A Hand Up

The fourth column in my five-week series on homelessness was published yesterday on the religion-related site Spokane Faith and Values.  Below is a transcript of the piece.  

It was when Nadine Woodward was running for Mayor of Spokane that I first heard Tracy Simmons speak. When I heard Ms. Woodward’s campaign slogan, “a hand up, not a hand out,” I felt compelled to comment. A handout to the homeless, she claimed, has a way of “enabling them.”

“It does enable them,” I blurted out.

Suddenly, I felt as though everybody in the room was looking at me.

“I was homeless for years in the San Francisco Bay Area,” I explained. “All that a constant string of handouts did for me was to keep me homeless.

Now perhaps that sentiment is misleading. We all need to eat. Jesus fed the hungry without qualification. Does anyone say, “All Jesus did was give them a hand-out?” That’s usually not the way it’s framed.

On the other hand, for five years I watched as a plethora of self-care items was freely distributed to whoever figured out where to find them. There were socks on Mondays, a laundry room on Tuesdays, and razors on Wednesdays. There were 35 free meals a week in the city where I slept outdoors. Many people took continual advantage of these services.

In fact, it began to look as though the same people were showing up for all these events, year after year. There was a noticeable tribe in the making, whose members were a mixed bag.

First, there were those who were disabled, who showed up with caregivers–those for whom the community meal was a part of their planned itinerary. A second group was of a criminal bent, in and out of jail, and discussing their adventures openly. Still others had merely fallen upon hard times. But by and large, the bulk of those who frequented homeless services were clearly sane, competent, and able to work.

So why did they remain there?

For one thing, it isn’t easy for a person who lives outdoors to find a job. Homeless people are disadvantaged. I recall how one of my applications was rejected because I didn’t own a cell phone. Another time, I couldn’t afford the fingerprint check. There was a $35 fee, and I wasn’t able to come up with the money fast enough. It isn’t easy for a homeless person to impress a prospective employer.

Numerous obstacles stand in the way of a homeless person arriving at an interview. They may not be able to shower in time, or obtain decent clothing. They may not be able to manage the public transit to get them there. Even if they succeed at showing up on time and looking sharp, the interviewer may notice that they lost a job three years ago, and haven’t landed one since.

Their credit score may not be pristine. Worse yet, their mailing address may only be a Post Office Box. Why are they not providing their home address? Could they possibly be homeless? How can a homeless person be trusted with a responsible position? Aren’t they all lazy, and perennially unemployed?

“On to the next applicant,” the interviewer frowns.

Ironically, the fallacy that all homeless people are lazy is often what prevents them from being hired. This leads to the sixth inequity that I have wanted to discuss:

It was often thought that because we were homeless, our lives were consigned to a countless string of handouts. It was seldom considered that our lives might be changed through a single hand-up instead.

Here’s How a Hand Up Works

Consider my own experience. Over a period of twelve years, how much money do you think went into feeding me and occasionally providing me with temporary lodging? Easily, thousands upon thousands of dollars, subsidized by the taxpayers of America.

How much money went into ending twelve years of homelessness in the Bay Area?

Exactly $600.

Seriously! That’s all it took. Once I was finally ready to get inside, I found someone who believed in me enough to front me $200 for a one way ticket to a brand new life. Shortly later, that person spotted me $200 for a deposit on my first place of residence. Granted, the place was an old, run-down hotel whose rooms had been converted to “apartments.” But it was still a roof over my head–with a decent mailing address, to boot.

On July 27, 2016, I arrived in the State of Idaho. On September 1st, I signed a one-year-lease. On September 6, I interviewed for a church job. Shortly later, I was hired. This was after years of being considered “unemployable” in California — only because I lived outdoors.

Over the next few weeks, I received four $50 loans from my benefactor. The money went to necessities such as clothing, toiletries, and a photo ID. He and I stayed in touch for a while, and then, by and by, parted ways.

Would it be too much to ask the privileged people of America to walk up and down the sidewalks, talk to the people who sit there daily, get to know them, and decide for themselves who would benefit from a $600 hand-up?

To be sure, many would decline. And even those who accepted would face a rather daunting task. It isn’t easy to discern who would put the hand-up to good use. It takes time to get to know people – and homeless people are no exception. The hand-up I’ve described did not take place in a single day.

