Classism, Stigma, and Addiction

Statistics often point to the large percentage of homeless people who are drug addicts.  Recently, I read the figure “26%” in such a context.  That would mean that about one out of every four homeless people is a drug addict.

I don’t doubt that this statistic might be true.  But do you ever hear anybody asking what percentage of upper middle class and wealthy people are drug addicts?   Of course not.  Why would anybody even bother trying to find out?  

This is sheer classism.   I have associated with lots of hard-working people whom I would consider to be “industrious rich,” and you wouldn’t believe the level of legally sanctioned drug dependency that runs rampant in their circles.  Addictive medications such adderol and ritalin, ostensibly prescribed for “Adult ADHD,” are essentially used as high-power wake-up drugs.  It is also not uncommon to see klonopin and ativan used as tranquilizers or as “come down drugs” to ensure sleep after a long hard day.  Pills are routinely popped, often publicly, in an overt effort to manage the stress of an insanely fast-paced life.   

When I was an itinerant music teacher in cities like Burlingame, Foster City, and Menlo Park, almost every person I worked with openly proclaimed that they were using psychiatric drugs.   In fact, they would refer to their psychiatrists as “dope dealers” in a colloquial way.   Often, the doctor had no knowledge whatsoever of their issues.  His or her only role was to dish out drugs.   Less talked about, but just as prevalent, was the usage of marijuana.  I certainly found no fewer “stoners” among the upper middle class than I did among those who struggled to keep their sanity on the streets.

rich cocaine addictsThis says nothing about the “idle rich” — people who are rich by inheritance and may never have done a lick of work in their lives.   They have so much time on their hands, and so much money, that many of them become addicted to heroin and cocaine — and they buy top grade.

The idea that there are more drug addicts among people who have lost their homes than there are among people who live in big huge mansions is simply a lie.  There are plenty of practicing drug addicts among those with privilege.  It’s just that they’re so rich, they’re not at risk of losing their homes over it, unlike the other 99%.  The only difference between the homeless drug addict and the wealthy one, is that one has lost his privilege.  The other one never will, no matter what he does.

And here’s another thing that bugs me.  If a homeless person is on drugs, it is often assumed that his drug problem caused his homelessness.    This is another lie.  Why cannot people understand that in many cases, the homelessness came first, and the drugs further on down the road?

This is sheer stigma.  Sure, if a person is working poor or lower middle class, and that person develops a drug problem, they are likely to lose everything and land on the streets.   But the overall conditions of homelessness could easily drive a person to drugs who had previously been living a completely sober life.

I know a certain fellow who became homeless pretty darned fast due to a first-time manic episode.  Suddenly, this man was thrust from an insular world of parents, principals, teachers, and elementary school students into a world where all kinds of drug dealers were roaming the streets.  Here is a typical conversation that he would have with a drug dealer:

“Hey!  You good?”

“What do you mean, am I good?”

“You good!   Do you need anything?”

“Need any what?”

“Never mind.”

Four years down the road of homelessness, the conversation looks a little different:

“Darn, it’s cold, and I don’t even have a blanket.”

“Go up to People’s Park and steal one.”

“I don’t want to be a thief.”

“You’re gonna freeze your buns off.”

“Yeah, I know, it’s scary.”

“Well, I got something that will keep you warm all night.”

“Yeah?  What’s that?”

“This.”

And if anybody were to question that there are proportionately as many drug addicts among the 1% as there are among the 99%, I doubt I would even dignify such a question with an answer.  

There is nothing about having a lot of money that makes a person superior to one who does not.  Rich or poor, the Lord God made them all.  But try telling that to some of the more sheltered of the wealthy.   Half of those guys are so out of touch, they don’t even know the meaning of the word “rich.”

I know one thing for sure, though.  Once they learn the meaning of the word “respect,” we’re all going to be a lot better off.

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My Secret Place

I promised Terry Messman, the editor of Street Spirit, I would post three homeless-related pieces on this blog before Friday, just in case he sees fit to publish one or more of them.   The first is my post An Incredibly Empty Place.   This is the second: something I came up in Berkeley during the summer of 2014.  I hope you like it.

My Secret Place

I used to feel really hassled when people would suggest various living situations for me.  I usually cringed, as though such environments were completely out of the question — but I didn’t have the guts to explain why.  Lately, however, there has been a turn for the better.  When I simply state my truth, I find that more often than not, it is accepted.  You cannot believe how good it feels to turn to these people and say: “I prefer sleeping outdoors.” 

