Inequity (Part Two)

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yup.”

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

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

“Oh really.  How so?”

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

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

“Ah, Michael Tilson Thomas.”

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

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

“Hey Andy, do you have any change?”

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

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

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

“You’re HOMELESS??!!” he cried out.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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Bigger and Better than the Streets

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

When I was homeless in the San Francisco Bay Area, I relied to a large degree on the moral support of lifelong friends and family who were not. For one reason or another, it was not feasible for any of them to let me stay in their homes for any substantial length of time. Still, they frequently provided me with encouragement, and on occasion sent me money. While I was often upset that nobody was “letting me in,” I nonetheless was dependent on their emotional and financial support in order to endure the ongoing conditions of homelessness.

One of the reasons why I delayed the decision to leave the Bay Area for so long was because I was attached to my support group. I felt that my old friends and family members were just about the only people who knew that I was a competent guy who had landed on the streets as the result of a costly medical misdiagnosis. They were the ones who knew that a mistreated health condition had led to a mental breakdown, as my inability to properly manage a health condition threw me into first-time homelessness at the age of 51.

They were the ones who watched in horror, as one by one I lost all my accounts, and could no longer keep up with the high cost of living on the S.F. Bay Area Peninsula. But still, they believed in me, and they did what they could to help me get back on my feet. The only thing they didn’t do was to let me stay with them. Ironically, to have offered me housing, even temporarily, would probably have been the only thing that could have possibly helped me to get back on my feet. The depth of the gutter where the homeless are consigned to dwell is really that deep. For me, at the time, it seemed inescapable.

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

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

But were they helping me with the one thing I needed? That is, to “get inside?” No – they were not. They had their own concerns. Meanwhile, I watched while the sordid conditions of homelessness gradually transformed me from a naive, overweight singing teacher to a scrawny fraction of my former self. Gradually, I got to be half-crazed from protracted sleep deprivation. Often, I became fully crazed from feeling that I was treated like a sub-human mutant, rather than an equal. Passersby sneered at me in disgust. They viewed my visible poverty as an unsightly blot on society, a piece of garbage to be swept off the streets, along with the rest of my fellow eyesores. Were it not for the bonding with my fellow homeless citizens, I’d have lost all shreds of human dignity.

In order to cope with this massive sense of ever-increasing dehumanization, I turned at first to marijuana, though I’d smoked no more than twice since the 80’s — certainly less than most of my friends who still lived indoors. Then, during the last three years of my homeless sojourn, I turned to a harder drug. I used speed to desensitize me from the cold – both the physical coldness of temperature, and the spiritual coldness of the condescending mockers in my midst. One by one, my old friends and family members, with rare exception, abandoned me. One of them recently told me: “We were all just waiting to read your obituary.”

Finally, in June of 2016, I picked up my check and walked out of the city of Berkeley without saying a word. “If the drugs won’t kill me,” I told myself, “the thugs who dispense them will.”

For a month I wandered the other side of the Bay in search of a permanent answer. But nothing seemed to work. In a shelter, I caught a flu, and was kicked out for that reason. The hospital wouldn’t let me in, because if they let me in, they’d have to let all of us in. They gave me some pills and told me to rest in bed for ten days. But I had no bed! I got kicked off of the all night bus for fear of contaminating the other homeless people, who relied on the all-night bus as a shelter.

Finally, in desperation, I got down on my knees. I told the Universe that all I wanted was “a lock on a door, a window, and a power outlet.”

Then I took action. I began googling keywords until I found a place in the Pacific Northwest that rented for only $275/mo. – something that would easily have gone for $900/mo. in the Bay Area. It was a tiny room in a converted hotel — but it would do the job. I called an old associate, someone whom I’d worked with long ago when he was a music teacher at a middle school. Hearing my story, he agreed to front me $200 for a one way Greyhound ticket to a new life. After that, I told my story to the prospective landlord, whom I called while still in San Francisco. To my amazement, he agreed to hold the place for me until I got there! Forty-eight hours later, I was sleeping in my new room — and it had a window, two power outlets, and three locks on the door. Four days after that, I signed a one year lease. Three weeks later, after years of being considered unemployable in the San Francisco Bay Area, I landed a part-time job as a piano player at a small town church.

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

Though the sheltered world does not know it, homelessness is not the same thing as alcoholism, drug addiction, or incompetence. It’s not the kind of thing where one needs to “change their ways” in order to overcome it. In order to overcome homelessness, what one needs is dignity. It doesn’t matter whether we were music teachers or laptop thieves. We are all created equal; we are all endowed by our Creator with inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We are all bigger and better than the streets.

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My Life Has Just Begun

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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