But it did take place — and it did work. The role of a single benefactor cannot be discounted. But the main factor in my success was that I left all of my homeless stigma behind.

Think About It

I am not alone. There are millions of people scattered about the streets of North American cities. People who once were your next-door neighbors — who once looked very much like you. And now, due to the pandemic, a new upsurge in homelessness is on the rise. This consists largely of people who, just over a year ago, were working and faithfully keeping up on their rents and mortgages.

How logical is it to assume that all of them are “losers” and “lazy bums?”

How compassionate is it to turn a cold shoulder? To shrug and say: “There are services for people like you!”

How realistic is it to suppose that “services” will suffice to do what must be done?

How courageous is it to wash your hands of the matter, and refuse to associate with people who don’t look like me and you?

How open-minded is it to shun the homeless on the streets, and walk past them as though they were things — and not human beings?

The Answer Begins with You

I challenge anyone who has $600 to spare — and granted, that may not be many — to walk up and down the streets of Spokane and talk to homeless people, as you would talk to any other human being.

Talk about the ball game. Talk about the concert. Talk about your relationship hassles. Get to know these human beings who are no less human than you are. Find out their interests, their passions, their fields of expertise. Find out how much you have in common with these people who are just like you.

And if you have $6000 to spare, you know what to do. I guarantee you there are a lot more than ten people on those streets who don’t need to be there. If you have $60,000 to spare, you know where to spare it.

I’m not saying it will be easy. But the solution to the homeless problem in America does not lie in programs and institutions. It lies in removing the veil of stigma from the picture of the homeless individual.

Shelters and services may play a part, but they will never work effectively until this one thing has been secured. Just as I said in my very first column, we need to strengthen our weakest link. We need to see in every homeless person the book of humanity that we have judged by its cover. And our common humanity, one to another, must be revealed.

That book of humanity is a far more informative document than you might think. And that’s what my next column will be all about.

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Homeless at the Piano

The other day I was leafing through old WordPress posts, after Ashley Peterson submitted an intriguing post around the concept of editing past material. It didn’t come as much of a surprise that many of my older posts reflected a different spirit or attitude than I have today. Therefore, outside of minor edits (spelling, grammatical, etc.), I decided not to edit my content. It would seem hypocritical of me to do so, even if I disagree today with what I wrote back then.

One thing that glared was how much black-and-white thinking there was back in those days, and how I would often hyperbolize for the sake of emphasis, in a way that could easily have belied my statements. For example, at one point I wrote something to this effect:

“Here in my new life, lots of people like to listen to me play the piano. When I was homeless, the only people who ever cared about my music were other homeless people.”

This is both black-and-white and hyperbolic. While it is true that most of the people who cared about my music were homeless, it is not true that nobody who lived indoors didn’t care to listen. Also, it’s natural that most of my listeners were homeless, simply because I myself was homeless, and I mostly hung out with homeless people.

Let me tell you a story that exemplifies this.

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We who were over 55 had the privilege of hanging out at the Senior Center, where there happened to be three pianos. In the morning, I would sign in, and head for the Baldwin upright in a distant room in the corner of the building. I did this for the sake of privacy, because I was afraid of making too much of a scene at the other two pianos, where I could more easily heard. I didn’t want somebody to tell me to stop playing, because I might have been making too much noise.

Next to the little room on the corner was a room with a number of pool tables. Early in the morning, a group of people who happened to be almost entirely African-American homeless men would congregate to play pool.

Naturally, they would hear the piano, and sometimes come into the room to listen. I remember playing the jazz break in the song Skylark, and looking up and a man was smiling, snapping his fingers. Another time, I looked up after the song, and five Black men were clapping wildly outside the door.

Of course, this was gratifying. Every musician loves an audience.

But one day, I went to the piano at eight in the morning as usual, and there was a sign on the door of the adjacent room, to the effect that it was closed for repairs. But something seemed odd. It didn’t really seem like anything needed repair, nor was anyone repairing the room.

Disgruntled, I approached the front desk and spoke with one of the administrative aides, whose name was Laura.

“Why is the pool room closed?”

“Uh – the guys were making quite a ruckus, and they kinda smelled of alcohol, and they were starting to get a little loose with our property – and you know, we had to shut it down.”

“But Laura, you guys just took my audience away!”

