Re: “She Called Me Dad”

I have a Tuesday Tuneup planned but am foregoing it – and all other things — until this piece of social activism has been submitted. This may be a trigger for some people.

Something happened yesterday by surprise that was so emotionally wrenching, I burst into tears in the midst of all else that is going on at this time.

A few days ago I heard from Alastair (the Street Spirit editor) that they’d received a letter at the Spirit Office that was for me. They said a man had walked the letter into the office, unaddressed, and asked if they could please get it to Andy Pope.

Me being me, I naturally was fairly convinced that it was from some street hustler whom I’d offended, possibly with a threat against my life, or else contained some horrible blackmail attempt such as a photograph of the time I practically defecated in public I couldn’t hold it any longer. In fact, one of any number of high-profile formerly private activities could have been filmed or photographed — the privileges that one sacrifices when one gives up all privacy by living on the streets.

Instead, it was a handwritten letter from a dear friend named Mike. Mike and I had been homeless together for years down there, and we had a mutual friend whom I shall call “Maria.” Mike said that he had been reading my columns for “a few years” and that he especially appreciated the one I wrote about Maria.

Of course, I had been hesitant to write about a real person, and I changed her name to “Maria” when I wrote the story. I wrote nothing bad about her, but still feared it would embarrass her if it got back to her, or anger some of her friends. Still, I was moved to write a column called She Called Me Dad because this young Hispanic woman with a severe mental health condition — possibly Dissociative Identity Disorder — sat across from me where I had my spot where I flew my sign, and pretended I was her Dad so as to protect her.

As a severely disabled young woman alone on the streets, she was very vulnerable. Tweakers took advantage of her all the time, and Berkeley cops could have cared less, because people with conspicuous mental health disorders were generally lumped into the same bag as the other “losers and dirt bags” who appeared to populate the streets.

So Mike sent me two pictures of her — I wish I could scan them and show them to you — but of course I can’t do so without her consent. And like as not, I will never see her again, let alone do I know how to reach her.

In one picture she is seen holding one of two newborns in her arms, obviously caring for her baby as any mother would. In the other, she is seen at the Spot we shared, though of course without me.

He related that she had again been raped (I have no idea how many times she had been raped previously), went through with the pregnancy, and gave birth to twins. The twins of course were immediately taken from her by Child Protective Services.

I stared at the words and the pictures, and tears flooded my face. I’m not a crier, you know. That is, I don’t cry readily or easily. But it was too much for my heart not to be softened and touched.

Mike also shared that “Peaches” had died — which I had already learned from Kathy Kitzman, who was the Admin of Homeless Lives Matter at the time — and that my friend “Lillian” who had had three strokes and suffered from psychomotor impairment had come back for a while and then disappeared again. His reports brought back a panorama of a Berkeley that I’d forgotten about.

I usually think of Berkeley as this horrible place in time where a number of us did our best to look after each other while being routinely treated like shit by practically anybody who lived inside, and by at least half of the people who lived outside. I usually think of Berkeley as this horrible world. What I forget is how much LOVE there was among the decent people who had wound up homeless.

In a way, I’ve lost a lot of that love because life hasn’t been hard – I even get bored these days — which for me is inexcusable. Did I ever get bored on the streets? I remember how when we were homeless, if someone managed to score a hotel room for a week, it was a joke to say: “Wow – you might even get bored!”

Homelessness in Berkeley was a lot of hard things and a lot of good things, a lot of pain and fear and anger, and a lot of fun too. But it was never boring.

“What right have I?” I asked myself when I saw the two pictures of Maria and the vulnerable look in her eyes, “to be bored?”

I have a calling, I have a purpose. I better get on the ball.

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Inequity (Part Three)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Talks 2019 No. 2

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

See the source image

The Perception of Inequality

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Sleep Paralysis

I never knew what it was called until they came up with a name for it about five or six years ago.  I’ve been having it since I was 14.  I believe my brother has been having it since he was 15.  My daughter has it but her mother, my ex-wife does not.

The reason why I’m bringing it up is because, although I’ve been dealing with this phenomenon at varying levels of discomfort throughout my life, it has never been as bad as it’s been in the past ten or twelve days.   I’m having it day after day; I’ve been to Emergency about it; I’ve even had a guy from my church come over and perform a kind of charismatic exorcism.  

I’ve probably averaged three or four hours of sleep a night for the past ten days or so.  Only on one night did I get a good seven hours sleep.  The night I went to Emergency the doctor there gave me 0.5 mg clonazepam on my request, which was the same medication I swore off cold turkey on May 10, 2004.  A reaction to a prescription of 6mg / day I was given on the morning my mother was to die caused me to start behaving very strangely, uncharacteristically.   Anybody who’s heard my story knows that between October 9, 2003 when Mom died and May 17, 2004 when I spent my first night homeless at the Burlingame CalTrain station, I lost everything I had.  I took clonazepam (klonopin) all that time till I quit cold turkey on May 10, 2004.  

The reason I bring this up is that I don’t ask for a clonazepam lightly.  But I’ve known that a low dose like that is usually sufficient to get me from a waking state to sound sleep without stopping at that horrible zone where you kinda feel like this:

What Are Your Experiences With The Sleep Paralysis Demon Like?

Seriously.  Something from somewhere is pressing upon you.  You don’t quite see it, but boy do you feel it!  It’s one of the most terrifying experiences I know of.   

The night of the exorcism (not quite the right word; I think he use the word “intercession”) I slept very well.  It seemed all sense of such invasive entities had stopped completely.  But last night the invasion resumed.  I jumped out of bed pretty mad.   When is this thing going to end?

I was so mad, I ran three miles at midnight, did eleven push-ups, then wiped myself out enough to conk out from about two till six in the morning.   My vital signs were good at the doctor’s visit – lost eight pounds, medium to low blood pressure, heart rate 56.  Lots of exercise lately, and not much rest.  That could be a factor, but man, I am getting tired of this!   

I called the guy from my church and we prayed I would just get a decent night’s sleep.  I’ve been contacting old friends, and preparing for the worst.   I’m not sure how much longer I can hold up.  I have never had it night after night, day after day, on the bus, in the doctor’s office, sitting on my desk, sitting in the cafe — it’s horrible.

I’ve alternated between thinking that the loss of my medication might have something to do with it, but it was happening before that as well.  I’ve thought the medication itself might be involved, but one way or the other, I don’t like it.

I know this isn’t my usual post, but I’m not sure I’ve got much longer.  Every night I wonder if I’m going to get to sleep, or if I’m going to wake up, when it’s done.   So, if I’ve seemed to be weird the past few days, this is why.   

Today is the third year anniversary of the day I stepped off that bus on July 27, 2016 to start a new life.  If you pray, please pray that the new life will manifest fully from here. I’ve been feeling like I’ve been half asleep and half awake. Half in Cali, half up here. Half outdoors, and half inside. I’m in paralysis. I want to be full and complete from here on in, and paralyzed no more.

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How I Got Inside

Attached is a verbatim transcript of the first story I had published in my new column in the new Street Spirit.  My column is called “Homeless No More,” and my story is entitled “How I Got Inside.”  This is based on a blog post called Bigger and Better than the Streets, also written on request of Alastair Boone, the new editor-in-chief of Street Spirit.    However, this version involves signature edits and additions.  As such, it stands on its own.

Note also the illustration provided.  The caption reads: “A drawing of Andy getting on a bus and leaving the Bay Area, soon to be housed elsewhere.”  Outside of being an outstanding illustration in its own rite, the work of one Inti Gonzalez, portions of it are charmingly telling.  Note how the homeless Andy is haggard, with a more unkempt beard, wearing a helmet, carrying a sack on a stick, eagerly boarding the bus for greener pastures.

And then, on his arrival!  Suddenly his beard is trim, his hair short and styled – he’s even wearing a Hawaiian shirt – as he bounds into his pristine new place of residence with a shit-eating grin on his face.  I see “white male privilege” reflected all over, which makes  sense in the context of my having moved to a largely all-White State.  But the white male couldn’t have felt too privileged a few weeks back, flying a sign on a Berkeley city sidewalk all those years.

In any event, here’s the text.  You can see for yourself what I wrote on the subject.

When I was homeless in the San Francisco Bay Area, I relied to a large degree on the moral support of lifelong friends and family who were not. For one reason or another, it was not feasible for any of them to let me stay in their homes for any substantial length of time. Still, they frequently provided me with encouragement, and on occasion sent me money. While I was often upset that nobody was “letting me in,” I nonetheless was dependent on their emotional and financial support in order to endure the ongoing conditions of homelessness.

One of the reasons why I delayed the decision to leave the Bay Area for so long was because I was attached to my support group. I felt that my old friends and family members were just about the only people who knew that I was a competent guy who had landed on the streets as the result of a costly medical misdiagnosis. They were the ones who knew that a mistreated health condition had led to a mental breakdown, as my inability to properly manage a health condition threw me into first-time homelessness at the age of 51. They were the ones who watched in horror, as one by one I lost all my accounts, and could no longer keep up with the high cost of living on the S.F. Bay Area Peninsula. But still, they believed in me, and they did what they could to help me get back on my feet. Of course I needed their support!

The only thing they didn’t do was to let me stay with them. Ironically, to have offered me housing, even temporarily, would have been the only thing that could possibly have helped me to get back on my feet.

But they could not do this. They had their own concerns. Meanwhile, I watched while the sordid conditions of homelessness gradually transformed me from a naïve, overweight singing teacher to a scrawny fraction of my former self. Gradually, I got to be half-crazed from protracted sleep deprivation. Often, I became fully crazed from feeling that I was treated like a sub-human mutant, rather than an equal. Passersby sneered at me in disgust.

In order to cope with this massive sense of ever-increasing dehumanization, I turned at first to marijuana, though I’d smoked no more than twice since the 80’s. Then, during the last three years of my homeless sojourn, I turned to a harder drug. I used speed to desensitize me from the cold—both the physical coldness of temperature, and the spiritual coldness of the condescending mockers in my midst. One by one, my old friends and family members, with rare exception, abandoned me. One of them recently told me: “We were all just waiting to read your obituary.”

