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Berkeley Christianity Homelessness social statement social stigma

Inequity (Part Five)

Of the five “inequities” that I have chosen to discuss in an effort to illuminate how the world appears from the eyes of those who have been chronically homeless in large urban areas, this one will probably be the most controversial.   There is a huge disparity among all those who dwell on this subject as to how the homeless person can actually be helped.  

When I made the decision to join an intentional homeless community on April 15, 2011, I was thrown into a group of people who were predominantly White, mostly male, and mostly people who had worked all their lives until some costly crisis landed them on the streets.  Most of my fellow White male homeless people were lifelong conservatives, and it was bizarrely expected that all of them were supposed to change their lifelong political ideologies, and become “liberals,” only because they had fallen on hard times.

Why?  Because in the failed social experiment that is the City of Berkeley, the pseudo-socialist leaders of the churches that were feeding us believed that, because we had become homeless, our life-philosophies must have failed us, and they were eager to teach us another way.  The idea that anybody in the San Francisco Bay Area could have become homeless due to socio-economic factors entirely beyond their control — viz, a one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco might rent for upwards of $3000/mo — was never brought into consideration.   So we, who comprised approximately 35% of the then one thousand visible homeless people in Berkeley, were lumped into the same group as practicing thieves, hustlers, and hardened criminals on the one hand, and completely developmentally disabled (or at least chronically unemployable) individuals on the other.

In the process, we found ourselves continually demeaned and dehumanized by social workers whose politics invariably leaned to the Left.  My lifelong identity meant nothing to these people, and the none-too-subtle message that I would be homeless for the rest of my days — and rightly so — was hammered into me day in and day out, until I found myself beginning to believe it.

Those who leaned to the Right were another story.  I usually did not feel dehumanized per se, but I often felt stereotyped and stigmatized.  An example would be in Salvation Army workers trying to “save” me or convert me to Christianity, when the truth was that I was already a Christian who was clinging to Jesus more than ever during an uneasy, unsettling time of life.

My first experience at a homeless “feed” was that I and others were treated with complete indignity.  It was assumed that we were either criminally minded, completely mentally handicapped, or both.  Security guards barked orders at us and herded us around like cattle.  All this to get a bite to eat?   No, thanks!

Somebody I met throughout this process told me I ought to try “flying a sign.”  I had no idea what the expression meant at the time, but he showed me that all I had to do was sit silently on the sidewalk with a piece of cardboard and an explanatory statement, and I would probably get cash and food within a three or four hour shift.  (I’m glad he included the word “silently,” because I tried using the words “can you spare some change?” once and only once.  The judgmental shaking of the head and scornful reply, “Not for you, buddy!” was enough to convince me that verbal begging was not for me.)

But in displaying my sign in silence, making eye contact with passersby, I found that I averaged about $17/day working three hours daily at my “spot,” and often got a sandwich or two as well.   I usually sat there between about 9 am and noon.   After that, I felt free to vacate the homeless pandemonium, get on a BART train, and find a place where I could chill out, plug in my laptop (if it hadn’t gotten stolen) and gather my bearings for the next morning on the streets.

Those with whom I associated agreed with me that all of these homeless services, aside from being demeaning, primarily served to keep homeless people homeless.  And as far as the homeless “feeds,” it became clear after a while that they were simply feeding the wrong people.

Think about it.  If you were a street hustler who never cared to do a lick of decent work in your life, and you wanted to get food without working for it, where would you turn?  Of course you would head to one of those community meals.   You would do anything you could to get something for nothing — even steal.

The sad thing is that people with legitimate disabilities who needed caregivers and case workers, and who would thrive best in situations like board-and-care homes, were also mixed into the batch.   Many of them were stuck in the cracks of the system, and I saw quite a few die on the streets.

Another sad thing — or rather a maddening thing — is that it was assumed that I and my similar companions were unemployable, assumed we had landed on the streets due to drug addiction or alcoholism, assumed  we were insane, and basically assumed that unless we thought as they did, acted in the manner they wanted us to act, and believed the ideology that they wanted us to believe, then there was something wrong with us.  