“What do you mean, Andy?”

“Those guys were always clapping for me, and cheering, and all that! Now I don’t have anyone listening!”

“Well Andy, why you just play the Yamaha in the auditorium near thhe main dining area?”

Puzzled, I replied: “But then you guys are all gonna hear me.”

“But Andy – we want to hear you!!”

“Oh,” I replied, feeling strangely enlightened. “Well, in that case, I guess I’ll play.”

Long story short, it wasn’t too much longer before a number of Senior Center employees were sitting in the auditorium with their smartphones and tripods, filming a concert that I performed at the North Berkeley Senior Center. In fact, I played the music to Turns Toward Dawn at that concert, though the lyrics were not written till 2018, when I was already in Moscow.

I believe I still have the videos to that concert in storage somewhere. I might fish them out at a later time. But I gotta be honest with you — when I look at the man who played that concert, he does not look like the man people look at today. I easily looked ten years older than I do now. (Why my posture was better, I have no idea.)

All vanity aside, what is your take on all this? I mean, sociologically? Psychologically? It seems a bit unusual that I would have restricted my musical offerings to other homeless people. I have my theories, but it would be interesting to hear yours.

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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?”

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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Third Column Published

The third story in my Homeless No More column has now been published on Street Spirit.  A link to the September issue — by far the best issue since Alastair Boone took over as editor-in-chief is below.   Following that is a verbatim transcript of my article as it appears in the September paper.  

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As the homelessness crisis worsens, cities all over the U.S. are desperately trying to come up with solutions. California, for example, is in a frenzy to build new homeless shelters that will fit thousands of new shelter beds. The state is so desperate to get more people inside that last month, Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg wrote an op-ed to the LA Times in which he said that “homeless people should have a legal right to shelter and an obligation to use it.”

Obligation?  To obligate homeless people to sleep in shelters would be a violation of their constitutional rights.  Where a person sleeps should be up to that individual, so long as they are not sleeping on private property without owner consent.

Now, it would definitely be a good thing to increase California’s shelter capacity.  But aside from the issue of human rights, there are many practical reasons why to force homeless people to sleep in shelters is not a good thing.  One of them is that there is no way that one shelter program will be able to fit the needs of the diverse group of individuals who make up California’s homeless community.

This seems to be a trend in how the general population thinks about “the homeless.”  Our society appears 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.” Why a lazy bum?  Couldn’t that guy just be down on his luck?

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 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 fallacious.  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 in a transitional housing facility and spent seven months there, 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 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 step backward that could have landed me back on the streets.

This is just one example of two different situations that worked for two individual people.  If each of us had not taken care of our individual needs, the shelter we found may not have lasted.  Until, as a society, we 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.”

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.

Homeless No More is a column that features the stories of people making the transition from homelessness to housing.  Andy Pope is a freelance writer who lives in the Pacific Northwest.

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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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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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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.   

Even 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 a certain stigma 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 midst, 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.

This, of course, says nothing about 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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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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Compassion and Complaint

Lately I’ve encountered some pretty disturbing questions on a certain forum where I am expected to provide intelligent answers. One such question was this:

“Why are poor people so much more compassionate than rich people?”

Another Deteriorating Bridge...Obviously, the question contains a covert statement; i.e., “Poor people are more compassionate than rich people.” How do I answer such a question? After all, there are plenty of poor people who aren’t very compassionate at all. Moreover, there are plenty of so-called rich people who have lots of compassion. So the question, as posed, is unfair.

But even more disturbing were some of the answers offered. Several people, like me, objected to the rhetorical nature of the question. But unlike me, a number of them contended that “rich people” are more compassionate than poor people. They also gave their reasons why they thought so. One such answer was as follows:

“Poor people do nothing but complain, and this lacks compassion toward those who have to hear their complaints, since nobody likes to hear people complaining all the time. Rich people hardly ever complain, so this is more compassionate.”

In examining this answer, I cannot help but recall a statement I made yesterday in this speech. I related how, when I was first becoming homeless, I didn’t seem to be able to express any of the details of my situation without coming across as though I were “complaining.” People who had never been in my shoes, and who were baffled at how a man like me could possibly have descended to such a depth, interpreted my explanations of the homeless condition as “complaints.”