Finally, in June of 2016, I picked up my social security check and walked out of the city of Berkeley without saying a word. “If the drugs won’t kill me,” I told myself, “the thugs who dispense them will.”

For a month I wandered the other side of the Bay in search of a permanent answer. But nothing seemed to work. In a shelter, I caught a flu, and was kicked out for that reason. The hospital wouldn’t let me in, because if they let me in, they’d have to let all of us in. I got kicked off of the all-night bus for fear of contaminating the other homeless people, who relied on the all-night bus as a shelter.

In desperation, I got down on my knees. I told the Universe that all I wanted was “a lock on a door, a window, and a power outlet.”

Then I took action. I began googling keywords until I found a place in the Pacific Northwest that rented for only $275/month—something that would easily have gone for $900/month in the Bay Area. It was a tiny room in a converted hotel—but it would do the job. I called an old associate, someone whom I’d worked with long ago when he was a music teacher at a middle school. Hearing my story, he agreed to front me $200 for a one-way Greyhound ticket to a new life. After that, I told my story to the prospective landlord, whom I called while still in San Francisco. To my amazement, he agreed to hold the place for me until I got there.

Forty-eight hours later, I was sleeping in my new room. It had a window, two power outlets, and three locks on the door. Four days after that, I signed a one-year lease. Three weeks later, after years of being considered unemployable in the San Francisco Bay Area, I landed a part-time job as a piano player at a small-town church.

A part of me wishes I had made the decision earlier. It would have spared me the last three years of psychic hell. But had I made the decision earlier, I would have abandoned the bulk of my support group. For me, leaving my support system and moving out of town was what it took to lead me to housing. However, it is a common misconception that the homeless crisis would be solved if homeless people just picked themselves up and moved out of town. This is not always the case, nor is it always readily possible.

I was lucky to have found a sympathetic person who would front me the money for a one-way-ticket to another state and help me with an apartment deposit and a few other odds and ends. Not everybody can find such a benefactor. Also, we cannot deny the obvious fact that I am a white male brimming with the semblance of “white privilege”even while living on the street—if only for the ability to decide to move to a state largely composed of other white people. While I obviously did not possess a whole lot of privilege per se, I looked as though I could conceivably be, or become, a privileged person. Let’s face it: Had I been Black or Hispanic, to show up in a largely white neighborhood would not have worked to my advantage.

So in a way, I had it easy. At the same time, however, I believe that there is a way out for everyone. Though the sheltered world does not know it, homelessness is not the same thing as alcoholism, drug addiction, or incompetence. It’s not the kind of thing where one needs to “change their ways” in order to overcome it. In order to overcome homelessness, what one needs is dignity. We are all created equal; we are all endowed by our Creator with inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We are all bigger and better than the streets.

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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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Gratitude List 1007

This one was from Saturday morning.  It looked interesting & unusual enough to be worth posting.  So I posted it.  

1. Slept about 5 hours, a little after 10 till around 3. Slept deeply.

2. At some point yesterday, I became really tired, in a good way. Tired of always feeling like I have to prove myself. It felt good not to need to prove anything to anyone.  It made me feel as though I was already all right.  

3. Apologized to a couple people I’d gotten upset with.  I don’t know that they were necessarily “in the wrong” but it still seemed right to apologize for my overreaction.

4. Felt better after I apologized, and like I could move forward now.

5. There’s a kind of hatred in me when I’m trying to prove myself to people, especially to people I knew from California, or to sheltered people of privilege, or both. Tired of hating on them, tired of returning stigma for stigma.  Tired of the whole thing. It felt so good to let go, when I did let go, and I knew I’d let go.

6. I didn’t have to prove myself anymore to this one guy I ran into the other night, somebody who intimidates me, because he has every positive quality that I lack.  So what?  He’s got his, and I’ve got mine.   The same God created us both.

7. Did all right at the Open Mike and may have made a new friend in this one lady Hanna — or at least a fan. Sang “The Word from Beyond” and it kinda seemed dumb that I’d ever felt I needed to change those lyrics, as though to prove myself, or prove that I’m not New Agey, or whatever it is that makes me weirder than most Christians.  It’s just a damn song in a show, that is to say, a show tune.  And I wrote it.  It speaks for itself.  Tired of proving myself.

8. Woke up and I was different. Tired of sending all these emails to everyone. I want to read, I want to run. Tired of talking all the time, I just want to listen.

9. It felt good to just notate the score last night and make progress and not have to prove that my work is good. My work just is good, it felt good just to do the work and not worry about what anybody thinks of it. If they didn’t think my music was good, they wouldn’t be trying to help me produce my musical.  It felt good just to relax about it all for once.

10. Met an interesting spiritual guy who knows Norman from Campus Christian Center, a Zen kinda dude named Seth. He gave me a ride home from the Open Mike. We probably disagree about prayer, but I didn’t feel like I had to win an argument or anything. Tired of proving myself.

Tired of having to prove myself to money-worshipping money-guzzlers.  Tired of feeling like I should have anything to prove to people of privilege who go around lecturing us poor people on how to live — as if they have any idea what it’s like to be poor, and as if I had any inkling I’d ever want to be rich and become like they are.

Tired of getting pissed off at privileged people’s put-downs and all their hypocritical kick-downs.  I’ll stay poor, I’ll stay starved, I’ll stay complaining to them all.  And the day when they realize I’m not complaining about my lot in life, but only complaining about them — will be one Great Day on the Planet.  Some of these kooks kick down a couple of bucks and expect you to kiss their butts for the rest of your days.  They kick down five, and you’re supposed to change your entire hard-earned value system.  Ten bucks and there goes your political philosophy. 

I’m just tired, I’m done. It feels good. I don’t care about money-lovers, the seeds they plant are rooted in evil.  They’ll get theirs. 

And I’ve got mine!!  I just want to die to self and live to Christ. From now on. Tired and done.

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The Homeless Christmas Day

This piece was originally posted on my Facebook timeline on December 23rd, 2015.  It has been edited for coherence, and for the relative removal of bitterness and rancor, being as the overall conditions of homelessness were, at the time, affecting both my brain and my heart.  “The Homeless Christmas Day” has been published in the December issue of Street Spirit.  

It looks as though we’re closing in on Christmas again, folks. That’s bad news in my book, and (I daresay) in the corporal book of homeless people everywhere. The good news is that I haven’t flipped out yet. Last year at this time I thought I would “err on the side of caution” and do everybody the favor of at least deactivating my Facebook for the holidays, so that people wouldn’t have to endure too many posts like this on my timeline. Meanwhile, I would be free of that awful combination of outrage and jealousy that so often overtook me when I had to see all the “likes” on all the cute family pictures, often with lavish gifts being opened beneath their highly decorated Christmas trees.

Last year my departure was quick and easy: “It’s that time, folks! See ya after the Super Bowl!” Probably the shortest Facebook timeline post of mine in history. Somehow it didn’t go over too well.

The year before that, I was spending Christmas Day stuck out in the rain, with services closed for those of my ilk, not to mention the usual five-in-the-morning “indoor resources” being closed (Starbucks, McDonald’s, etc.) After all, social workers need to celebrate Christmas too, and baristas need a day off as well. Of course, government buildings were closed, and it wasn’t possible to hide out in the library all day.  So I wandered around aimlessly in the rain, eventually realizing that the only other people doing so were about twenty-five other angry homeless people. Our natural exchanges of commisseration began to depress me.

Describing my situation, I implored a number of people for a PayPal grant of $60 or so, hoping to be able to get out of the rain and set up shop in a cozy motel room somewhere. I figured, “Geeze, it’s Christmas! You’d think somebody wouldn’t mind giving the poor homeless bloke a well-deserved Christmas present.”

Of course, it was short notice. Quite to my hurt, I mistakenly banked on the combined compassion of the chosen few. But alas, the constant bombardment of pictures of old friends on Facebook basking in decadent bursts of Christmas Day galore – stockings, ornaments, grandchildren, the whole works — did nothing for me other than to arouse the ol’ Green Eyed Monster who forever grumbles dormant within me — perched, poised, and ready to pounce.

Well — pounce the Monster did indeed! The results were none too pretty. One of my friends was so aghast at my approach (which no doubt must have been rather ghastly), that his response was quite a shock. Rather than consider helping me out in any way, he sent a joint email to me and the closest member of my family he could think of. In the email, he recommended that I be “institutionalized” — evidently as a viable solution to this chronic homelessness business that obviously wasn’t being dealt with effectively.

Unbeknownst to him, that was my biggest fear. Not that I have any particular dread of the techno-torture of this Age. It’s just that they don’t let me plug in my laptop in those types of dives, because it can “conceivably be used as a weapon.” They do the same thing with my shoelaces, which makes jogging around the building a bit difficult. And of course they don’t let you out of the building so you can go on a run of decent length, if you happen to be (as I am) one of those. I remember once when I even alluded to the fact that I was training for a half-marathon, they wanted to put me on bipolar meds because I was exhibiting what they called “excessive goal orientation.”

In short, the instutitions, both short-term and long, are rather dreary places to be. Arguably, Christmas outside in the rain would be preferable.

As I read my friend’s well-meaning recommendations, all I could do was shake my head. “What we have here is a failure to communicate,” I mumbled, mulling over the text in amazement. Knowing I could never get my point across to my old friend through Internet typing alone, I implored him that I reply with an oral presentation to consist of approximately thirty minutes of persuasive speech.

It worked! Not only did I succeed in explaining the Facts of Homeless Life to the guy — but he actually poured accolades upon the technical and aesthetic details of my Spoken Word piece. Naturally, my attitude of disdain toward him was replaced with great approval. This fellow actually had an MFA in Voice and Speech, and here he was telling me that I was a good speaker? The same person whose opinion I had poo-pooed now expressed an opinion I found quite delightful. You see, I had enormous professional respect for this person, and I took his praise to heart. It was as though I had discovered a new hidden talent, hidden among all the other hidden ones — not that I’m about hiding any of my alleged strengths, but only that the society at large, in continuing to view me as a scum bag, essentially doesn’t see what I’ve got to offer even as I offer it. They see what they want to see.  It doesn’t matter how brightly the homeless person’s light may shine. Between that shining light and the eyes of the beholder there is a dark cloak that obscures the accuracy of their view.