Although I did vacate the premises after 19 months in order to rent a cottage in a rural area in the Central Valley — and there created nine talks on the subject based on what I had learned thus far — I wish I hadn’t been so eager to get inside.  The place I landed was in a horrible area, surrounded by tweakers, and it dawned on me that there weren’t too many places in that part of California where I could get a place in the $400/mo. range that were going to be any different.   So, once I finished the 9th talk, I returned to Berkeley for more research.

That might have been a mistake.

Three years later, I was having the devil of a time digging myself out of the hole that had been dug.   Years of sleep deprivation began to wear on my mental health.   I was constantly being awakened in the middle of the night by other homeless people (if not cops or security guards), my belongings would disappear over night, and I even dabbled in street drugs in an effort to keep my sanity and desensitize myself from all the chaos.

My self-esteem grew lower and lower.   Social workers who wanted to “help” me referred me to all kinds of programs with strict regimens, and I found I didn’t belong in any of them.  Not to mention, I’m one of those Introverted types who cherishes his privacy, and I learned that I would rather sleep outdoors in secluded spots on the outskirts of town, than stay crammed into a homeless shelter with about fifty other guys, where the rate of theft was even greater.

Finally, after one particularly disturbing instance when I was kicked out of a homeless shelter because I had caught the flu there, I got down on my knees and shouted to Whoever might hear my prayer:

“I do not care who they are telling me I am!
I do not care about drug addiction, alcoholism, mental illness,
or being a loser, or being a lazy bum, or being a worthless piece of crap!
I care about HOMELESSNESS!!
Please God put on end to all these years
of totally unpredicable, totally unreliable,
anything can happen, anytime, anywhere, HOMELESSNESS!!!”

I literally screamed that petition to the stars of a seemingly indifferent sky, hurting my knees from the impact of the concrete outside the Sequoia Station in Redwood City.

Long story short (and it’s a story that has been often told elsewhere), within three or four weeks, I had an affordable room in North Idaho, renting for about one fourth of what it would have rented in Berkeley, and a job playing piano at a small church, after being considered unemployable and mentally insane in the State of California for years.

How did I get there?  It wasn’t from a handout.  It was from a hand-up – in the form of a $200 bus ticket granted by an old associate of mine, a retired music teacher whom I’d worked with years ago on the San Francisco Bay Area Peninsula, before all of the sordid homelessness began.

Which brings me to my point.  The only homeless people who are into receiving “hand outs” from the system are those who either cannot fend for themselves, or choose not to, because they’d rather work the system.  The rest could use a hand-up.  I got one, and three and a half years later, on Thanksgiving Day, I must say I am thankful.  I’ve paid my rent on time in a place of my own choosing, a place of solitude and dignity, since September 1st, 2016.

So let that be food for thought on Thanksgiving Day.   You may use this information as you choose.   Maybe if somebody gives a hand-up to a person who could truly use it, then Somebody will give a hand-up to you.

Can I give you a hand? (Words and phrases for helping others) – About Words – Cambridge ...

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Activism Classism Homelessness public speaking stigma

(Talks 2018) – Talk No. 1

A while back, I mentioned I was going to try to start posting a speech here every Wednesday.  Well, I never got around to doing it.  That is, until now.   Happy Independence Day — and God bless America.  

Homeless by Condition: Part One 

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Activism addiction Classism Homelessness mental health

Homeless in the USA

On the site Quora, where I am considered to be a “Most Viewed Writer” on the subject of Homelessness, somebody recently posed the question: “How do people become homeless in the USA?”  I answered it quickly according to my experience, and later noticed that it had received over 3,500 views and 73 “upvotes.”  So I figured I’d share it here.  I hope you gain from it.

Having lived in a community of over 1,000 homeless people for five years, and having been homeless and borderline-homeless in other areas for seven additional years, I think I might be qualified to answer this question.

There are many ways that a person can become homeless in America. Let me list four that seem most prevalent:

(1) A sudden medical problem or family crisis that costs a person an unexpected amount of money, making it impossible for them to continue paying rent or mortgage.

