Inequity (Part Two)

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yup.”

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

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

“Oh really.  How so?”

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

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

“Ah, Michael Tilson Thomas.”

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

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

“Hey Andy, do you have any change?”

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

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

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

“You’re HOMELESS??!!” he cried out.  

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

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

OIsn’t it time films about homeless people started showing more compassion? - Little White Liesf course I knew about 2-1-1, but that’s beside the point.  The wall had been erected between us, that wall has proven to be virtually insurmountable, and it would be downhill from here.  I’d thought I’d been going to get away with having a normal conversation for once.  But I thought wrong.  As soon as I was outed, and my homeless credentials revealed, the subject reverted back to the usual topic of homelessness.   And it might have been very fresh for the one who picked up that ball, possibly even an exciting first-time conversation.  But to us it was one we’d heard all too often. It was one thing to be living it 24/7.  It was quite another to be expected to talk to every Tom, Dick & Harry about it, total strangers that we would literally meet off the streets, daily.

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

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

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

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My Life Has Just Begun

I wrote this on request from Alastair Boone, the editor-in-chief of Street Spirit.  


Shortly after I first became homeless in 2004, I was the victim of a sexual assault in a motel room. I had made a mistake I learned never to make again. I opened the door when someone knocked.

As one who had been sheltered his entire life, I didn’t know at the age of fifty some things that are common sense to people who are in the practice of renting cheap motel rooms in “red light districts.” One of them is that when you happen to land such a room — the kind where the owner might squeeze you in without proper identification — you never answer a knock on the door if you know what’s good for you. In this case, a large African-American man forced his way in and overpowered me. (I think he was looking for somebody else. In any case, I would suffice.)

Without going into horrific detail, the nature of the assault was such that it gave me a condition called Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, otherwise known as PTSD. While I did my best to deal healthfully with this ongoing condition, I found that its symptoms never truly subsided, but only worsened throughout twelve long years on the streets.

Being pistol-whipped, being hit on the head with guns, and watching someone set all my possessions on fire before my eyes were only isolated incidents. As such, they barely made a dent in the overall state of shock in which I lived throughout most of those years. Sleep deprivation, malnutrition, and forced overexercise were alone enough to induce serious mental health disorientation, without having to lace them with cognitive dissonance. My psyche felt as though it had been split into two. Half of me still clung to the fading memories of a former humanity — a humanity I never questioned when I was a complacent, overweight music teacher, driving a Corolla, making $50,000 a year. The other half began to believe that I was truly the piece of dog poop I was often considered to be, as people stepped over and around me whilst I slept, as though afraid to get my scent on their shoes.

homeless-man-sleeping-step-homeless-man-sleeping-step-people-walk-past-martin-place-sydney-january-nn-108120289

One look at me in those days was usually enough to convince most people that my condition was hopeless. Of course, medical treatment was difficult to access on any kind of regular basis. Once I finally escaped all that wretched homelessness, one would think I’d have needed even more medical help. After all, how can someone make a successful transition back into mainstream society when one has deteriorated so grossly?

But the facts are that even people who live indoors will go nuts when deprived of regular rest, proper nutrition, and moderate exercise. To exercise in moderation was never an option for me. Skin and bones though I was, I was forced by the details of homeless life to walk over ten miles a day on most days. If for no other reason than to get from one needed resource to another, this was my daily requirement. And there were plenty of other reasons to be denied proper rest and be forced to keep moving. None of the spots where we sat or lay down were secure. Cops would wake us up in the middle of the night, and tell us to get up and “move on.” Once we had found somewhere else to crash, who was to say that another cop wouldn’t come again and do the same thing? Homeless people like to say that they sleep with one eye open. Anything can happen at any time.

Suppose that people living indoors were placed under the same sort of psychic fire. Suppose a group of homeowners were daily reminded that they were somehow “less than” the rest of the human race. Suppose they were treated like inanimate objects while there were sleeping in their own beds at home. Suppose people were walking over them and around them all night long, making as much noise as they wanted to make, disturbing their sleep. Of course they too would develop serious issues with sleep deprivation, and serious issues with self-esteem. I daresay many of them would wind up landing on the streets as well.

On the other hand, consider how one would respond, if one had been enduring such demeaning assaults on his health and well-being for years on end, and then suddenly found themselves in a living situation that was manageable, affordable, sustainable — and dignified. Well, if you can imagine that kind of a paradigm shift, it’s exactly what happened to me.

In the first week of having found palatable residence, far away from the demeaning indignities that had characterized my previous life, I wrote to a pastor of my acquaintance. I told her: “This is the first time in twelve years that I haven’t been in a state of shock.”

If that was my experience in the very first week, can you imagine what I feel like nearly three years later? For almost three years now, I’ve been getting REM sleep on a regular basis. I’ve even been dreaming. And that’s something that never happened when I was “sleeping with one eye open.”

Not only am I sleeping better; but also, I’ve been cooking my own food, taking showers in my own bathroom, and lacing up my shoes when I want to get moving — not when I’m told to “move on.” If I walk, if I run, I am the one who determines the pathways that I will traverse. I am the one who decides how many miles I need to put in each day. Many of the things I did when I was homeless were determined by conditions beyond my control. The contrast between the empowerment of my present day world and the powerlessness of my previous life is enough alone to lay waste to the remnants of a formerly traumatized existence.

And yet, I hear people of wealth and privilege crying out like helpless victims over “trauma” that isn’t one tenth the magnitude of what homeless people deal with routinely. Recently I heard someone complaining at a 12-Step meeting that they had spent $15,000 on blinds for their mansion, and that the blinds weren’t working right. Hello? Talk about your “luxury problem!” I would guess that the blinds would be to their satisfaction – after all, they are keeping the Light from shining in their blinded eyes.

To whatever extent my PTSD worsened over all that time on the streets, to that same extent has it been increasingly alleviated, the longer I live indoors. If I need a doctor, it won’t be for that. At the age of sixty-six, many of my peers are retiring from jobs that they probably hated. They act as though they don’t know what to do with themselves. They act as though they’re headed for the grave. After twelve years on the streets where hatred ruled, my life has just begun.

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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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