And the name of the cloak is Stigma.

Ah, Stigma. Hast thou found me, O mine enemy? What are we to do with You? Should I make the same move as I made in 2014, in order to avoid yet another Facebook Christmas? It’s tempting, but something gives me pause. It’s already the 23rd, and like I said, I haven’t flipped out yet. So let’s push this puppy to the limits. Take ‘er to the max. Shoot for the moon! Let’s keep my Facebook active, and push the envelope just a wee bit further. Let’s all see for ourselves just what exactly happens on Christmas Day.

Come on, Christian America! What do ya think Christmas is all about? Why are we washing our hands like Pontius Pilate of the validity, the legitimacy, the dignity, and the humanity of an estimated 8% of our nation’s urban population? Even among those who are not homeless, statistics still reveal that one sixth of America struggles for hunger on a daily basis! Do you think Christmas will be any less of that struggle!?

Come on, people! Let us in! Stop looking at us as though we’re all a bunch of worthless druggies and boozers and losers and vandals and varmints and thieves! We take showers, we wash our clothing — it just takes us longer to do so because we have to wait in big lines at service centers to get into the shower, to access the washer, to get the toothpaste and toothbrush and razors and shampoo — while what do you do? You can do these things in a moment’s time, and you look at us patiently waiting at places like then Multi-Agency Service Center in Berkeley, California, and you frown and shake your heads and say: “Look at those lazy bums, sitting there doing nothing!”

Le us in for once! It’s Christmas, for Christ’s sake!! Let me show you I still know how to play the piano and crack my jokes and get you to holler and laugh and do requests! You think any of my gifts have changed just because I happen to sleep outdoors and you happen to sleep inside? I can give you the same Christmas gifts you used to enjoy so much back when you were glad to have me over for a dinner on the holidays! And those are only my gifts. We all have our gifts to give you! Isn’t Christmas about giving? Then let us give you our gifts — on Christmas Day. Let us in.

Tears of love will fall from my eyes when I am finally able to tell you that I love you in a manner that no email nor Skype call nor timeline post could ever touch. And great will be your reward in heaven. For the King whose birthday you claim to commemorate will reply: “Whatsoever you did for the least of my brethren, you did also for Me.” 

Andy Pope
Berkeley California
December 23, 2015

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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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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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Order of Business

Does the crackhead become homeless,” someone asked, “or does the homeless person become a crackhead?”  This question was posed on the site Quora, where I am an infrequent volunteer contributor.

I took the question to be indicative of a certain social perception; i.e., that the usage of illicit substances is so widespread in the homeless populace that it is difficult to discern which came first: the drug addict or the homeless person.  I have observed that both can happen, but that the latter occurs a lot more often than many people are inclined at first to believe.

This is because people have a way of wanting to find out why someone has become homeless.  If they can pin their homelessness on a secondary issue, unrelated to the defining factor; viz., that a homeless person lacks a roof over their head, then they can effectively deflect attention away from concern over homelessness by replacing it with concern over that secondary issue.  But that issue, be it drug addiction or what-have-you, is only secondary.  The primary issue is homelessness — and people don’t want to look at it.  So they look at the “why” instead.

nietzsche quote on truth and illusionThis is because it is easier for most people to live with the perception that a person became homeless because they were a “crackhead” (or drug addict, alcoholic, etc.), than it is with the sense that a homeless person may have become homeless for reasons that were completely beyond their control, and that cannot possibly be attributed to any kind of behavioral flaw or defect of that person’s character.  The homeless person needs to somehow be blamed for having gotten themselves as far low as they’ve gotten themselves.  This is so that the focus can become on what they ostensibly did wrongin order to result in their homelessness; and not on the homelessness itself.

The situation is further complicated by the widespread misconception that drug addiction and alcoholism are behavioral flaws, rather than as spiritual maladies that can be arrested through faith in God or a Higher Power.   So it becomes easy to say: “Well, that guy became homeless because of his crack addiction.” A perception like that can easily soon morph into: “If he would just deal with his crack habit, he would be able to get out of homelessness.”

However, it is not true that if a person could deal with their “crack habit,” they could necessarily find a roof over their head. It may make it easier for them to find their way out of homelessness, but homelessness is a pretty deep hole, with many elements besides drug addiction obscuring the way out of it.

If, however, a person didn’t start using street drugs until years after the overall conditions of homelessness began to gnaw away at their better judgment, that person is less likely to be believed. This is because people don’t like the idea that homelessness might have resulted from anything other than a supposed “behavioral flaw or character defect.” If it was revealed that homelessness were the result of situations entirely beyond the individual’s control — for example, a foreclosure, an illegal eviction, or a costly medical misdiagnosis — then one would be forced to absolve the homeless person of any sense that they had “deserved” their homelessness, or that “bad choices” they had made were at its root.

In that case, one would be faced with the challenge of having to show compassion for the homeless person, rather than levying judgment upon them. Unfortunately, it is easier for most of us to judge others than to have compassion toward them.

For this reason, more people are likely to believe that the “crackhead became homeless” (as a result of their addiction) than that the “homeless person became a crackhead” (as a result of their homelessness.) Therefore, there are more homeless people in the latter camp than many are willing to believe.

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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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It Is What It Is

There was this sense, when I was homeless, that my personal achievements were not as important as the achievements of those who lived indoors.   On the other side of the coin, my misfortunes were not as worthy of sympathy as those of people who lived inside.  If I achieved something wonderful, it was dismissed as irrelevant.  If I suffered something horrible, it was shrugged off as unimportant.  Yet if the same wonderful thing had happened to someone who lived inside, people would have smiled and offered their congratulations.  And if the same horrible thing had happened to someone who lived indoors, they would have received due sympathy.

I’ll never forget how, when I was house-sitting for a friend of mine, I took a twenty-five mile bus trip to a homeless feed, and I left my wallet on the bus.  I was more than inconvenienced by this.  It threw me into a completely discouraged state.  The house-sitting had enabled me to replace my stolen photo I.D and a lost debit card, obtain a library card, and (last but not least) store needed cash in a single place.  In this case, the dollar I needed to get back to my friend’s place on the bus was a critical component of that cash.

Naively, I figured that that the social workers at the feed might have helped me with a dollar to get back to my friend’s house.  Instead, what followed was a demeaning event, in which one by one, every single person I asked for a dollar bill assumed I was a hustler working a sophisticated con.  Not one of them believed I had actually lost my wallet.  

When I told one of them how I had lost my wallet, my cards, and all my money, she replied by saying: 

“It is what it is.”

At that point, I finally exploded.  

“How would you like it if you had lost your keys, and couldn’t get into your car, and couldn’t get into your house, and were desperate for help and support, and somebody responded by saying: ‘It is what it is?'”

I guess I had raised my voice a little too loudly with that question, for it was then that the security guard approached me to inform me that I was no longer welcome at the feed.

A far worse assault is something I find myself reluctant to share, for fear I might relive the trauma.  It happened at about four in the morning, when I stopped to ask a buddy of mine for change to get onto the BART train from the Downtown Berkeley station.   While my friend and I were counting the change, I casually set my backpack down behind me.  My backpack, at the time, contained a Mac PowerBook, two years worth of CD’s of music I’d written, headphones, and various and sundry life-aids, survival devices, and creature comforts.  In other words, it contained everything I owned.

While I was not looking, a nearby kid poured lighter fluid all over my backpack and set it on fire.

My friends saw it first, and started to scream: “What the hell are you doing!?  This guy’s a friend of mine!”

But the kid, apparently having been up for five or six days on crystal methamphetamine, only laughed.  He thought it was funny and fun.

Badly shaken, I forgot all about my BART trip and began to seek the emotional support of friends.  First, I called my best female friend in Georgia.  When she heard what had happened, of course she gasped, and cried: “That’s horrible!”

But when I approached a certain fellowship in the vicinity, and I related the story to a member who was standing outside, she only said: 

“Aw, who cares?”

This triggered a chain reaction involving a number of the members dismissing my trauma as irrelevant.  The message I received was essentially: “Well, if you weren’t homeless, these kinds of things wouldn’t happen to you.”

I was upset enough that I later approached the president of the church council, only to hear:

“Well, how did you expect them to react?”

I wanted to tell him that I’d expected them to say something similar to what my friend in Georgia had said; i.e., “that’s horrible!”  I wanted to tell him that I had expected there to be some sympathy for the condition of a guy who had just watched all his possessions burnt down by arson before his eyes.  But instead, grasping the incredulity of the scenario, all I could say to the council president was: “That’s a good question.”

seeking_human_kindness-homeless-hub-york-uniA better question would have been: “Why didn’t they react with normal human sympathy for a person who had just been so violated and traumatized?

The answer is simple.  My friend in Georgia was treating me like a human being.  The people at the fellowship were treating me like a homeless person.   Apparently, in a lot of people’s minds, there’s a big difference.

This is to say nothing about the achievements I managed to accomplish when I was homeless.  When I lived outdoors in Berkeley between 2013 and 2016,  I composed all of the music on the Berkeley Page of this web site without the aid of a laptop or music notation software.  I walked about town like a madman, singing “bop bop bop” and playing drums on my pants legs.   And when I was able to get inside with a laptop in 2016, I scored and sequenced all of that music with Finale music notation software.

The total strangers in the cafe here in town where I scored all that music recognized it as an achievement.  But what kind of response did I get from the townspeople?

“Shut the f–k up, you wingnut!”

And from church people?


“So what?
You act as though your music is more important than your God.”

But do you know who did appreciate the songs I was writing?

The homeless people.  They clapped whenever I found a piano to play it on, or when a homeless friend and I sang harmonies, while he strummed on his guitar.

And you know why?

Because homeless people see each other as human beings.   People who live indoors, by and large, see homeless people as homeless people.

There’s a big difference, you see — and don’t you forget it.

