Hobo, Homeless or Houseless

Submitted this morning to Tracy Simmons, editor-in-chief of Spokane Faith and Values.  

I recently learned that the word “homeless” is no longer considered politically correct among many people currently working in related services. It has been replaced by “houseless” because the word “homeless” has developed “pejorative connotations.”

Arguably, the word “homeless” replaced the word “hobo” because the latter had developed pejorative connotations.  Logically, it is only a matter of time before the word “houseless” develops pejorative connotations.

But I am not here to lambaste the concept of political correctness.   Personally, I think P.C. is a great idea in theory, but in practice it burns more bridges than it builds.

If this offends my lefter-leaning friends, so be it.  I find myself often wishing I could be seen as a person who cares about World Peace and social justice without having to get crammed into the liberal “box” — and this is one reason why I am not comfortable identifying as a “liberal” — even though I am more than happy to identify as a “progressive.”

(Another reason is because the word “liberal” has connotations that may suggest a permissive lifestyle, which as a Christ follower is not my bag.  “Progressive” works because I’d definitely like to see us build a better, more solid, less divided society.)

To the point, I am not about to change my language.  For the past five years, I have been writing profusely and passionately about the homeless experience. My writings include a full-length musical about youth homelessness in urban America, as well as numerous blogs, essays, and published articles. The idea that I need to change my language is almost Orwellian. It is not as though I can pretend that we are suddenly at war with “Eurasia” and not “Europia.”

Also, in case it hasn’t been clear, my homeless rights advocacy is not the result of an unusual and unfounded compassion for those experiencing the homeless condition. I myself was homeless for years in the San Francisco Bay Area. I know whereof I speak from personal experience, and I network with others who have shared that experience. I have been trying to contact my friends from Berkeley, California who have also experienced homelessness, one of whom I have interviewed on this site. Though no one there has gotten back to me yet, I seriously doubt that this fix was effected by a homeless person, or by anyone who has ever experienced that condition.

I did learn in discussing the matter with the graveyard shift worker at the corner store that she had been homeless for several years as well. She told me she knows of no homeless or formerly homeless friend who would identify themselves as “houseless.” She also made the interesting analogy that, although she identifies as “queer,” people who do not share her orientation object to her identification. Of course, having been homeless herself, she knew as well as I do that one of the worst things about living outdoors is that people who lived indoors often told us how we were supposed to identify ourselves.

And yet, when we pleaded with them not to use words like “housed” and “shelter’ in reference to us when we were seeking residence — but to please say “found a place” or “place to live” instead – it fell on deaf ears. Why? Because we were not people. We were homeless people. A person can look can look for a place to live. A homeless person has to look for shelter.

Do you think for one moment than when I left twelve years of homeless and borderline-homelessness in the San Francisco Bay Area, and I finally moved to Moscow Idaho in a successful search for dignified, indoor residence, I told the prospective landlord that I had been homeless? Or that I was looking for “shelter?” Of course not! Think about it! He’d have moved on to the next applicant.

In fact, when I later tried to help an elderly man experiencing homelessness get an apartment in that same complex, the landlord told me: “I’m sorry, Andy. If I let him in, I’ll have to let them all in.”

While the conversation with the woman in the store was somewhat comforting, it did little to assuage my concerns. In fact, I couldn’t sleep till three in the morning, and woke up at 5:30 feeling nauseous.

That nausea persists to this moment. But I do want to make a statement in closing. That statement is simply this:

The day when we learn that it is more important to listen to the words of people who have experienced something that we have not, and that it is more important to raise awareness of that condition, than it is to label it with words that we find less offensive or pejorative, that will truly be a very great day.

The problem with political correctness in this instance is that it bi-passes the need to actually decriminalize and rehumanize the homeless individual, by choosing a different term that will be “less pejorative” rather than by dealing with the pejorative discriminations and prejudices themselves.

I’m in a lot of pain. What a sorrowful turn of events for Homeless Rights Activism.

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The Context Trap

In 1983, when I first became a Christian, I was very zealous about sharing my faith. As I did so, I often heard unbelievers telling me: “Judge not and ye shall not be judged.” Because they didn’t seem to be know the context of that passage, I was quick to bring it to their attention. In so doing, I came across as even more judgmental, thus only validating what they thought of me in the first place.