Less and less do I hear them reply: “You’re crazy!”  Now maybe this is because I am speaking my truth to people who already know me somewhat — enough to know I’m not exactly bat crazy mad.  Naturally, if somebody suspects that there’s still something rationally ticking between my ears, despite the past ten years of near total sleep deprivation, they’re more likely to respect my position.   Still, the feeling of finally being able to stand up to somebody who insists I ought to be shooting for a slot in someplace like a long-term psychiatric facility is, in a word, liberating.

When I try to think of living situations that have worked for me better than my current one, the only thing I can think of is when I have had my own lockable space with plenty of ventilation and sufficient electrical power.  Even then, if enough of the “wrong people” find out where I live, I will default to sleeping outdoors. Moreover, in any other situation, such as living with roommates, sharing a house or an apartment — or worse yet, living in a homeless shelter, board-and-care, halfway house, or anywhere else that has the ring of “institution” about it — I will eventually default to Homelessness again.  Note the use of the word “default.”   Over the years, I’ve become more comfortable sleeping alone outdoors, despite the alleged risks, than sleeping indoors and having to deal with there being other people too close to my personal living space.

I recently lasted six days in a “sober living environment,” sharing an attic with three other guys.  One of the guys was a crack head who kept the other three of us awake all night, babbling incessantly about nothing.  One of the other two men was constantly threatening the crack head to bodily harm.   The third man snored at unbelievably high volume.  Add to this the factor that my “overhead” in the attic was literally about two feet shorter than I am, six days was about all I could take.  I’ll settle for an empty church stairwell any day, thank you.

Shortly after that, I survived four days at the Men’s Shelter.  Just didn’t care for the conversation topics, didn’t like the assumption that I must have just gotten out of State Prison or at least be interested in collaborating on some criminal heist of some sort. Not that I’ve never broken a law – I do so every day.  But that doesn’t mean that I identify with the criminal mind-set — and I’ll tell you why.

Smoking marijuana ought not to be a crime. But unfortunately, it can lead one to the company of those who commit other crimes if one is not careful. Further reason why marijuana should be legalized, immediately and totally decriminalized, and why personal drug-related issues should be treated as mental health or medical issues, not as criminal issues. Somebody must be making a lot of money filling up our jails with decent people who got popped for some piddly little pot deal. Disgusting, if you ask me.

So – knock on wood — but in my current living space, I sleep well just about every night, nobody ever hassles me, nobody approaches me, nobody wakes me up in the middle of the night to ask for a cigarette lighter — basically nobody knows I’m there. No one knows where I sleep – therefore my privacy is assured. If even one person finds out – word will get around, and I’m screwed.

Screwed — until I find another secret place. Which soon I will.  I always do.  And isn’t that a good thing?   Look at what the Psalmist says: “He who dwells in the secret place of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.”  Psalm 91:1.  Doesn’t that say it all, right there?  Where would you rather “dwell?”  In the secret place of the Most High, resting in the shadow of the Almighty?  Or in a four foot high attic with a crack head?

Granted, it’s pretty weird that this is what a person will do in order to achieve privacy. But it is exactly what I have done.  And – it is okay that I have done so. It ‘s my choice.  All I need to do is cast aside the social stigma, and make the most of it. Nothing’s perfect in this world anyway.  We all have our different sensibilities.  The best we can do is to honor the choices of ourselves and others, and to try to get along.

Besides, getting a lot of fresh air is good for you. They say that fresh air contains “negative ions,” which are oxygen atoms charged with an extra electron.   They clear the air of dust and pollen, and significantly decrease airborne viruses and bacteria.   Barring other factors, people who sleep outdoors are less likely to have respiratory issues, colds and flus, and even asthma.  Seriously!   The more you can soak in the negative ions, and the less you have to soak in the negative people, the healthier and happier you will be.

Andy Pope
Berkeley, California
June 6, 2014

secluded

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Homeless Tinge

I wrote this piece somewhat spontaneously last year, when the novelty of living indoors still amazed me.  Somebody recently suggested I submit it to three San Francisco Bay Area periodicals that deal with such themes.  I just received the address of the publisher of one such periodical from an East Bay minister and activist whom I hope will let me use her name.  So I’m in the process of submitting it, there and elsewhere.  Let me know what you think.

Homeless Tinge

I’m sure you guys are going to think I’m just the junkie from hell, but after not being able to sleep the entire night, I finally reached down into the drawer and tugged the last possible two hits off of a roach that had been sitting in the ashtray for God knows how long. I had a makeshift clip on it made out of cardboard, and I would venture to guess I smoked more cardboard than paper and weed combined. But I did sense the weed, at least in the first hit, so we’ll see if anything happens, and if I can get to sleep after this.