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(Talks 2018) – Talk No. 5

In this talk, I try to show how the dynamics of outdoor living provoke the dehumanization of homeless people, consciously or unconsciously, by those who have always lived indoors, and how this phenomenon is a biproduct of a much larger spiritual malaise that, in one way or another, has affected us all.  

Homeless and Human 

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When You Gotta Go . . .

When I was homeless in the San Francisco Bay Area, I had an awfully hard time getting myself to a bathroom on any kind of regular basis.

It wasn’t so bad when I only had to go No.1, as we used to call it.  I could usually find some kind of bush to duck behind, and the cleanup process wasn’t nearly so involved.  Also, the sense of stigma or shame attached to the act of having to pee outdoors wasn’t nearly so severe as the corresponding sense of shame involved in having to go No.2.

But I tell ya – when you gotta go, you gotta go.   There were times when I held it in for an hour and a half or more.  Only one thing was on my mind as I went from bathroom to bathroom, finding all of them locked, and getting the sense that whoever was in there wasn’t about to step out in the near future.

I’ll never forget how one day, I finally gave up, because I just couldn’t hold it any longer.  I found a fairly secluded path of greenery, and figured I could use the large leaves for toilet paper.

“Let’s make this quick,” I said to myself, looking from side to side.  Squatting, I did the deed as thoroughly as I could possibly manage in a fairly paranoid five-second interval.  Then I reached for the leaves.

At that exact moment, about twenty U.C.Berkeley co-eds came waltzing around the corner, smiling and chatting merrily amongst themselves.  You should have seen the look on their eyes when they saw what I was about.  (I’m sure the look on my own eyes was a sight to see, as well.)

All of these musings come in the wake of San Francisco Mayor London Breed’s recent comments that “homeless advocacy groups that receive funding from the city need to better educate the homeless to ‘clean up after themselves.'”  She went on to say: “there is more feces on the sidewalks than I’ve ever seen growing up here. That is a huge problem and we are not just talking about from dogs.”

sad truthWhile these comments may seem to many to be fairly sensible at face value, I would have to say — from the perspective of a person who spent several years swimming the quicksand of homelessness in the S.F.Bay Area — that the mayor’s insights are rather shallow.  While I personally never had to take a shit on the sidewalk, can you imagine the difficulty I would have had in “clean-up” if I had?   For one thing, what would I have used to clean up the feces?   Certainly not toilet paper.  If I’d had access to toilet paper, I’d have had access to one of the many locked bathrooms I wasn’t able to get into.  And that’s the very situation that would have driven me to have to take a dump outdoors in the first place.

Would I use my shirt?  Perhaps the only shirt I had?  Somebody else’s shirt?  A rag of some sort that I would have readily acquired — from where, exactly?  What about a dustpan?  Or a make shift dustpan, quickly constructed from — from what exactly?  

Let’s get real here, people.  We’re talking about homelessness.  The homeless person is at an incredible disadvantage compared to just about any other person in today’s society.  There were times when I was virtually immobilized for hours or even days because I couldn’t come up with a pair of shoelaces, and I basically had to sit still, penniless, until the money to buy them surfaced.  Under such conditions, in the time it would have taken me to come up with a viable device to wipe my shit off of the sidewalk, there could easily have been KRON news cameras covering the scene, further prompting the ludicrosity of such comments as Mayor Breed was so quick to make.

Anybody making a visit to downtown San Francisco will easily observe that the demand for usable bathromms exceeds the supply by a ratio of at least 100-1.  Rather than focus her energies on further demeaning the homeless and inferring that homeless rights advocates are not doing their job properly, why doesn’t the Mayor funnel some energies into adjusting the budget to include more portable toilets in the Financial District?

I would further submit it is not only homeless people who are affected by the appalling lack of public bathrooms in the Bay Area.  Recently, a security camera in San Francisco’s SOMA district caught both a truck driver and a non-profit employee defecating on the sidewalk.  Afterward, they simply walked away to carry on with the rest of their days.  Why is it assumed that all this feces comes from homeless people?

What all of this points to is the overall refusal of society to recognize that homeless people are not the problem — they are the result of the problem.   If statistics are correct and there are in fact only 7500 visible homeless people in San Francisco, how difficult would it be to budget in 7500 tiny houses, and encourage each homeless person to live indoors in privacy and dignity?  

Sure, not every homeless person would go for it.  But a lot of them would — I know I sure would have — and it would be a step in the right direction.  At least the homeless individual would be treated as a full human being whose needs and rights are being considered along with those of the rest of the human race — not like a pariah, an outcast, or a leper.

We really need to take that leap.  Remember that homeless people were not, as a general rule, born homeless.  None of us were born on drugs or drunk or severely mentally disabled.   If we became that way, it was largely the result of having to cope with the extreme conditions of street life, and of having to struggle for survival night after night, and year after year.  It was not the other way around.

Homeless people are human beings with basic needs and inalienable rights just like any other kind of human being.  The sad thing is that homeless people are not, as a general rule, treated like pople — they are treated like homeless people.   And what that translates too, ironically, is that they’re treated like shit.  

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Statement to the World

I’m finally going to try to adhere to my earlier stated concept.   I’m going to try to make sure that six posts of six different natures are each posted here at 7:30am PST, Monday thru Friday, with Saturday off.  

Why am I going to try and do this?  It’s not necessarily for the sake of creating a decent, appealing blog here.  That’s part of it.  But it’s a bit deeper than that.

People who have been diagnosed with mental health conditions are often regarded as unstable, incompetent, or insane.   It is generally held that we are flaky, unpredictable, and unreliable.  We can’t hold down jobs, and people can’t tell which way we’re going next, or where we are going to land — if we are going to land.   So, naturally, I would like to do my best to dispel that stigma.

So far, however, I can’t help but feel that all I am doing is proving them right.  My Tuesday Tuneup often shows up on Wednesday — if not Thursday, or even Monday.  There is no consistency whatsoever as to the times that any of the posts show up.   I don’t always take Saturdays off, and in fact the Friday piano video often gets postponed till Saturday or later.  Frequently, I disappear for a few days (while probably in a depressed funk), and then try to “make up for lost time” by, for example, posting the Wednesday speech, the Thursday “blog of substance,” and maybe even the Friday piano video all on the same day, which might even be Sunday.

The point is, no consistency.

How can I possibly dispel the notion that those of us who have diagnosed mental health conditions are unstable, inconsistent flakes if I don’t get it together and bring some order to the table?

Well, obviously, I can’t.   But that doesn’t mean I might not be — er – biting off more than I can chew.  Still, I’m going to give it the ol’ college try, one more time.   You will see this post tomorrow at 7:30am PST, rain or shine.   The mail must go through, and the show must go on.

idiotsavant-tshirt
Severe ADHD, Dyslexia, Bipolar One Hypomanic Disorder, PTSD & Blah Blah blah.

Sigh.

There’s even more to it than this.

People with mental health conditions are often very talented, vibrant people when given their chance to shine.   To meet me in real life, I might not be the most charismatic fellow on the face of the planet, but I do have some specific talents in certain key areas.  My writing isn’t all that bad, for one thing.  It’s good enough to have been published this past year, anyway, for the first time in my life.   You can’t say I’m a bad piano player, and I’m told I’m a pretty good speaker — although admittedly, it’s a lot easier to make a speech in my dining room using the voice recorder app on my lady friend’s smartphone than it would be to stand behind a podium and boldly address the multitudes.

However, somebody whom I respected once told me this:

“You act as though all these talents of yours make up for all your bad qualities.”

While that’s certainly debatable (if not hurtful), I can see where she was coming from.  The particular skills of expertise do not make up for bad qualities in other areas.  I’ve even said it myself, in so many words.   We live in a society that values competence, and devalues moral integrity.  And I hate to say it, but I’m pretty sure the person who said that to me felt that I was morally lax.

But there’s another facet to all of this.   While skillful expertise cannot compensate for moral turpitude, it can compensate for the lack of expertise in other areas.   I am horribly incompetent when it comes to most jobs, because my mind is largely incapable of panoramic focus.  I can only focus myopically.  If there is more than one thing I need to keep my mind on for any significant period of time, my mind will fail me.  I will screw up.  It will be noticeable and frustrating to my coworkers, and I like-as-not will be fired.

They call this Severe ADHD and Dyslexia.  Other aspects of my personality have been dubbed Bipolar One and Hypomanic.   Throw in a little PTSD, and the O.G.’s pretty much a mess.

Given all that, to cut to the quick, why should I not be focusing on the things that I can do?  I’ve spent most of my life trying to excel at things at which I suck, just because they happen to be the things that make money in this world.  But now I’m an Old Guy, and I’m on Social Security, and why not just take some time to show the world what I’m really made of?

In fact, if I don’t do so, I would feel like I’m shirking a calling of mine.   Yes, a calling – of which this post is a part.  

My disability landed me in a gutter for damn near twelve years, where none of these special gifts I have to offer were given the chance to shine.   While my ascent from that gutter to a decent apartment in another part of the world was rapid, sudden, unanticipated, and miraculous, that ascent would be meaningless if I didn’t do something with it.  For I am no less disabled, no less “incompetent,” than I was when I was sleeping under a bridge.   

The difference is not in my personality.  The difference is that I have been granted favorable circumstances in life, in such a form that the gifts with which I hope to bless you actually are given a chance to shine.

And that alone is the essence of my Statement to the World.  Not every homeless person is a worthless, low-life scum bag.  In fact, none of them are — because no person on Earth needs to be saddled with that tag.   Every person is redeemable and salvageable, for our Father in Heaven desires that none will be consigned to perdition, but that all will be preserved and saved.   So, if I don’t hide my light under a bushel, and I don’t let it shine before humanity, then people will not glorify the Maker of All Things — and yet, that’s what life’s all about.  (It’s also 2 Peter 3:9, Matthew 5:16, and Ecclesiastes 12:13 in a nutshell — and the reason I know this is because I just looked ’em up.)

So I’ll give it a go.   If you’re reading these words, it means it’s 7:30am PST or after.  If you’re not, you’re not.  Wish me luck.