Many times since then, I have heard people employ the use of Scripture, only to be told by someone that the Scripture was “taken out of context.” But there is a trap here. Many biblical Scriptures reflect universal truths. As such, they are applicable both in and out of context — because they are simply true.

Not too long ago, a Lutheran friend whom I’ll call “George” posted the following Scripture on his social media:

“When a foreigner resides with you in your land, you must not oppress him. You must treat the foreigner living among you as native-born and love him as yourself, for you were foreigners in the land of Egypt. I am the LORD your God.” — Leviticus 19:33-34

Instantly, George received a retort from “Gary,” a member of a large evangelical church. “Of course, George, you are taking those verses totally out of context!”

Naturally, my friend George asked his friend Gary: “What is the context?”

“I don’t know,” said Gary. “I’ll have to look it up.”

While this may be amusing, it points to a phenomenon that I find a bit disturbing. The idea that someone is taking a biblical passage “out of context” is often used as a bluff. It’s very possible that Gary figured he knew the Bible better than George did. But when George called his bluff, he came up empty-handed.

We have to be very careful before playing the “context card.” In this case, the Scripture is a good example of something that is true outside of its specific context, because it conveys an absolute standard. If a foreigner comes into our land — whoever we are, and whoever they are — we are to treat them as an equal — as one of us.

If a person is particularly obsessed with context, they might object. “Well no – it applies only to the ancient Israelites, who were literally foreigners in the land of Egypt.” But that objection doesn’t hold water in light of a deeper study.

Many times “Egypt” is typed in Scripture as a former place of bondage. Similarly, Sodom is typed as a place of gross departure from the ways of God. This is why Revelation 11:8 refers to a place “figuratively called Egypt and Sodom, where also our Lord was crucified.” Yet we know that our Lord was crucified at Golgotha. He wasn’t literally crucified in either Egypt or Sodom. These references are figurative.

So we have a couple broad considerations here that may serve to lift us out of the Context Trap. Many biblical passages can be taken both literally and figuratively, and many verses can be taken both in and out of context.

I have to confess that I sometimes become frustrated when I see someone “wielding” a Scripture in order to win an argument. It seems to happen all too often. Also, the instances of this abuse of Holy Scripture are not restricted to Christians of any specific leaning. Ecumenicals and Evangelicals alike may be prone to this tendency. To my way of thinking, this is an abuse of something that we are to hold sacred. The Bible is largely intended to teach us how to live — not to teach us how to emerge victorious in a theological debate.

When I become sufficiently frustrated — as I was after hearing the dispute between George and Gary — I have a tendency to scour the Bible immediately to confirm what one might perceive to be my own bias or agenda. In other words, I want to “win.” I want to “prove” that I am “right.” In doing so, am I any different from the other believers whose approach I have found objectionable? Not at all.

A better approach would be for me to ask myself, for example: “How do I treat someone from another country when they move their family into my neighborhood? For that matter, how do I treat a Californian when they move up to Idaho? Am I welcoming of people of all races, genders, orientations, ages, and abilities? Or am I threatened by them? If I am threatened, what is it that threatens me? Do I regard all people as equals, as “one of us?” Or do I see them as somehow unequal — as the “other?”

These are the kinds of questions I feel we should all ask ourselves, whenever we encounter powerful passages from our holy books. How do these words apply to our own behavior, in a world full of conflict, suspicion, and distrust?

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Hang On To Your Wallet

Believe it or not, this is a true story.  It happened when I was house-sitting for a friend in Burlingame, California where I lived and worked for many years, long before becoming homeless in Berkeley.   It tells how I left my wallet on a bus on the way to a lunch for poor people at a Catholic church, in Redwood City and how my efforts to borrow a dollar in order to get a bus back to Burlingame were only greeted with suspicion, as though it were some kind of sophisticated scam.  After five failed efforts in increasing frustration, I never could procure a single dollar.  So I wound up sleeping on a lawn outside the city library.  I suppose I’ll have to put some serious effort into honing my dollar-borrowing skills for the future.