But when I was hurled into Poverty Culture, and I discovered the refreshing candor with which poor people discuss their common obstacles with remarkable honesty and openness, I began to understand how such a level of untainted, clear communication could easily be construed to be a “complaint.” After all, these obstacles were of necessity negative in nature, and to delineate them in detail would necessarily constitute a negative statement. Moreover, since the “negativity” of homelessness is even more pronounced than that of sheltered poverty, these communications will bear even more of the aura of “complaint” to those who don’t wish to hear such “negativity.”

FIRST HOMELESS GUY: “Man, I really tried to get a shower before the job interview, but I waited in line at the Multi-Agency Service Center for three hours before a shower opened up. By that time, I was afraid I would miss the bus and not make it to the interview. But I really needed a shower. So I showered as quickly as I could, and shaved and put on my best clothing. Then I literally ran half a mile to the bus stop, only to find that I had missed the bus, and that there was no way I would have made it to the interview on time.”

SECOND HOMELESS GUY: “Dude, I feel for you, but you gotta get a load of what happened to me! On the night before my interview, I was sleeping at my Spot when all of a sudden, two rookie cops woke me up at one in the morning, ran my criminal record, searched my backpack for drugs, and then told me to move on, after they found out I didn’t have any drugs in my backpack and didn’t have a criminal record. It rattled me just enough that I couldn’t get to sleep. I got showered and got to the bus stop on time, but I fell asleep on the bus, missed the stop, and missed my interview!

RICH GUY: “Would you both just quit whining? You spend all your time complaining, it’s no wonder you never can find a job. I bet both of you wouldn’t have even been able to keep a smile on your face throughout a 45-minute interview.”

Here, to me, the schism is obvious. The “rich guy” interprets the empathy with which the two “homeless guys” identify with each other as “complaints.” But to the homeless men, that conversation is simply a communication — not a complaint. They are relating to each other on the basis of their common ground, and such a conversation actually affirms their common dignity.

FIRST HOMELESS GUY: What do you mean, “smile?” Are you trying to tell me for one minute that the phony plastic smile you have on your face is genuine? Sure, I can put on a smile at a job interview or on a job. That’s what we call a work façade. But you’re smiling even as you rip us to shreds, and that’s nothing more than hypocrisy.

SECOND HOMELESS GUY: That’s right, Rich Guy. I bet you’re not even a happy person. If you were happy, you wouldn’t feel the need to put us down, when you’ve got everything you’ve ever needed in this life, and we’re busting our guts every day struggling to survive.”

RICH GUY: See what I mean? Both of you have a lousy attitude. It shows in all this negativity you keep throwing at me. Neither of you will ever be able to hold up and roll with the punches day after day in the workplace.

Here we have another schism. The well-meaning smile of the ignorant “rich guy” is being interpreted as hypocrisy by the homeless guys. Add that to the fact that their mutual affirmation of common dignity is being interpreted as “complaining,” and what does this tell us?  How about this:

And besides all this,
between us and you a great chasm has been set in place,
so that those who want to go from here to you cannot,
nor can anyone cross over from there to us.
– Luke 16:26

While the above Scripture pertains specifically to the “chasm” set in place between the heaven and hell, one does not have to delve very much further into the substance of the 16th Chapter of the Gospel According to Luke, before one realizes that it is the rich man who is in hell, and the poor man in heaven.

This is yet another instance of what I said in yesterday’s speech, and what I say continuously to all who would undertake an objective study of the Holy Bible. Despite the Prosperity Gospel and the modern-day deception that equates material gain with spiritual fulfillment, the Bible in general does not hurl warnings at the poor. It hurls warnings at the rich — all throughout the Book.

And as far as that smile we’re supposed to plaster on our plastic faces every morning before we sign our lives away to the daily grind, are there any particular references in the Bible to Jesus having smiled? None whatsoever. But there’s a reference to what Jesus did, rather than smile:

Jesus wept.

And that’s the 35th verse in the 11th chapter of John, in case anyone wants to look it up and actually read the Book (hint hint).

I get tired of smiling myself. Lately I’ve been looking at my picture here, and all I can think of is “Wipe that smile of your face, you phony hypocrite! This message is serious business, and you look like you’re trying to sell me a used car.”

I’ll change the picture. I’ll change it — because this is serious business. The chasm between heaven and hell might be a gulf we will never be able to bridge. But we need to bridge the Class Gap in America — and soon. If we don’t, we might just lose our country.