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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, intended to illuminate the realities of the Homeless Experience to those who have not yet been there.   This talk shows how a person having found themselves winding up homeless more often than not might eventually make a conscious choice to live outdoors, rather than inside an untenable situation.  

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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Homeless and Sick

Recently I’ve been answering questions pertaining to homelessness on Quora, a site dedicated to the distribution of useful, factual information.  Below is a transcript of my answer to the question: “What do homeless people do when they get sick?”

I would like to address this one in a hopefully unbiased way based entirely on my own personal experience as one who once spent the better part of twelve years on the streets.

The short answer is: they don’t. E.R. rooms in hospitals are not accustomed to accepting someone who has caught a severe cold or a bad case of the flu and doing anything other than providing them with medicines and advising them to rest in bed for 7–10 days. The problem with this, for the homeless person, is that they like-as-not don’t have a bed to rest in.

I watched five people die of hypothermia overnight when a mere two dollars would have afforded any one of them an all night stay on a bus, in order to get warm. Bus drivers in my area were notorious for showing no mercy to homeless people when they didn’t have proper fare, even if the bus was only sparsely populated on a graveyard run.

Myself, I am fortunate enough to have been gifted with an unusually strong immune system. Throughout the twelve years, I only caught a flu twice.

poor and sickThe first time was roughly nine years into my homeless experience, in December of 2013. When my friend on the East Coast (3000 miles away from me) found out I was ailing, she immediately sent me $700 off of her credit card, asking me to pay it all back at the beginning of the month, when I got my government check. The idea was to put me in a hotel room for 7–10 days so I could recover in full.

I did recover, and I did pay her back, though it took most of my government check. It was worth it, to spare my life.

The second time was different, and much worse. I had gotten a bed in a homeless shelter, where I am pretty sure I caught the flu. I went to the doctor, who said it was “viral bronchitis,” and that I was to rest in bed for ten days. When I went back, and they saw the thing that said “viral bronchitis,” and that it was contagious for the first three days, they freaked out and kicked me out of the shelter. I’m pretty sure “viral bronchitis” is just a high-fallutin’ name for a kind of flu, but they kicked me out anyway. In retrospect, they’d have probably kicked me out even if I said it was a flu.

The mistake I made there was honesty. Lots of guys in the men’s dormitory at the shelter were heaving and wheezing and coughing like mad. I was the only one who went to the doctor to try and do anything about it, and who let the shelter managers know what was up. So out I went into the cold.

Returning to the hospital, I implored them to let me stay there overnight. They declined, on the basis that homeless people came in all the time requesting overnight stays on various pretexts. So, they reasoned, if they let me in, they’d have to let the whole lot of us in. No can do.

After that I tried an all-night bus. But the riders on the bus complained so much about my obviously sick condition, they got the driver to kick me out.

Left out in the elements with the flu, the rest is history. My story is told on my blog Eden in Babylon under the title “Somebody Gave Easily.” (It has also been published in Street Spirit.) If you’re interested, you can find the pertinent stories and read them.

The upshot was that I fell down on my knees and pleaded with God to put an end to twelve years of totally unpredictable, totally unreliable, anything-can-happen-anywhere-anytime Homelessness. That prayer was answered.

Two weeks later I had an apartment in another State, and three weeks later I had a job — after being considered unemployable for over 12 years in the San Francisco Bay Area. Prayer works, when it is delivered with fervency, from the heart.

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Judges with Evil Thoughts

For if a man wearing a gold ring
and fine clothing
comes into your assembly,
and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in,
and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say,
“You sit here in a good place,”
while you say to the poor man,
“You stand over there,”
or, “Sit down at my feet,”
have you not then made distinctions among yourselves
and become judges with evil thoughts?
Listen, my beloved brothers,
has not God chosen those who are poor in the world
to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom,
which he has promised to those who love Him?

-James 2:2-10

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The Marathon Race to Hell

There are values within American culture that are often lined up side to side with positive moral values, but that contain no moral component whatsoever.  Among these values are what, for the sake of this essay, will be referred to as “industry” and “competence.”

Industry is what comes about when one is industrious; that is, when one works hard.  We all tend to admire people who are hard-working.  On the other hand, we are often disdainful of those who do not work, even labeling them “lazy” or “losers,” before we bother to sufficiently examine the facts.  A disabled person, for example, may actually be unable to perform work for reasons that are entirely physical or psychological in nature.  Yet we may write such a person off as  “freeloader” who feels that he or she is “entitled.”  This exemplifies what sociologist Erving Goffman calls social stigma — the instance in which a common preconception about a group as a whole spoils the perception of a person as an individual.

The idea that a person with a severe physical disability might think of themselves as “entitled” flies in the face of the facts.   Enormous tax breaks are granted to the super-rich.  But disabled people who make a modicum of $900/mo., while condemned by the wealthy for “not paying taxes,” barely have enough money to get by even without having to add taxation to their hardships.

hustler

On the other hand, a person who works very hard will often be acclaimed for their industry.  The hard-working person might themselves look down upon those who seem unproductive, using words like “lazy” or “crazy” to explain their lack of tangible progress.  But does it ever occur to any of these people that, while hard work is certainly in line with the Puritan work ethic, it bears absolutely no relationship whatsoever to moral stature?

I was on the streets for many years.   I observed the hustlers and con artists in my midst.  Many of them would spend at least eight hours a day doing nothing but accosting one person after another, asking them “can you spare a dollar?” repeatedly.   At the end of their day, their dollars would be lined up.  Law of averages!  Now —  this may be morally reprehensible, but one cannot claim such work is easy.   Hustlers work hard at what they do.

The con artists operated in similarly high gear:

“Excuse me, my car just broke down and I need two dollars for the bus to get back to Daly City.  Oh thank you, sir!   Thank you.” (Brief pause.) “Excuse me, my car just broke down and I need two dollars for the bus to get back to Daly City.  Oh thank you, sir!   Thank you.” (Brief pause.) “Excuse me, my car just broke down and I . . .”

That’s only to cite the low end of the socio-economic spectrum.  On the high end, I know a guy who was making in excess of $150,000 a year prior to his retirement.  He wound up getting both a huge retirement and a rather hefty inheritance.  One would think he’d have relaxed after that, and spent some time with his family.  But what did he do instead?

He began to work even harder, accepting odd jobs and gigs in all kinds of places, boasting that he was making much more money after retirement than he was before.  But anyone close to him could tell that the main reason he was doing this was to get out of the house, since the idea of having to spend more time with his poor wife was of no appeal.  That, and the sheer force of workaholism, wherein his entire identity was wrapped up in how hard he worked, often at the expense of common courtesy to family and friends.

A hard-working woman in a similar bracket kicked her own mother out of the house at a time when she felt her aging, struggling mother was nothing but an invasion of her space.   Her mother was of course heartbroken and devastated.  But did her daughter bat an eye?  Not in the least.  She kept on chasing the bucks, oblivious to the moral depravity of her actions.

In neither of those cases could “industry” be logically equated with a high moral standard.  Yet our society, in so many ways beyond the mere monetary factor, routinely rewards industry and punishes what appears to be “laxity.”  But things are not always what they seem.  What may seem “sloth” to the hard-at-work is often nothing other than the lack of workaholism.  People become addicted to work.  As with any other addiction, this affects those close to them.

I’m all in favor of going out and getting a job, especially if one is prone to sitting on one’s rump doing nothing and getting nowhere in life.  But the way that we exalt the value of industry in our society is, to my view, missing the mark.  Many people work hard to feed their families, save up for hard times, and contribute to worthy causes.   But hard work in and of itself is not a moral value.   Criminals work hard, and hard-working people often become criminals in the process.

The same goes for the value known as competence.  I am a person who has been declared “legally incompetent” by the United States government.  I am not only seen to be incompetent, but — (try not to laugh) — legally incompetent.  The reason for this verdict is a combination of two mental health diagnoses, usually labeled “bipolar one hypomanic disorder,” and “severe adult attention deficit hyperactive disorder.”  In other words, I’m a space case.  No one wants to hire me, because I have a hard time concentrating on anything outside of my own head.

This is a legitimate mental health disability.  It rears its head every time I am required to focus on an external task that is time-dependent.  The greater the time pressure, the less likely I will turn the work on time.  It can be maddening.  Because of it, I have lost many jobs.  But is it a moral failing?   Not at all.  Not even the bosses who fired me saw it as anything other than a condition.  It’s not even a moral choice.   

Fortunately, there are a couple of things I do very well.  I am a decent piano player, and I also type very fast, in the area of 120 wpm.  If I’m writing an article like this, or a song, or a musical play, I am able to organize my thoughts with a fair degree of clarity.  But these are my thoughts — not the thoughts transmitted to me by an external employer.  It’s pretty easy for me to channel my own thinking in ways that are constructive, as long as I do it on my own time, and in my own space.  But try to get me to keep track of items in a workplace, or to function normally in the face of an pressing deadline, and you might not even think I’m the same guy.

Another thing I am incapable of doing is to juggle two or more tasks at once.  Everything I do well involves only one task, and to do it well, I need to be alone.  But I have met people who can multi-task effectively in the presence of multiple human influences.  These are the valuable workers of this world.  And yet, at least one of these highly competent people has left his poor, ailing wife alone at home all alone; and another one kicked her own mother out of her house.

Like industry, competence contains no moral component whatsoever.  Great thieves and even serial killers are competent.  So why do we place such a high value on competence and industry?  Why do we not place a similarly high value on unconditional, self-sacrificial love?

In my opinion, it all boils down to classism.  A competent person who works very hard naturally tends to make more money than one who is incompetent or who can’t seem to find work.  Water seeks its own level, and so someone making $150,000 or more usually finds themselves in the company of the upper class.  And there is where all the self-congratulating and mutual admiration reeks of what Jesus called the “deceitfulness of riches”.

In our society, if someone is steadily making more and more money, they often hear the words: “You must be doing something right!”  Then, convinced that they are indeed “doing something right,” they naturally make no effort to change their modus operandi, even if, in fact, they are doing something wrong.  Conversely, they may find themselves befuddled by the lack of productivity of some who are in the lower social classes, and shake their heads in incredulity.  “They’ve got it all wrong!” they are quick to declare, when in reality, in God’s eyes, many of those poor, self-sacrificing people are the ones who are doing things right.