Get a load of this. I lost my wallet yesterday with my photo I.D. and all my cards including Starbucks and McDonald’s cards I had put money on knowing that I might run of cash early in the month. Lost both my debit cards – and even though one of my customers is paying me tomorrow, I have no way of receiving the money that I know of. My assistant Danielle will get the money as usual, but the typical means of transferring my cut of it to my account are inapplicable, since there is no way for me to draw the money out of my account.

I was stranded in a strange town all day where I had been going to a “feed,” which is a “free lunch” where people in the impoverished classes go in order not to spend money that they don’t have on food. I had left the wallet on the bus, and though I realized seconds later what I had done (waking up and hurriedly running off the bus, realizing it was my stop), I could not flag the bus driver down. Then, once I was able to reach a SamTrans office agent by phone, I was told that the particular driver had switched buses by then and that I would have to fill out an online form in order *maybe* to get the wallet back in 8-10 days.

walletAll right, so that’s typical bureaucracy, and worse things have happened. But proceeding to the feed after that was one of the biggest mistakes I could have made in terms of maintaining health or sanity at that time. For as I attempted to see about obtaining a bus ticket of some sort in order to get back home to Burlingame, I was repeatedly told by one social worker after another that I would have to walk a distance of over two miles in the noonday heat and get in a line at a separate social service agency in order to *maybe* get a bus ticket. There was not one iota of sympathy for the loss of wallet, cards, Safeway card, library card, photo I.D., etc.,” Slowly I began to realize that this was not an issue of my ability or inability to tolerate a difficult situation in life; it was an issue of prejudice against a person in a lower socio-economic class.  

After I had spoken with four or five people at the feed, trying to find someone’s supervisor and so forth, I admit that by then I was deploying what appeared to be a very well-rehearsed appeal — possibly even a scam. Did anyone actually believe me? I wasn’t quite sure. I could easily have been a very sophisticated street hustler brandishing some cockamaney tale in order to get one dollar after another from the gullible. That would at least explain all the chuckles and general feeling of amusement that I was getting on the part of these social workers as one by one, they dismissed my dilemma as frivolous and immaterial, not to be taken seriously.

But my “appeal,” of course, was that I be granted a single dollar bill in light of my hardship, so that I could simply take a bus home, and take it from there — given that I had also left my bus pass on the SamTrans bus. The fourth person had her arms on my shoulders telling me she would “pray for me,” which was a wonderful expression of complete abnegation of one’s responsibility as a fellow human being toward another human being in need, as though: “Of course I dare not help you, but perhaps God will if I petition Him on your behalf.”

Incensed, I approached a fifth person with my plea, to which she simply shrugged and said: “It is what it is.”

By this time, I was infuriated. I turned to her and asked her directly: “When you lose all your keys, and you cannot get into your car, and you cannot get back inside your house, and your kids are crying and screaming, and you cannot get them to school on time, and you left the burner on in the kitchen, but you do not have the key to the side door, and you call for help somehow to someone, and then you hear the words, ‘it is what it is,’ do you particularly appreciate that response?

At that point, I was advised by security that I was no longer welcome at the feed.

I said: “fine,” and set down my plate, somewhat emphatically, as it were. I was thereafter so exercised that I had no problem at all storming over to the Human Services Agency in the heat at a lightning-fast clip, being as one of the many great advantages of my years of outdoor living is that it happens to have put me into excellent, vigorous, physical shape. (That there were no vouchers for bus rides at the HSA came as no particular surprise, nor did my announcement that I would then therefore be crashing out on the lawn by their lovely city’s local library come as any surprise to the shoulder-shrugging social workers in attendance.)

People who are in the business of “helping” those of us who are in the underprivileged and disadvantaged classes need to become aware that it does net “help” us when we are not regarded as equals. Granted, nobody there “owed” me a dollar — but if they are Christians, which I would hope that people associated with St. Anthony’s Church in Redwood City are; then certainly the words of St. Paul apply:

“Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law.” – Romans 13:8 NASB

What they owed me — what we all owe each other – and the only thing that we owe each other – is love. Where, I ask – where — is the love?

Andy Pope
Burlingame  CA
November 12. 2015

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