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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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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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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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On Disorganization

Disorganization has been my mortal enemy lately.   So much so, that I often feel that if it weren’t for disorganization, I’d probably be able to get my musical produced.   Although we all have a tendency to be set back by forces beyond our control, it seems to me that disorganization is something that I can control.  It therefore leads me naturally to wonder why it is that I have become so disorganized.  I used to be one of the most organized people on the planet.

I used to be so punctual that people practically set their clocks according to the time that I was going to show up.  Once, back in around 2003 or so, my client told me they had almost called the cops out of concern for me — only because I was ten minutes late.  It was unlikely that I would have shown up later than a minute before the prescribed time.

I used to run my morning ritual like clockwork.   There were about five or ten actions that I performed religiously every single morning, in the same order every morning, without pausing.  Nowadays, the occasion of getting out the door in the morning is almost nothing but one giant pause.

“Where’s my shoes?”   
“What happened to my headphones?”   
“I could have sworn I had one last coffee filter!”

So how exactly did I become so scattered?   The answer could be given in less than four words – but here are the first four that come to mind:

TWELVE YEARS OF HOMELESSNESS!

homelessoffice
“Homeless Office”

When I was homeless, I had no problem finding my shoes because I slept in them.  Why, you may ask, did I sleep in them?   For at least two reasons.   First, at any time of the day or night, anybody could come out of anywhere and interrupt my sleep, sometimes with knife in hand.  I needed to be able to get up and run as fast as I could, as far as I could, calm my nerves, and find another place to sleep.

Secondly, if I took off my shoes and set them at my side, there would be a strong chance they wouldn’t be there in the morning.  They just might be the right size for another homeless guy whose shoes had been stolen as well.  Even if they weren’t the right size, they would still go for at least five bucks at the pawn shop.   And five bucks when you’re homeless and out in a thunderstorm can save a homeless person’s life.  That person can get on a warm bus and sleep all night, rather than die of hypothermia in the elements.

Headphones?   Do you think I would dare own a pair of headphones under such conditions?  Well yes, I often so dared, and I would have to buy a new pair before I knew it.   Why bother?   A pair of headphones equals a twenty dollar bag of dope in that realm, and I might even risk bodily harm if I tried to defend myself.

(The absurdity of there being any role for coffee filters in such a realm is too absurd to warrant an explanation.)

But the bright side of all this is a fact that not many people would even guess, had they not themselves been homeless over an extended period of time.   For that same homeless person who stole your twenty-five dollar SONY headphones will later drop a twenty dollar bill in your cup without saying a word.

Barring the sociopathic and criminal element — which does indeed exist but is far from the norm —  the homeless person doesn’t steal because he is a thief by nature.  He steals out of desperation, and feels pretty bad about it.   Even a young man who stole an entire laptop from me felt so bad about it, he ingratiated me with various gifts for two years, until I finally told him we were even.

So it’s not too much of a surprise I’m having a bit of difficulty getting organized, considering the level of “organization” I was dealing with for the better part of twelve years.  I’ve only lived indoors again for about a year and a half now, and old habits — or the lack thereof — die hard.

And if you want to find out what homelessness is really like, find out from someone who has been there.  Not for a week, or a month, or a season.   From someone who has been homeless for nearly half of his adult life — and who amazed everyone he knew by pulling out of it.

Find out from Eden in Babylon.   Please support this timely project, and please be “punctual” — while there still is time.

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Closet of Shame

This one was written at around the same time as my Homeless Tinge.  I had been living indoors here in Idaho for about four months, successfully managing a job and an studio apartment for the first time in over twelve years.  But I remember being annoyed with the friend of mine who had helped me with the one-way.  He kept advising me to completely hide the fact that I had ever been homeless.  I understood that he was only trying to help, but it just didn’t sit well with my integrity.