If there is a God in heaven – which I fully believe there is — can you imagine the sorrow He feels when He looks down upon those whom His Providence has blessed, and beholds their utter refusal to return the blessing to those of their own families?   A mother brings a woman into the world, cares for her, nurtures her, packs her lunch, holds her hand on the way to school, tucks her into bed at night, and sends her proudly to the finest schools.   Why cannot that person take care of her mother in her old age?  Why can she not return the favor?

“Through sickness and through health, till death do us part,” is the wedding vow shared by a man and his bride.  Forty years down the road, where is the healthy, vigorous man when the bride is lonely and sick?   Where is the man who made her that promise?   Chasing the dollar, at world record pace, running on empty — to nowhere.   How I pity the one who runs after money!  Who will be there to cheer his victory, when he crosses the finish line of the Marathon Race to Hell?

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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 

can-do

ANYTHING HELPS
GOD BLESS

                                                                                         

 

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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A Rain Like You

A couple mornings ago, I awoke a bit later than usual.   After a brief period of reflection, I decided to forego my morning shower, gather up my things, and set forth into the world.

A gentle rain proceeded to plop upon me. 

“Funny,” I thought.  “This reminds me of all those times when I was homeless, and a shower was hard to come by.   I would feel a rain like this, and I’d suddenly be really grateful.   At least my clothes were getting washed, and I was getting a bit of a badly needed shower.”

For another block or so, I continued to enjoy the heavenly feeling of water from above gifting my body with a “courtesy rinse” – no strings attached, free of charge.   After a while, though, the thrill wore off.   I began to brood.

“Somehow,” I mused, “the gratitude that I feel is not so huge as it once might have been.   Sure I’m getting rained on rather nicely.   Of course this is quite pleasant.   But — did I really need to evoke the rain for this purpose?”

I paused to wipe off the back of my neck, where a large drop had leaped down upon me from somewhere within the branches of a tall tree overhead. As the cold water slipped down my back beneath my shirt, I grimaced.

“I have my own shower, you know!” I cried aloud, as though needing to remind myself.  “I could have given myself an extra ten or fifteen minutes.   Of course, the rain would still be tossed upon my back, but at least I wouldn’t be thinking of it as my shower substitute.”

I pulled a part of my corduroy blazer up toward my nose.

“Seems a bit ratty, if you ask me.” I frowned.  “In fact, the whole outfit could use a wash.  When was the last time I did the laundry?”

It wasn’t long before the previously pleasant memory of free showers past had faded completely from my consciousness.

“There’s no excuse for this!” I shouted at a large, looming cloud of darkness. “The days when I needed a rain like you are long past.  I have my own shower — I even have my own tub.  I could have easily waited another ten minutes to clean myself up if I had known this was going to happen.”

teaching like rainBut the rain continued, more-or-less treacherously, more-or-less cynically — as though my frivolous complaint meant nothing in the face of such cosmic inevitability.  

“I can also wash my own clothes without your assistance,” I added.  “It’s a minor hassle trying to make sure I have the right change, but for three bucks in quarters, the laundry room isn’t very much further than the shower.   It used to be . . . “

At around this point, I stopped and slowed somewhat.   For one thing, I realized that I had been talking to myself.  The clouds weren’t listening, and the rain seemed almost stoic in its indifference to my plight.   For another thing, I had begun to sense a strange poignancy couched within the mundane.   Despite the apathy of the unfeeling elements, there was a sense of great caring and concern emerging.   Wherever it came from, I wasn’t sure.  But it was real.

“It used to be,” I continued, “that if I needed clean clothing, I might as well just get a whole new outfit at the thrift shop, and leave the dirty clothes behind.   It only cost a few pennies more than having to do everything in a laundromat, and besides I had no explaining to do after stripping down to my running shorts in public, just to make sure I still had something on while all the rest of my clothes were tumbling.  Easier just to buy new duds once a week or so.  No matter how many times I washed my clothes or showered anyway, it would still be pretty much assumed that I hadn’t.   

“It used to be, people would walk past my Spot and hold their noses in a gesture of scorn.  Funny, though — I hung around homeless people all the time, and unless the guy was drunk or something, I never smelled anything.   Then again, I wasn’t looking for it.  Funny how we often find whatever it is we’re looking for — even when it isn’t there.

“It used to be, no matter how much I tried to make my presence more palatable to passersby, I could not escape the scorn, the ridicule — I remember once how a man walked by and shouted: ‘Take a shower!’  This was literally less than fifteen minutes after I’d just stepped out of the shower at the Multi Agency Service Center.   Made me feel as though the three hours I’d spent waiting in the line for the shower that morning had all been for naught.   

“It used to be, they treated me like I wasn’t even human.  Just a piece of garbage, littering the sidewalk with my being.   But now . . . “

The clouds moved more quickly for a spell.  

“But now, they treat me like — one of the gang.   One of the crowd.   A person worth smiling at.   A person whose smile is meaningful . . . is safe . . . 

“Yeah!”  I laughed.   “When was the last time I had the experience of being treated as though I were not even human?”   

The sun slipped very nicely between a couple of passing clouds.  My gait lightened, as the Latah Recovery Center loomed in the distance.  I like to say a prayer before I step in the door to begin my shift.   My prayer, this time, was thus:

There was a time when I slept on my back in a thunderstorm
in a church parking lot, having no blanket,
and looking up at the howling night sky,
having no choice but to shout: “Bring it on!”
I was stormed on for years, Lord.
I want you to know how thankful I am
to be rained on
by a Rain like You.
AMEN.

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That’s His Whole Problem!

I’ve been under the weather lately, and I’ve taken to composing music to pass the time.  As I broke out my music notation software for the first time in quite a while, I noticed an assortment of unpleasant feelings associated with the task.   For some reason, I keep thinking that it is wrong for me to be writing music.

Wrong to write music?   Ah, but this makes no sense.   Where does that come from? Arguably, my father, though I’m sure the poor bloke was only trying to protect me from myself.   He would see the delirious obsession overtake me, quite like his own very similar obsession, and he feared for where it might lead. 

Wrong to write music – what do you make of it?   I can somewhat understand the inherent dangers in the “new toy effect” of this amazing music notation software — especially since I first acquired the new toy over ten years ago, and one would think its fascination would have faded by now.  Ah, but no – there is an almost addictive, compulsive quality to the way that I attack the Finale commands with such fervor, almost like playing a video game, or taking a ride in an amusement park.  Too much fun is involved, and escapism.  How can it possibly be good for me?

Escapism . . . I tend to escape the doldrums of life — by writing music.  In fact, I even escape the demands of the music world itself.  After all, I’m supposed to be finding other musicians to play my stuff, aren’t I?   Other musicians are supposed to play my notes; other singers are supposed to sing my words.  Instead, I belabor for hours over this feigned representation of my music, produced by the artificial, heartless software.  I pretend that there’s an improvised saxophone solo between Measures 33 and 48.  But let’s face it, every note of that “improvisation” has been painstakingly fabricated by the workings of my own tomfoolery, trying my best to mislead the listener into believing that there’s actually a sax being played there, rather than a sophisticated electronic fake.

Don’t I have more important things to do?  Aren’t I behind on my blogs?   I’m supposed to be writing about Homelessness, aren’t I?  What’s music got to do with that?

Well, that’s just it.  It’s got everything  to do with that.  And everything to do with this sense of wrongness that engulfs me whenever I try to write music these days.   It recalls a former time, not too long past, when the average person in my life believed that my relationship to Music was the biggest problem I had in life.

whole problem

It was widely thought, seemingly by everybody else but me, that it was a huge problem, this obsession I had with composing music.  It was a conspicuous problem — a visible problem, something that could not escape public notice.   In a way, it was like Homelessness itself.   There was no way I could hide my homelessness effectively from everybody in the city of Berkeley.   No matter how nice I tried to act, how good I tried to look, the cat was out of the bag.  Everybody knew I was homeless.   Everybody knew I was “just one of the local wing nuts.”   So my obsession with composing music, whether I used the software, or whether I only walked about town singing “bop bop bop” and playing drums on my pants legs, was all part of that huge visibility.   I couldn’t hide being homeless; and I couldn’t hide writing music.  So to my observers, they only seemed like two sides of the same coin.

“That’s his whole problem right there! Look at him writing music all day long, while he’s homeless.  No wonder he never gets off the streets!  How disgusting.”

I remember how depressed I would become whenever I encountered this objection.  Even at church, or at the recovery fellowship I attended, there was this idea that “music was more important to him than God.”  And it disturbed me.   I kept wanting to defend myself.  I honestly did not think it was true.  I just happened to be a deeply driven, tightly wound, highly charged composer, who just happened to keep getting all these musical ideas, that he felt a deep need to pursue.  What’s that got to do with God?  Other than that it was His gift?  How would eliminating this huge part of me possibly help me, either to figure out how not to be homeless anymore, or to be a better Christian, or achieve more sobriety, or recovery — why would eliminating music be so essential to my health and well-being?  Wasn’t Music what was keeping me halfway sane throughout all of this insanity?

I still feel the depression of all that.  I start to relive it, even now, while trying to write music again, after all this time.

But it wasn’t like that when I first got to Moscow, Idaho, almost two years ago to this day.  By that time, I had so much music accumulated in my mind, stuff that I had written without the software, that I’d kept track of in my head — I basically couldn’t wait to get it all notated, now that I finally had a computer, and a place to live.   

When I sat in a cafe writing music, I couldn’t help but notice that the reaction of passersby was much different than I’d become accustomed to.   Nobody scowled at me.  Nobody looked over and thought: “There’s his whole problem right there.”

Why not?  Because there was no huge visible problem that people were hung up on trying to determine the cause of.   There was not this thing called Homelessness hanging over me everywhere I went, seeming to demand an explanation.   