(2) Socio-economic factors beyond the scope of individual control; e.g., a persistent rent increase over a period of time that far exceeds any increase in the renter’s income.

(3) A drug or alcohol problem resulting in job loss, eviction, and/or general inability to make rational decisions over the long haul.

(4) A mental health condition that goes untreated or is (as in my own case) misdiagnosed, resulting in one’s taking medications that work to one’s detriment rather than one’s benefit.

My experience is that, in larger urban areas, there is a greater percentage of people who became homeless as a result of socio-economic factors or circumstances beyond their control.

evictionIn smaller, more rural areas, such as the small college town where I now live in Northern Idaho, it is much more difficult to become homeless without sort of “asking for it” by displaying a serious drug or alcohol problem.

I do know that in the two years that I have now successfully rented apartments in my present city – first, a studio, then a one-bedroom, I have done every thing that would have “made me homeless” in situations that arose in the San Francisco Bay Area, where rents are on the average four times as high, but where my fixed income from Social Security has not varied.

Had I not moved to this small college town in the middle of the country, I would have died a meaningless death on the Berkeley city streets. I simply would never have been able to pay the rent. And because I was largely regarded as unemployable due to my mental health condition, I found it difficult to cut through that stigma in order to find a job.

After almost two years of successfully paying my rent every month, I am living a very meaningful and happy life.

All it took was a $200 Greyhound bus ticket to a distant State, and a loan on an apartment deposit, to end twelve years of seemingly inescapable homelessness in the Bay Area. I applied for a part-time job three weeks after I arrived in Idaho, and was hired. I even managed to keep the job for ten months before aspects of my condition caused them to ask me to resign. But by that time, I was established in the community with a church and a solid support group, and I knew how to make ends meet.

I hope this information has been helpful, and of particular use to someone who may be in need.

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Activism Art Berkeley Classism Composing Homelessness

An Incredibly Empty Place

As most of you know, I am a person who became homeless at the age of 51 in the San Francisco Bay Area during a midlife crisis of enormous proportion, after working for many years as an elementary school music teacher and private teacher of Piano and Voice on the San Francisco Bay Area Peninsula.  I struggled in and out of homelessness for the next twelve years, mostly on the streets of Berkeley, California.  For the past fourteen months, I’ve successfully maintained an apartment in a completely different part of the country, and have been gainfully employed throughout most of that time.   Still, however, I sometimes miss the allure of the streets.  I find myself wanting to “hit the road” — to chuck it all, to flick it in, to flip the switch — and to become homeless once again.   But when I read something like this short blurb I wrote in 2015, I remember why this might not be such a good idea.

An Incredibly Empty Place

Believe it or not, the streets used to inspire me. I used to feel free here. I wrote ten songs from the streets, arranged them, recorded them – here in Berkeley, in 2012, I wrote decent interesting music — while homeless. But now? They all recognize me. They see me on the streets.

Who’s “they?”   Whoever it is who assumes — is they, and not we.   Whoever stigmatizes is “they” — not we.   We know who I really am  — we who neither stigmatize nor assume.   But they?  They assume, because they see me on the streets, that I’m all about the hustle.  Then, if they are not on the streets, they look down upon me, as though I am a dirt bag, here to rip them off.  And if they are on the streets?  Then they assume I am one of them.  I’m supposed to have a hustle, supposed to have a game.  When they find I have no hustle, when they find I have no game, then they assume I am their enemy.  I then become a target.   I must be a nark, a snitch, a rat.  Why is Andy never in jail?   It can’t possibly be that Andy isn’t about committing crimes, can it?   It can’t possibly be that he wants nothing whatsoever to do with that game.   It must be that he is a police informant.  He’s going to turn us all in.  We better get that guy Andy — before he gets us.

I’m either one of them — or I am their prey.   And as for Music? What is Music?  As for Art?  What the hell is Art?  Isn’t life all about the hustle? About taking from people who have even less than you have? And feeling good about it at the end of the day? As though it were an honest day’s work?

