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.

Please donate to Eden in Babylon.
A little bit goes a long, long way.

Bigger and Better than the Streets

I wrote this, like the one last Thursday, on request from Alastair Boone, the editor-in-chief of Street Spirit.  There might be a similar entry next Thursday.  

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. The only thing they didn’t do was to let me stay with them. Ironically, to have offered me housing, even temporarily, would probably have been the only thing that could have possibly helped me to get back on my feet. The depth of the gutter where the homeless are consigned to dwell is really that deep. For me, at the time, it seemed inescapable.

So I continued to live outdoors, where I found myself gathering with other homeless people at “feeds” and at places like the Multi-Agency Service Center (MASC) in Berkeley. Though I and my fellow homeless people had arrived at homelessness by a variety of different paths, we had one thing in common: we were homeless. To the social workers who tried to help us, there was no distinction between a man who had been an elementary school music teacher, and a man who had been brought up on the streets, taught by his parents to steal laptops from an early age. Graphic artist and con artist were one and the same. We were all in this boat together.

Related image

We were all homeless – and we indeed bonded together. After all, the laptop thief was my equal, no more or less endowed by the Creator with inalienable human rights like my own. But the only people who still saw me as a competent, employable human being were the ones who had known me prior to my “fall.” My fellow homeless people saw me as a homeless person — as one of them, an equal. Social workers and police officers saw me as a homeless person, though by and large they did not see me as equal, but as someone who was somehow below them in the hierarchy of human rights. My old friends and family members saw me as Andy, the guy they’d known and loved all their lives, whether homeless or not. Of course I needed their support!

But were they helping me with the one thing I needed? That is, to “get inside?” No – they were not. They had their own concerns. Meanwhile, I watched while the sordid conditions of homelessness gradually transformed me from a naive, 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. They viewed my visible poverty as an unsightly blot on society, a piece of garbage to be swept off the streets, along with the rest of my fellow eyesores. Were it not for the bonding with my fellow homeless citizens, I’d have lost all shreds of human dignity.

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 — certainly less than most of my friends who still lived indoors. 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 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. They gave me some pills and told me to rest in bed for ten days. But I had no bed! 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.

Finally, 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/mo. – something that would easily have gone for $900/mo. 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 — and 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 still wishes I had made the decision earlier. It would have spared me the last three years of psychic hell, as the pain of my homelessness was doused with street drugs, and the combination threatened to plummet me toward an untimely death. But had I made the decision earlier, I would have abandoned the bulk of my support group. How thankful I am to have lost their support all the same! For at the moment when I finally decided to leave the Bay Area for a low rent district in a distant State, I had no one left to lose – and everything to gain.

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. It doesn’t matter whether we were music teachers or laptop thieves. 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.

Please donate to Eden in Babylon.
A little bit goes a long, long way.

 

Heart Song

Some people from my church had me over for dinner earlier this evening.  It was the first time I was able to articulate my dilemma regarding the Writer’s Block in such a way that I was absolutely certain that they understood what I was talking about.   I don’t know if anybody reading this has issues with feeling misunderstood.  If you are, then you know how it feels.  It’s not love we look for.  It’s not even respect.  It’s understanding.  We love those who understand us – and we don’t feel “loved” when they don’t.

So it was a blessing to be able to discuss the matter in “real time” and get some insightful feedback other than the superfluous:

Get over it.

F–k him.

Take a Xanax.

So I came home, opened my script at random, and read these words:

WINSTON:
Perhaps an example will clarify.

#9: Monologue and Song: “Heart Song”

There was a certain charismatic figure who dwelt in the realm.
He had a charming smile,
a compelling style,
and hypnotic, dark green eyes.
His academic lectures and topical orations
received standing-room-only standing-ovations.
His musical concerts were roundly applauded,
his literary works acclaimed and belauded,
his products and services widely promoted,
his slogans and sayings repeatedly quoted,
round and round the realm.

TAURA:
That sounds like you, Winston!

ZYOWELLE:
Sssshhh!!

WINSTON:
But the more he gained in influence and clout,
the more the ruler of the realm felt threatened,
so he sent out a number of clandestine scouts,
to glean information as to what, after all,
this most mysterious figure was really and truly about.

And yet, all the while, in his secret spot of sacred seclusion,
the vibrant visionary kept valiant vigil,
and carefully crafted a culture of the future,
where no one would reign,
nor would any be ruled,
and no stigma remain,
for all would be schooled,
and taught to be equal in all the essentials –
not equal in power, or wealth, or credentials –
but equal in something far more germane;
that is to say, equal in rights.

So upon the completion of his grand design,
the famous folk figure then issued his claim,
arranging to meet with the ruler by night,
and to kindly submit without conflict or fight,
the plan for the realm that would set things aright –
but how he was shocked to encounter disaster!

For just as he ran up to greet that staunch master
Did handcuffs and clamps have him brutally bound,
And bayonets aimed at his heart bid him pause,
As the ruler declared: “How dare you defy the divine book of laws!
Down you must go to the depths of the Earth
Where you’ll learn not to doubt the full scope of my worth!”

But as our friend fell,
through all of that hell,
he still dared to gaze
at that hoarder of praise,
And left with the monarch a song to his shame,
that no measure of might could contest or defame,
for the plan he had crafted
would later be drafted,
to the glory and honor of the human name:
in a world where not one will look down on another;
in a world where we all will be sister and brother –
And destined to sing in one voice and accord
Before all who have called themselves Master or Lord –
In a resonant blast,
in a chorus resounding
beneath the most luminous, shining dark sky
On that night, when at last
freedom shall be abounding,
On that night, Man and God shall be equally high!!

The underscore brightens into accompaniment for Winston, as he now begins to sing.

Progress has been made.  I did not go into a rage this time.  I merely continue to be baffled.  Could these be the “over the top political references that get in the way of the story?”

Heart Song Monologue
from  Eden in Babylon
Copyright © 2016 by Andrew Michael Pope
All Rights Reserved