My friend Danielle put it nicely once, with this analogy.  “You see a fat guy eating a doughnut,” she said, “and everybody says: ‘that’s his whole problem right there.’   But you see a skinny guy eating a doughnut — the very same doughnut — and nobody squawks.”

“So what’s that got to do with me?” I asked, naturally.

“The fat guy has a visible problem.  He’s fat.  Everybody can see it.  So they look for the probable cause.  As soon as he sinks his teeth into that doughnut, they think they know the answer.  Genetics, upbringing, age, alcoholism — any other factor is thrown by the wayside.  That there doughnut is his whole problem.

“Same thing with you.  You’re homeless.  You’re conspicuous.  Everybody knows you’re homeless, and they wonder why.  As soon as they see you writing music — and all the time, by the way, you must admit it — any time of the day or night, anywhere, for hours on end — they say: ‘That’s it!   That’s his whole problem!’  Socio-economic factors, mental health, company downsizing, landlord owner move in evictions — none of those more disturbing, complex factors need come into play.”

“That is very disturbing,” I agreed.

“Quite so,” she nodded.  “But now?” Now you’re not homeless.  You don’t this big visible problem that everybody’s trying to figure.   Now you can write as much music as you want, and nobody’s going to fault you for it.”

Needless to say, I was quite relieved.   Now if only I could turn back the hands of time, and get them all to see that it was never my “problem” to begin with . . .

Or was it?

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The Law of Respect

“I don’t have money or food,” said the man, smiling.  “But I’ve got something you’re gonna like even more.”

“What’s that?” I asked him, looking up from my spot.

“A pair of socks.”

I remember how happy the man looked when he saw the joy in my face.   After all, I came by food almost every day down there.  If I didn’t, there was something wrong with me.  It’s pretty easy to keep eating in a town where they offer thirty-free free meals a week to whoever’s willing to walk to the meal site and wait in a line. 

And money?   Seventeen dollars a day was my quota.   Barring the unforeseen, it met what I needed to get by from one day to the next fairly comfortably.  Everybody figures a beggar needs money or food.   But a pair of socks?  Was this guy psychic or something?

socksMaybe he’d just been around.  Or perhaps he was smart. If you stop to think about it, it won’t take long to figure out how difficult it can be for a homeless person to come up with a clean pair of socks on a regular basis.  Socks were like gold down there.  But people usually didn’t stop to think farther than the basics, if they even bothered to think about us at all. 

And I tell you honestly: shoelaces were the worst.  Wearing dirty socks from day to day was one thing.  Going two weeks without shoelaces was quite another.  I would essentially be immobilized.   Days on end would pass me by.  Somehow I could never squeeze the simple expenditure into my “shoestring budget” (no pun intended.)

I got tired of opening my mouth toward people who lived indoors.  We were in such incredibly opposite worlds, it seemed communication was impossible.   I wished we would talk about anything other than my problems, my difficulties in life.  Not that they didn’t care (although a lot of them didn’t.)  It was just that, they didn’t understand; and after a while, it seemed impossible trying to get anyone to understand — if they even listened (which a lot of them didn’t.)  Not to mention, in the rare event that someone “understood,” what could they do about it?   Let’s talk about something other than Andy’s problems, please.  Just once.  

“I wrote a song yesterday,” I would venture, meekly.  “Want to hear it?”

“A song?!  You must be out of your mind!   That’s your whole problem right there — that you would have let yourself deteriorate into this God-awful position, and there you go wasting your time writing music!  No wonder you’re still on the streets.”

Everything somehow would get turned around to the topic of my “problem.” Whatever my problem was, this elusive “thing” that had somehow “made me homeless” — it was all that was supposed to be on my mind, at any moment.  I suppose if I had been a sports fan it might have been easier.  Surely they’d let homeless people talk about the Super Bowl, wouldn’t they?  If not the San Francisco Symphony??  But somehow it never came about. 

Where was the respite I so wished for?  The breather for which I longed?   The break from having to dissect and devour myself over what could possibly be my “problem” — other than the obvious fact that I didn’t have a roof over my head — where was it?  That moment of oasis, that moment of reprieve, was as elusive as the inexplicable problem itself.   If I couldn’t get anyone to understand what the problem was, try making any headway toward its solution.  As soon as the subject of homelessness arose, unless I were talking with another homeless person, all bets were off.

I would speak my simple truth, and people would look at me quizzically, dumbfounded, as though the words I had just spoken were somehow verboten, somehow not to have been spoken, and not to be addressed.  But if I had said the same words to another homeless person, their response would be more like this:

“Yeah, I know what you mean.  Same thing happened to me the other day, only it was with Officer Forbes.  But I was sitting there, same thing as you, same exact scenario.”  

It got to where I felt as though a homeless person could recognize me two blocks down the road, somehow sensing in my emanating vibration a kind of kinship or partnership that didn’t just emanate from every guy on the block.   On the other hand, I’d be sitting with a non-homeless person in a McDonald’s on a rainy morning; and if I were lucky enough to be talking about Ravel or Debussy rather than how hard the weather must be on all the homeless people right now, chances are the person would never even have guessed I was homeless.   Usually, they didn’t find out till another homeless person came in and joined us.  After a while, they would detect a rapport that had been absent earlier, and they would turn to me and ask:

“Are you homeless?”

The very question I had hoped not to hear!  I had so been enjoying talking about classical music with somebody neutral.  For a brief period of time there, I was neither one of “us” nor one of “them.”   I was merely a guy in a conversation over a morning cup of coffee at a Mickey D’s.  

It always seemed as though the things that people would assume were the big negatives in the homeless experience were never the things that we ourselves thought were so negative – we being the people who actually were homeless, who lived that way 24/7, and who would naturally would be familiar with all the ins and outs of it.   Of course, perceptions about the homeless phenomenon varied from one homeless individual to the next – and sometimes even from one moment to the next.  But in general, if someone were to ask any of us what bothered us the most about being homeless, we would unhesitantly reply:  “The way that we’re treated.”

Yet usually that was the last thing on anyone’s mind, when they stopped to think about homelessness.  The first thing, of course, had to do with the weather.  The weather?  Yes, you heard me.  The weather.  Naturally, the weather must be the big difference, if one is living outdoors, rather than in.  Logically!

But let’s dissect this for a moment or two.  How much did weather conditions bother me, on a day to day basis?   Outside of the occasional thunderstorm, really, not much at all.  I remember freezing for the first three weeks or so, having all these uncontrollable chills, every time I woke up.  It seemed it took forever to get warm in the morning.  But then, after about a month, where had all the freezing gone?  It had gone the way of what we used to call “body armor.”  It’s this thing your body does to protect you.  I suppose you could still die of hypothermia when you don’t happen to be feeling the cold, but there’s something to be said for not feeling it, too.  One less thing to rattle you, in a world where you’re constantly rattled.

All that we really ever wanted down there was to be treated with respect — the same way that we tried to treat others.   The way we were brought up, maybe.  Something having to do with the Golden Rule, or principles of etiquette, or common courtesy.   We felt that we had lived by the Law of Respect throughout our days.  We had not engaged in cut-throat competition in order to prevail over others, to secure a better paying position, or some better post in the scheme of things.  We had instead loved our neighbors as ourselves, and had often sacrificed a perk of our own for the joy of seeing it granted to another.   And where had it gotten us?

Maybe it was too much to expect respect from a world that had grown so deeply divisive and cold.   Those who didn’t show respect for us probably showed little respect for anyone else either.   Maybe they weren’t all brought up with the values that, prior to twelve years of homelessness, I had always taken for granted.   Or maybe they had tried those values, and found them wanting.  Maybe they knew how to stay off of the streets of San Francisco.  Maybe they had learned how — possibly even by looking at us.

By contrast, there was something charmingly simple about the man’s approach, when he somehow knew that what I really needed was a decent pair of socks.  Socks are pretty expensive, after all.  He could have just bought a pair for himself, then come out of that store realizing there was a guy sitting there who probably needed those socks more than he did.

God bless him.  I hope that kind of thinking doesn’t land him homeless as well, like it seems to have done for me, and for many others.  I could tell from one look at the guy, he’d have an awfully hard time pulling out of it.   

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Gimme Shower

I recently found this email in my Sent folder.  To this day, I wonder if it was my sense of desperation that prevented each of seventeen people in my life from permitting me to offer them twenty dollars so that I could step inside one of their homes for a period of a half an hour so that I could take a shower — or whether it was “something else.”

From : andypope7 at zoho dot com
To : [17 friends and family members]
Date : Mon, 11 Jul 2016 13:51:40 -0800
Subject : Shower?

Dear Friends and Family Members:

I kinda hate to approach you all in this fashion, but I don’t really have a cell phone now, and as you all know, I disdain to beg for change.  Not to mention, they’ve ripped out the pay phone by the library, outside of which I’ve been camping out these days.  I hope somebody will get back to me.

showerI really need a shower.  I’m not used to this neck of the woods, and I can’t just go hang out at the Multi-Agency Service Center like I could in Berkeley, where I could usually be assured of a shower in the morning, though I often had to wait for over three hours with about fifty other people, and sometimes would have my things ripped off during the brief period of time I was allotted for my shower.

As you know, I don’t drink, and I’m honestly not on drugs or anything like that.  I have twenty bucks I can give you for your trouble.  I promise I’ll be in and out really fast, and I won’t leave a towel on the bathroom floor, as someone complained about last time I tried this.  Honestly I’m totally clean, I just need to get cleaner enough to put on some decent clothes I got at Goodwill and hopefully pound the pavement and find a job pretty soon.

I’m only asking a half hour of your time.  I really really really need a shower.  Can anybody help me with this?  I’d really appreciate it.

Love,
Andy

Only one person replied, which was kind of him.  Now, in deference to that person’s kindness, I must admit that I have not been able to find the exact email.  I did, however, have several conversations with this individual (whom we shall call “Randy”) during that period of time.  So I recall that this is the basic gist of what he had said.  I hope you can appreciate the disparity in our viewpoints here.

From : “Randy McRiddle”<randy@mcriddle.net>
To : “andypope at zoho dot com”
Date : Mon, 11 Jul 2016 15:28:17 -0800
Subject : Re: Shower?