When I got a wiff of the weed, I suddenly had a flash glimpse of it being just about this time in Berkeley on a Saturday morning. I would have packed up my bedroll and stashed it neatly at the illegal spot where I slept every night on U.C. campus, then walked down Oxford Way till I got to University, turned right on University downhill toward the Marina, checked by Ace Hardware to see if Hunter and Tweaker John were awake yet, and if so, headed down with Hunter toward McDonald’s, where he & I would have gotten stoned in the entrance way to the bike shop next door. Maybe Bertha would have been with us, maybe someone else. But we would have gotten stoned before going inside for a Senior Cup, and if we were flushed, a Big Breakfast.

Hunter always had this weed he called the “bombarooski” in that weird language he was always speaking – the language in which I was “Poparooni” and sometimes even “Pepperoni.” He would have laid his whole street philosophy on me, about how each and every one of us had a role to fulfill in the Berkeley street community, all of it centered around a kind of crazy micro-economics, where everything mattered down to the very penny, and it was all about buy and sell. He’d hop on his bike after that and begin his “hustle,” while I would go sit at my Spot out in front of the Mini-Target, and stare like a puppy dog into the eyes of all passing female citizens until one of them took enough pity on me to put some change in my cup, or maybe a sandwich.

Life was somehow easier then, and yet much, much harder. It was easier in that I was my own boss and I didn’t have to answer to anybody. It was harder in that everybody else was their own boss, too, and we didn’t all play by the same rules. I would cringe whenever Andrew the thug came walking down the sidewalk, even though I must admit he was always nice to me, three years worth of nice to me after hitting me on the head with that there gun that time.

It’s almost uncanny how opposite of a world it is that I live in today. I brought almost nothing I did in Berkeley with me to do here in Moscow. And I’m doing things in Moscow I never got to do in Berkeley. I hang around professors and people whose first thought is that I must myself be a professor. I’m even considering applying for an adjunct professor position in the Creative Writing division of the English department – a full-time $48,000 gig. I’m balking, but why? They said to submit a twenty-page sample. I almost want to submit twenty-pages out of Part Four of Anthology for Anathema, just to see if it would work in my advantage to admit that I was homeless not six months ago, and yet here I show up smelling like a rose.

I guess what it is is, I’m not ready for a full-time job yet. I’d actually be afraid that they would hire me. What’s eerie, though, is that it’s the only job listed right now that I could actually walk to, and I still don’t have a car.

Life is incredibly different than it was down in B-Town by the Bay. You don’t see any panhandlers in Moscow, you don’t hear anybody on the hustle asking you for spare change or a cigarette. I remember the first time Seneca reached out her hand behind the counter at the One World Cafe and said, “What’s your name, by the way?” I had to duck into the bathroom to cry. I had only been in Moscow two or three weeks, and I could not believe that a barista in a cafe would actually care what my name was. It was too good to be true that I was actually not being viewed as a worthless piece of shit everywhere I went.

What people don’t seem to know about homelessness unless they’ve actually put in some really serious homeless time themselves is that the worst thing about being homeless is not having to endure the elements, or the lack of indoor conveniences like a space heater, shower, sink, or (of course) bed in which to sleep, or the lack of ready access to food or other basic needs, or difficulty maintaining personal hygeine, or any of that stuff. The worst thing about being homeless is the way that you are treated.

Homeless people in general don’t want pity or even compassion half the time. It seems like half the people pity homeless people and the other half pass judgment. All we really wanted down there, any of us, was to be treated with normal human respect and dignity, and treated as equals, not as inferiors. We wanted to be listened to, we wanted our voices heard. But people in general wouldn’t listen to us. They sure talked to us, and after a while we had heard it all.

Communication is a two way street. People in this country, especially in the upper classes, need to start listening to what poor people, disabled people, and homeless people have to say. They need to realize that these people are human, that they have valuable life experience, and that their experience is worth listening to, and learning about, and understanding.

When that happens, there will really be change in this country. We’ll start building bridges again, instead of burning them. With email and voice mail and social media abounding, with deletes and ignores and blocks aplenty, it has never been easier to burn a bridge in the history of this nation. And what has that done but caused the national morale to reach an all-time low? We need at some point to realize that to “make America great again,” we need to start talking to each other, hearing each other out, making an effort to understand each other’s perspectives before we just ditch them like they’re all a bunch of losers.

Homeless people, believe me, are anything but losers. Quite the opposite is the case. Homeless people are the winners. They’re winning life, day by day, against all odds. What do we win by treating them as sub-human creatures? Not a thing. What would we gain by hearing them out? Or even by sharing in their experience?

We might just gain our country back.

Andy Pope
Moscow, Idaho
6:45 a.m. – 2016-12-10

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