your perceptions are valid?

A. Look, dude. When you sit down on a street corner flying a sign on a sidewalk for five years, you have a lot of time to think things over. You also have a lot of time to watch people. I thought things over. And I watched.

Q. What did you see?

A. People. All kinds of people. And you know what I noticed about them all?

Q. What?

A. Every damn one of them was an individual, with unique characteristics unseen in any other. Sure they belonged to groups and factions. Sure there was stratification. But one thing I knew for sure, is that they were all unique, and distinguished by bonds of flesh from one another.

Q. Even the gang bangers? Even the thugs?

A. Hey – a couple of gang bangers were walking up one time looking tough when I was sitting with a bunch of Street Kids on a sidewalk playing a guitar. As soon as they heard me, they both broke into dance. So they had something in common other than the fact that they used drugs, dealt drugs, and occasionally engaged in violence to get what they wanted.  They had a natural feel for the rhythm of Music.  They all had it.  What a beautiful thing!  So how can I stigmatize them?

Q. But even in your saying that, doesn’t one still get the feeling that they have more in common as a social group than they have separately as individuals?  How can you answer that?

A. By going back to the example of Arthur. (Not his name.) Have I ever told you the story about running into him at the Au Coquelet cafe at around 1:30 in the morning?

Q. I don’t know – have you?

A. Probably not. So here goes.

coq

A. I walked into Au Coquelet late at night one night and Arthur was sitting alone at one of the tables, looking glum. As he noticed me, he motioned me to sit with him. Reluctantly, I complied.

Q. Reluctantly?

A. Well let’s face it. The Kid had knocked me over the head with a gun about three years before and threatened my life. I didn’t exactly love running into him.

Q. But you sat with him anyway?

A. Didn’t want to offend him. But that’s all beside the point. It’s what he said at the table that got to my heart.

Q. What did he say?

A. He said:

Arthur: Andy, I think I have brain damage.

Andy (gulps): Why do you think that, Arthur?

Arthur: I’ve been hit on the head too many times with too many guns.

Andy: Uh, er, yeah. Well, uh, I myself have been hit on the head with a gun or two in my day.

Arthur: (warmly) I know you have, Andy.

Andy: And I don’t worry about me having brain damage. I just figure — the wounds heal.

Arthur: Your wounds maybe. Mine are way too deep.

Andy: What do you mean?

Arthur: All my life, my whole fanily, whenever they needed to get a point across, they hit me on the head with a gun.

Andy: Damn man, that sucks!

Arthur: It gave me some deep wounds. Too deep. It’s hard to find where the actual hurt is, but I know it’s damaged my brain.

Andy: Maybe. But I can tell you what part of you it hasn’t damaged.

Arthur: What part is that?

Andy: Your heart.

The Questioner is silent.

Before you leave this page, please say a prayer for Arthur. God put a burden on my heart for him this morning. And no, it’s not his name, but God will know who you mean. After all, people have called God all kinds of names over the centuries, not all of them very kind.  And God took that hurt, and loved them anyway. And so did Arthur. Pray for him, please, in God’s Good Name.

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Handling Homelessness

The question was posed on Quora as to whether one felt one could “handle” a week of homelessness.  Here’s my answer.   

Being as I handled about twelve years of it, you’d think my answer would be “yes.” But having lived indoors for almost two years now in very favorable situations (first alone, then with a congenial partner), I would have to say that I honestly don’t know.

I feel as though I’ve been pampered by all the convenient luxuries of indoor living. I’ve been spoiled for so long that I’ve gotten soft.  At this point, I can’t claim that I could go back and handle even a single day of homelessness — let alone an entire week, let alone twelve years.

You see, things are different for me now internally than they were in the days when I successfully “handled” being homeless. Back then, I handled homelessness on the basis of believing that there was no way out. For the first two or three years, I kept looking for a way out, and not finding it.

homeless for a weekThen one day I had a revelation. I realized that I needed to embrace homelessness completely and learn how to deal with it on its own terms. Those terms included a silent hustle for day-to-day survival that easily consumed more than forty hours each week — in other words, the time consumption of a full time job. So I gave myself to the homeless experience, and I prided myself on how well I was handling it. But I did so in the spirit of believing that I had no other choice.

Now, however, I know that I do have a choice. That’s why I said that things are different for me internally than they were back then.  Now that I know for sure that there is more for me in life than to remain homeless for the rest of my days, I honestly don’t know that I could ever tolerate being homeless again. I wouldn’t be able to just shrug my shoulders and resign myself to its misery, like I used to. I would know that there was a way out, and I would actively seek that way out from the get-go, possibly to the exclusion of being willing or able to tolerate the homeless experience at all.

And there is, by the way, a way out. I am living proof of this. The way out may differ from one person to the next, but I can tell you for sure that there is a way. As I’ve shared here before, I was absolutely certain that I was going to be homeless for the rest of my days, and that I would die a meaningless death in a city gutter. That this did not happen, and I instead am poised to write these words meaningfully today, is not only a miracle in my own life experience, but a sign of hope for anyone facing homelessness at any level, for any reason.

So, while my honest answer to this question would have to be, “I don’t know,” it does lead to an interesting theme. Life is meant to be lived, to be fully embraced and received for everything that it is and possibly can be. Too often we consider our days to be drudgery and tedium, a general drain on our psychic reserves. I was only able to handle homelessness by embracing it completely. To be honest with you, it’s the way that I handle my present life of highly favorable indoor living, conducive in every way to the ongoing production of my creative work.

My years of homelessness have changed me completely. To my own estimation, I am a much more principled, purpose-driven individual than I ever was before I first became homeless in the year 2004. One way that I have changed is that I no longer see life as an aimless, shiftless shuffle, the way it seemed for so many years before. Life is this amazing gift from unspeakable, invisible life-giving dimensions far beyond our capabilities of human comprehension. As such, all life, whether homeless or sheltered, or on the battlefields for that matter, calls out to be appreciated as the incredibly colorful and fascinating mystery that it is.

So I think that in general, we need to escape the mentality of life being drudgery, something we can at best hope to “handle” or “survive.” Even homelessness was no longer misery, once it had been embraced. My choice right now is to embrace indoor living, with all its unprecedented benefits. If that choice ever changes, given all I have just said, I’m sure you’ll be among the first to know.

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