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.”
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?”
Of 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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