I need to make the decision whether  to “come out” concerning my recently heavily hidden homeless experience, or whether to continue to hide it. I have not told one person in Moscow that I was homeless, except for the therapist whom I saw for exactly two visits, and then left once I realized he wasn’t listening to my issues, and was actively in the process of beginning to address issues I did not have. I left somewhat regretting that I’d mentioned the homelessness to this particular individual, not that I didn’t like him personally (because I did) but because after I decided to leave the counseling, it seemed that my release of the information was entirely unnecessary.

woman-closetSome time ago, an intuition told me to wait six months before “coming out.” I’ve only been here four and a half months. It just dawned on me, however, that I’ll have six months of “sobriety” at six o’clock tomorrow morning. Could the “intuition” have referred to that six months? Maybe so. But if so, it makes me feel rushed. I feel like a “closet homeless person.” One might say that I am no longer homeless. But that’s not exactly true. I’m still homeless in my heart, by a certain very profound definition of the word that often escapes public attention. I may not be homeless in my current behavioral patterns; i.e.,using a key to unlock a door to a place I can roughly call “home;” using a forever-open window to obtain fresh air rather than an outdoor dwelling spot to obtain the same, and so forth. But all that means is that I am not currently practicing my homelessness. So what is the sense in which I am still homeless?

I am still “homeless” because I do not relate my current place of residence to permanence. The only permanent residence to which I relate is the Kingdom of God. My home is in heaven; I am a stranger and a pilgrim on the earth; I knew I was a stranger to the earth long before I became a Christian or could even contemplate identifying as a pilgrim. But then, in another sense, I am not homeless at all, because I have an eternal home in Christ. That’s huge. Still, I am homeless in a worldly sense, impermanent in the big picture, but permanent as far as life in this world, on this earth, is concerned. Whether anyone around me is aware of it, I think, speak, and act like more like your typical homeless person than I do like a person who holds his home to be a specific dwelling place on the earth, in the world.

It may seem I’m mincing words. But there is an enormity here that needs to be taken into consideration. Whatever the strength or weakness of my explanation, my identification as “homeless” makes me feel as though I am in the “closet” and hiding something essential about my nature to the people around me. I am not merely hiding my history of past homeless experience. I am actually hiding who I am.

This is spiritually dangerous. For one thing, it will inevitably impair my personal and social relationships here in Moscow. People will sense that I am hiding something – only they don’t know what it is. So they begin to speculate among themselves, as people will do. This may already be happening. How many times have I been talking with Norman, Kathy, or Mary – the three people at my church with whom I have been making a concerted effort to make friends – and all of a sudden there is a huge pause in my speaking? It’s as though I’ve run up against a brick wall. I’m not a person who hides his feelings very easily. People tell me that I am “transparent” or even that I wear them on my shirtsleeve. So I sense that these people receive my feeling very clearly – and yet the words have mysteriously ceased to emerge from my mouth – sometimes even in mid-sentence. “What is he hiding?” I can hear them thinking.

We know what he is hiding. So the more pertinent question is: Why is he hiding?”

Originally, I concealed my homelessness for much the same reason I would have concealed my experience with chemical dependency pertaining to an unpopular substance. I didn’t want not to be considered for a lease on an apartment; I didn’t want not to be considered for a part-time church job. I also didn’t want to be somehow funneled into some pointless program, facility, agency, or institution – although the more I remain in Moscow, the more I realize that this is unlikely. Outside of the obvious issue of personal sovereignty; that is to say, nobody can force me into one of those programs or institutions, unless I were legally mandated into one of them by Court order; there are two other Moscow-related factors that make the suggestion unlikely. For one thing, I can’t help but notice that people in Moscow are disinclined to put other people into “boxes” – far less inclined than people in, say, Berkeley, or the San Francisco Bay Area in general. This may or may not be a “California” thing; but it definitely hasn’t happened in Idaho as I have thus far experienced Idaho through Moscow. If a person is “headed down,” people here are much more likely to attribute it to the economy than they are to personal factors, such as drug addiction, alcoholism, poor mental health, or laziness. Needless to say, this is refreshing.

For another thing, there simply aren’t any programs, agencies, or institutions in the area. The only facility I’ve noticed is the Police Department, which I suppose contains a city jail. But how likely is it, given what I just said, that somebody is going to criminalize me on the basis of this revelation, should I choose to “come out” and reveal my true identity? Not likely – especially considering that I am not “practicing” my homelessness at this time. So basically the only remaining reason why I wouldn’t come out of the closet – is stigma. I have experienced so much stigma that spoils the identity of the true homeless person, and therefore diminishes reception toward his truth, that I basically am reluctant even to deal with it. Much as it is difficult for me to hide anything about myself at all, it is still in a way easier to overlook this issue, rather than risk opening up a Pandora’s box that could lead practically anywhere.