But to write music — what is that? Does it make me any money? No — not yet, anyway.  Perhaps it never will.  But why is that the prevailing question?   Why is the question not whether I do another person harm?   Does my writing music intrude on others at all? No.   It does not.  Then why am I not left alone, as I once was, in 2012?   Because they think they know me now.  They think they know me — because they see me.    Whoever they are who assume, they judge the book by its cover.  Whoever they are who stigmatize, they see me, and think they know me.  In reality, they know me not.

Some of these hustlers don’t seem to think they can make any money in life without totally infringing upon the rights of others.  Their means of earning money involves invading other people’s space.  All day long I hear them: “Got fifty cents?  Got a cigarette?   A light?   A cell phone?   Can I sync my cell phone to your laptop?  How much you want for that “top”?  What do you mean, it’s not for sale?  Who the hell do you think you are?”

I had a guy who calls himself my “friend” con me out of my last BART ticket. I paid for that BART ticket with my own earned money. It isn’t easy to sit there with back up against the brick wall of that BART station, flying a sign all day, and and keeping my mouth shut long enough for somebody to “get it.”   I’ve had jobs that were way easier than that!  But I’ve got my pride.   You won’t hear the words “can you spare some change?” come out of me.  I don’t want to be like those hustlers.  I don’t want to intrude on people’s mind-sets, or invade their space while they’re rushing to get from one gig to another in the Mainstream.  The sign says it all.  

need a miracle

But I tell you – some of these people just get to me.  They have no respect for other people. They don’t respect me. I have no value to them except for what they can con me out of. I don’t need their food stamps, their marijuana, their attitude. I don’t need them. I tell them I’m hungry, they tell me I should give them my last two dollars. I would so love to be able to eat regularly – to eat real food without having to wait for hours in a line every day, with fights breaking out, with security being involved and police being called — I’m tired of it all. Down here, it is either assumed that I am a criminal or, like I said, it’s assumed that I’m a mark. I’m either a potential perpetrator or a potential victim. There is no in between.

How did I ever get myself into this irreconcilable mess?  I should be hanging around college professors, theatre directors, school principals, and parents of singing students and piano students!  Like I used to be!   I should be hanging around Actors and musicians and set designers!  Like I used to!  I should be hanging around playwrights and screen writers. Piano players, singers – composers like me. But I am exempt from hanging with people like myself.  Somehow, it does not happen. Somehow, I cannot climb out of this hole. It’s too deep. My best hope is to communicate – and keep communicating – until someone feels me.

Does anyone feel me yet?  Do you?  I am constantly visible. Constantly seen – by whom? By everyone.   And believe me – some people down here – that’s all they do is look.  Look, lurk, watch, wait — and lay in wait.  They cannot sleep at night — unless they have done somebody harm.

There are no walls around me. I have no roof over my head. I have no bed beneath me. I am vulnerable – through visibility. And I am associated with all those who are similarly vulnerable – through visibility. Many of whom are violent. To find identification, I look to pimps, hustlers, hookers, and drug dealers. Why? Because they live in the same world that I do.  We have that in common.  I smile and laugh and joke in the presence of people of whose lifestyles I disapprove.  Why?  Because it keeps me from getting the crap knocked out of me, day after day after day.

And yet, through all of those smiles and all of that laughter, through all of the identification, the unusual common ground, the ground that validates us, that separates us from those who live “inside,”– throughout the foundation of our amazing common dignity, the buck always stops when the fine print is read.   And the fine print said:

I’m sorry, bro, but I really don’t want to distract that guy while you steal his bicycle.  I mean, I’m sorry man, but I’m just not into it.  I know you just turned me on to a bud of great medical weed.  I know, I know, but still, but still . . . 

How does one convey that just because one does not desire to partake in a criminal activity, this does not mean that one is the enemy of those who do?   At least five times a week, I have to look into the shocked, threatened eyes of someone who has just realized that I simply have no desire to commit a crime. No desire to steal from anyone. No desire to do someone bodily harm or psychic damage in order to obtain what I want for myself.

At that point, our common dignity means nothing. I am only an easy mark. My personality means nothing, really. And so, nobody recognizes me for who I am. It’s an incredibly empty place to be.

Andy Pope
Berkeley, California
June 15, 2015

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God Bless!