When You Gotta Go . . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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What Should You Know Before Becoming Homeless?

Somebody posted this question on the site called Quora over the weekend.   I figured I might be able to answer it.  I was homeless for a long, long time.   

You should know that people will not treat you as a full human being with needs, rights, and sensibilities akin to those of the rest of the human race. You will be continually dehumanized in ways that will confuse you, anger you, and seriously affect your self-esteem and your sense of dignity. By and large, you will either be faced with severe judgment by those who assume they are innately superior to you, or with a pathetic show of feigned empathy that will come across more like condescension than true compassion. You will often be lectured by those who have never been in your shoes and have no idea what your life is actually like. These people also will never listen to you, because they assume that you have nothing to say to them that is meaningful.

no humanityYou will be kicked out of your beauty sleep by cops, security guards, property owners, business owners, and worst of all, other homeless people. You might as well divest yourself of all remnant of worldly possessions — cell phones and laptops included — because they are all going to be stolen anyway. At food services and “feeds” you will be herded around like cattle, and orders will be barked at you as though you were a criminal in a jailhouse. Your 1st and 4th Amendment rights will routinely be violated by rookie cops who wake you up in the middle of the night and immediately search your backpack for drugs. During these violations, the cops will also run your “criminal record,” since it is also assumed that you are a criminal.

They will be surprised to find out that you are not a criminal, since obviously anyone who loses their house in a foreclosure or their rental in a California Owner Move In Eviction must be a criminal. After they do find out you are not a criminal, they will callously tell you to “move on” and sleep somewhere else. When you ask them, “where else can I sleep?” they will of course provide no answer, since obviously there isn’t one. Severe sleep deprivation will eventually set in, and it is likely you will become a bit delusional in your thinking. Your confusion will constantly disguise what your true issues are. Tired of harsh judgment, tired of false sympathy, you will rack your brains out trying to figure out what is wrong with the way people approach you, and what is lacking in their attitude toward you.

Finally, you will realize that what is lacking is respect. They will not respect you; they will not treat you as an equal; they will ask you inane questions that do not pertain to your situation at all, and then will not bother to listen to your answers. You will get tired of hearing people ask you about the weather, because the weather will be the least of your worries. You will ultimately conclude that the worst thing about being homeless has nothing to do with hygiene, sleeplessness, malnutrition, weather conditions, difficulty sustaining basic needs, difficulty focusing on anything at all other than your day to day survival, or any of the other things that make homelessness miserable for most people.

The worst thing about being homeless, you will undoubtedly conclude, is the way that you are treated. Good luck.

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