Now, to the moment  — and to the reason why this has come up at this time.

A buddy of mine, a retired middle school music teacher, spotted me $600 in three separate installments in order for me to get established here. He paid my security deposit (though not my last month’s rent), paid for my one-way bus ticket, and shelled out an additional $200 during the first couple months of my stay here. He’s a person who gives unsolicited advice by nature (many people in the teaching profession have this quirk), and he gave me a lot of advice that I soaked in for two reasons: (1) it made logical sense, at least at the start; and (2) I was kissing his ass in case I could get more money out of him. Now (2) is entirely against my integrity, but it actually took me until very recently – as in the past two days – to realize that this is what I was doing. The way that I realized it was as follows.

Usually, when he would send me am email of unsolicited advice, I would do one of two things:

(1) I would recognize that the advice pertained pretty well to my situation, thank him for the advice, and proceed to follow it immediately (with or without checking first with the Lord on the matter, or with any other person from whom I stood no real chance of receiving further money).

(2) I would notice that it did not pertain to my situation, be mildly irked, and send out some polite, half-truthful response that kept me on the up-and-up with the Rich Man.

But the Poor Boy could only suppress his true nature so far, and he would finally wind up exploding – as he did on Thursday night. The explosion would contain my truth, as opposed to all the previous bullshit; but since it was an explosion, the explosion itself would immediately become the issue, rather than any truthful content that the explosion would contain. So why was my truth coming out in an explosion, rather than bit by bit along the path? Obviously, because I had been bullshitting him, whether I knew it or not.

Why was I bullshitting him? Partly out of guilt because I figure I owed him (even though he wrote off the debt.) But largely, I was bullshitting him in order to please him, to live by his standards, and not mine.  I did this in the hope that further money would be kicked my way, further down the road. This is what’s known as hypocrisy. So I refused to do it anymore. The easiest way to do so, though perhaps not the best way, is to have announced that while I have appreciated his help, he and I are two essentially different people; and I would not be engaging in the email exchange any further, nor do I wish him to be anything but relieved of all sense of obligation toward assisting me with my personal struggle. That does sound like integrity, though a deeper integrity would have been to persist in the email exchange anyway and just keep arguing with him as long as he was down for it, with or without the ulterior motive of desiring money to be kicked toward the Poor Boy from the Rich Man. (Note the ironic hierarchical twist in my phraseology. One is a Man if one has money and a Boy if he does not.)

I have respectfully bowed out of the email aspect of my longstanding friendship with this man.  I have insisted that he not help me financially in any way any further. This doesn’t mean I might not call him further down the road, or write a letter, or something along those lines. But this daily contact through email, defining an active friendship with a large degree of dysfunction, has been terminated. I’m fine with that. What’s interesting, however, is what has transpired in the two days since I’ve ceased to try to live by his standards, but rather by my own integrity and the timeless biblical foundation in which it is founded.

truthWhat happened is that less than two days later, I spontaneously wrote the first inspired piece pertaining to the homeless experience that I have written since coming to Moscow, with the half-exception of Scene One of the new version of Eden in Babylon. When I wrote “Homeless Tinge,” I thought: “My God! It’s all coming back to me!” As removed as I have been from my homeless identity, that identity was thrust to the forefront as soon as I realized I’d been kissing up to a person who has consistently disavowed any integrity in my embrace of said identity. As soon as I ceased trying to adopt the uninformed values of someone who has no identification with the homeless experience whatsoever, my own homeless identification was reawakened. Then, my friend Jamie wanted to post a couple paragraphs of that piece on her Facebook, “with or without attribution,” which catalyzed the present dialectic. For one thing, it confirmed for me that the writing was strong and that the message is needed. When my voice was subjugated under my wealthy friend’s domination of my personal sovereignty, I’d neglected the message entirely.