Hey Andy –

I talked to my wife about this, and I’d like to help you.  But we let a homeless guy in here last year, and it turned out he had lice.  It was a real hassle getting rid of all the lice.

Also, to be quite honest with you, my daughter is home from school for the summer, and she gets really freaked by those kinds of people.  You understand.

If it was just me myself, I’d probably consider helping you.  But I’ve got the wife and kid to think about.

Hope it works out for you, trying to find a job.

“Randy”

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Treasures in Heaven

In my blog, I often discuss how homeless people are stigmatized in our society.  I  have also identified myself as a Christian. But the identity of a Christian is spoiled by stigmatic perception every bit as much as the identity of a homeless person is thus spoiled.   Therefore, I think it’s about time I did my part to diffuse a few of these stereotypes.

I almost fear telling others I’m a Christian, because I am often assaulted immediately with accusations of being a sexist and a homophobe.   But what is more germane to the present-day purpose of this blog is how much classism seems to run rampant in American Christianity.  This is especially evident in what is often called the Prosperity Gospel.

The Prosperity Gospel, in short, is a particularly inviting deception that equates spiritual blessings with material success.  Of course it is entirely conceivable that once a person decides to live according to spiritual wisdom rather than careless foolishness, one might find oneself advancing in material gain.  If one, for example, has been blowing all of one’s money on drugs, hookers, and other forms of escape, one would naturally notice a pleasant increase in one’s financial status once such expenses have ceased.  The Proverbs of Solomon are all about that distinction.  However, we find such wisdom in many sources other than the Bible; and I for one would submit that most of the Proverbs are merely common sense.

Besides, it is also quite plausible that a person can be extremely happy living a minimalistic lifestyle with very few possessions at all.  In fact, in Matthew 19 and Mark 10, we read of a young man who had “great possessions” who walked away from Jesus in sorrow when advised that he should give up all he owned in order to inherit eternal life.  Does such denial of worldly goods equate spiritual blessing with prosperity?  Obviously, the opposite is the case.

treasuresConsider also these very famous Scriptures:  “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 19:24)  “The love of money is the root of all evil.” (1 Timothy 6:10).  And without bothering to quote every word, passages such as James 5:1-11 and Luke 16:19-31 hurl severe warnings in the direction of the wealthy.  But where in the Bible are such warnings thrown in the direction of the poor?  Nowhere.

To the contrary, Luke 6:20 includes the words: “Blessed are you who are poor.”  Where in the Bible do we find the words, “blessed are you who are rich?”  Again, we find them nowhere.

A proponent of the Prosperity Gospel will almost always cite Jeremiah 29:11 from the New International Version of the Bible, as follows:

For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord,
“plans to prosper you and not to harm you,
plans to give you hope and a future.”
Jeremiah 29:11
N.I.V.

Although it is true that the word “prosper” figures in this translation, a quick scan of several other popular translations will reveal nothing of the kind. In the English Standard Version, for example, the phrase “plans to prosper you” reads “plans for welfare.” The same phrase in the time-honored King James reads “thoughts of peace.” So this single verse, taken completely out of context in a modern American translation, is hardly a valid rationale for a deception as extreme as the so-called Prosperity Gospel.

In the Bible, once again, where exactly are material acquisitions equated with the kind of provision that brings real fulfillment, inner peace, personal happiness, and eternal security?  Nowhere, really.  The only time when material gain is cited as a blessing from God is in a context where the greater blessing would be the evidence of God’s love; for example, the last chapter of the Book of Job.   And love, according to 1 Corinthians 13, abides forever.  Material blessings vanish at the grave.

In conclusion, I would contend that we who are spiritual ought to set our affections on the things that are above and beyond our material disposition (Colossians 3:2), rather than on the passing pleasures and comforts of this world.  The expression, “you can’t take it with you,” ought not to have been coined in vain.

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth,
where moths and vermin destroy,
and where thieves break in and steal.
But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven,
where moths and vermin do not destroy,
and where thieves do not break in and steal.

For where your treasure is,
there your heart will be also.”
Matthew 6:19-21
N.I.V.

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All for the Love of Coffee

Not everything that happened in the psychiatric facility described in the previous entry was humane.  For example, there was a very disturbing turn of events that took place after I noticed that, while all the other patients were receiving caffeinated coffee with their breakfasts, I alone was condemned to decaf.

When I asked why this was, a psych tech named Steve stepped forward.  The following conversation ensued.

coffee protectionSteve: Well, Andy, because you are bipolar, we feel that regular coffee would hype you up too much.

Andy: But I’ve been having a cup of coffee every day since I was 19 years old.  I can tell you for a fact that a cup of coffee relaxes me.

Steve: If you were ADHD, the cup of coffee would relax you.  But since you are bipolar, the cup of coffee hypes you up.

Andy: Well then, I suppose I must be ADHD, because as I just told you, my morning cup of coffee relaxes me.

Steve: Andy, be honest with us.  You know for a fact that because you are bipolar, your morning cup of coffee does not relax you!  Your cup of coffee makes you hyper.

Andy: But Steve, don’t you think I know how my morning cup of coffee affects me?

Steve: Listen Andy, we know that you want help, but you seem to want the help to happen on your own terms!

Andy: My own terms?  A cup of coffee in the morning is my own terms?  ME AND THIRTY-FIVE MILLION OTHER AMERICANS??

Suddenly, about five mental health workers leaped out of their seats, and before I knew it, I was being given a shot of concentrated Zyprexa on my tongue.  Everything went black.

Approximately 24 hours later, I woke up to the sight of another psych tech, a fellow named Tim whom I had remembered from my first incarceration in said facility back in 2004.  He was dressed entirely in black, which I recall caused a disturbed schizo-affective back in 2004 to think he was a manifestation of the devil.  I, however, knew him to be a pretty nice guy.

“Andy, don’t make a big deal out of a cup of coffee here, man — it’s not going to work in your favor.”

“I don’t know, Tim.  It just doesn’t seem like three days of forced caffeine withdrawal is working in my favor either.”

As I began, in my typical fashion, to go over the heads of everybody and anybody in order to secure my badly needed cup of coffee, I eventually landed at the director of the institution, who happened to be from Austria.

I guess they think a little bit differently over there in Austria.  The psych techs who had forced the Zyprexa concentrate into my body were reprimanded, and my cup of coffee was made manifest on the third day.

Just in time for me to meet Greg the Bartender and head towards Stockton.  But in all due deference to those who have been asking me to write my memoirs, I’m pretty sure the buck stops here.

Or does it?

TO BE CONTINUED

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Are You Homeless?

I walked into the Courtyard Cafe this morning wearing my running shoes with spikes on.  We need to wear spikes around here to walk comfortably in the treacherous snow.  My ordinary shoes were slung across my shoulder as usual.

I asked a worker here if the spikes were creating dimples in the hardwood floor.  He said they probably were.   I mentioned that I hadn’t been in Idaho for very long, and I was still getting used to all this stuff.

Suddenly, a lady sitting across the way asked me: “Are you homeless?”

“No, I’m not,” I replied.  “But I’m curious.  That’s an odd question.   People don’t generally ask me if I’m ‘homeless.’   What prompted you to ask that?   Is it the way I look?   The beanie?  The beard?”

Ando Smiling“No,” she said, possibly lying. 

See that guy to the right?   That’s how I look.  This is my most recent look, after having lived for just about a year and a half now, here in Idaho, after escaping twelve years of on-and-off-again homelessness (mostly “on”) in a State I hope I never have to set foot in again, quite frankly.

“You’re dressed like every other guy in this town,” she continued, possibly telling the truth.   

(I did notice upon moving to this particular city that just about every man in my age group wore a beanie or cap, had a beard, and usually carried a backpack.  It made it easy on me.  Nobody assumed I was “homeless.”)

“You said you were new in Idaho, so I thought you might have been homeless.  I’m sorry if I offended you.”

“No, you didn’t offend me at all,” I clarified.  “Nothing wrong with being homeless.  I just wondered what it was about me that got you to think so.”

She drew a breath.  “A lot of people who are new to Idaho were homeless in another State.  It’s because here, people are just people.  They don’t judge you for being homeless in a place like this.   They don’t think of you as a scum bag or a loser.  They just figure you’re down on your luck – and they try to help you out.”

“Are you homeless?”  I asked.

“No,” she replied, looking a bit puzzled.  

She then walked to the counter and came back with a breakfast for me in a to-go box.

“Merry Christmas,” she smiled — and walked out.  

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Pick of the Litter

It was hot. I was tired. I had enough money for a candy bar, and I thought the sugar might help me for the long walk ahead. I bought a Butterfinger at the Touchless Car Wash.  I saw a step with a couple stairs about half a block away. Seemed to be a business, not a private residence. Didn’t look like they were open. It was Saturday. I sat down to eat the Butterfinger.

Suddenly, a hostile voice interrupted the pleasant onset of the desired sugar rush.  The ensuing dialogue was most unfortunate.

“I don’t mind you guys sitting here, but I sure hate the mess you always make!”

“Us guys? What guys? There are guys who sit here? I’ve never sat here before! What mess?  What the hell are you talking about?”

The man said nothing, but seemed to sneer at me before shutting the door between us.  Guess he was the business owner, or property owner, or what-have-you. Jesus! I had just sat down! I’d been walking all day! All I wanted to do was eat my damned Butterfinger, get an energy lift, and move on. Did the guy have to pop me over nothing?  

Not to mention, being identified as a member of some group of guys, rather than the individual whom I am, obviously pressed a pretty big button in the Berkeley Boy.   Seriously, it was all I could do to bite my lip. Fortunately, the grouch who so grossly growled at me had shut his door on my brewing indignation. Best for both of us, I thought.

I got up to walk away, then noticed that the top my Butterfinger wrapper was lying on the sidewalk, about four feet from the stairs.  I must have dropped it there in my hot hungry haste.  Gee whiz.  Guess that was “the mess you guys always make.”

Next time, remind me to buy a Milky Way instead.  Darker wrapper, better blend.

litter

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