This explains my depression. It explains the emptiness I would often feel coming back from Choir rehearsal, feeling that something was definitely wrong, that my chi was clogged, that the life flow had been stunted, that I had been oppressed by arbitrary hierarchical domination based on classist values that I myself abhor. None of that stuff pertains anymore. Now that I have been granted this bill of divorcement, my true vision has once again surfaced. God bless the man; he fulfilled a purpose in God’s scheme, but that doesn’t mean that I owe him any kind of allegiance, to do his bidding thereafter.  I only him love, the same love I owe to all – great or small, rich or poor, close or far.  That I would feel obliged to “kiss up” to him is to my failing and my hurt.  But if I shed that false notion, than I am immediately washed with a balm of painless success.  The man did no wrong; I did wrong by him; I need do no more wrong, to him or another.  My sins are forgiven: I need only sin no more.

But the question remains as to how far I should come out. Do I come out slowly? Leak it out? Talk to Norman first? Or limit this divulgence to the three friends I’ve made at the church? And maybe to Paul and his wife, decent hard-working musicians whom I would be much inclined to trust? Or will that mean it will get around? Do I limit it to my writing only? And to unpublished writing? Basically, I don’t want Jamie to post my decent writing on a needed message without acknowledging its source – that would be extremely self-defeating for me as a Writer, being as anyone who’s read any of my writing at all will tell you that my writing on Homelessness is my strongest work.

I do not have the answer yet, except to express to Jamie that I don’t want the two paragraphs to be quoted without attribution. It’s either with attribution or not at all. But if there’s attribution, then how am I to be identified or contacted? My current public blog, though it deals implicitly with these issues, goes out of its way to conceal the homeless identity every bit as much as did the many compromising conversations that were used to maintain the dysfunctional status quo with my music teacher friend, and the conversations containing the awkward moments that I’ve had with those whom I have attempted to befriend. So if she puts my name there and people wonder “who is Andy Pope?” naturally as a Writer I would want there to be a link to my web site. But my web site suffers in the same manner as do the conversations in my budding friendships. I am telling the truth, but not the whole truth as pertains to the matter at hand. And it shows. And – it hurts.

What is the temptation? Am I tempted toward vainglory? Or, on the other hand, toward cowardice? If I come out, will I give God the glory? Ha – the point is moot. How can I not give him the glory? The risk involve is large enough, and the trial huge enough, that I will need to turn to Him. So turn to Him I will, and turn to Him I do, for in Him may I trust.

A Scripture has been running through my head all day. It says: “redeeming the time, for the days are evil.” Why is that coming up? What does it mean to “redeem the time?” Well, for one thing, it means not to waste time. Yeah – that’s what I’ve been doing – I’ve been wasting time – I could postpone this calling forever – but I mustn’t. So when do I come out? That’s the question – not how far. If I’m going to come out, I’m coming out all the way — none of this half-assed malarkey. But what does all the way mean? Shout it from the house tops? Stand up on top of the fountain at Friendship Square and say: “People of Moscow! I have an announcement to make!” (?) God forbid.

No that’s not where it is – but it’s somewhere. There’s something gnawing at me – hence I have sped the pace of this dialectic. What it is – is this.

When I have gotten depressed, and I’ve felt empty inside, as though spiritually dry, or even spiritually dead, I have almost invariably thought in my heart: “I need to be homeless again. I cannot be a member of the Mainstream of Modern American Life. It no longer works for me.” The wish to find my niche, my home so to speak, is valid; in fact, eternally so, for I am not a part of this world. This is something I’ve sensed internally, as I said, long prior to my deciding to identify as a Christian. But to seek to find my home in Homelessness; that is to say, in the practice of homelessness, is a misdirected application of this wish. My home is in heaven with Christ whether I live indoors or outdoors. So if I am experiencing separation from God in any sense by living indoors, it is not going to be solved by living outdoors. It is to be solved by getting my heart right with God.

In conclusion, my homelessness is not just a past experience, but an actual identity to be embraced.   Whether I live inside our outside, all I really need to do is validate that for myself, within myself, between me and my God. The rest will follow suit.

Given that conclusion, I already have repented. All that “repentance” really means is to change one’s mind. I have changed my mind. Have I changed my mind about living indoors? Not at all. Have I changed my mind about denying my homeless identity? Yes, I have. The only remaining question is when, where, how, and to whom is this information to be divulged. And the only answer I can come up with is that, since obviously it cannot be completely divulged all at once, I have to begin, bit by bit, step by step, to own my identity in some arena other than the Closet of Shame.

Andy Pope
Moscow, Idaho
6:10 p.m. – 2016-12-10

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