The Homeless Buzzwords

There were a number of words used predominantly by those who lived indoors that had a precarious ring in the ears of those of us who lived outside.   These words often had a way of revealing our homelessness in a situation where it would have been wiser to conceal it — for example, when one was seeking a place of residence among numerous applicants.   

homeless still humanEven if the situation were such that there was no reason why our homelessness couldn’t  remain  “out in the open” (so to speak), these words still had a way of making us feel that we were in some way distinctly set apart from the rest of the human race.  At times, the words suggested that possibly we were not even truly human.  After all, the humans who lived inside never used these words in reference to them. 

So let me list four of them.  Conveniently, the first two are what I will call the two “s-words.”  The last two will be the two “h-words.”  And I assure you — we who have been forced to live outdoors for prolonged periods of time could easily  come up with numerous similar “buzzwords,” possibly one for every letter of the alphabet.  But these four will suffice — for now.

1. SHELTER

Once on Facebook, a friend of mine announced on his timeline that “Andy was looking for shelter.”  Now, of all the friends on his timeline, how many of them would have known that I was homeless?  Probably only him, his wife maybe, and his kids.   Does a person who isn’t homeless ever look for “shelter?”  No, they don’t.  They look for a place to live.

I asked him to remove the post.  Although he was trying to help, he didn’t realize that the revelation of homelessness in this fashion would work against me in trying to secure residence.  I knew from experience that if there were ten applicants on a rental application, and one of them put down that he had been homeless, there would soon be only nine applicants on that application.

2. SERVICES

This one wasn’t nearly so bad as the other “s-word.”  But it still pointed to certain stigmata associated with poverty and disability culture that could conceivably work against us in many circumstances.  A person trying to find residence, for example, is generally reluctant to say that he or she has had to have access to “services.”  A prospective landlord would much rather hear about “gainful employment” than “services.”

Even in the context where no discrimination would be involved, there was still the inner sting of feeling that we somehow weren’t employable, able, or competent.  Nobody likes to think of themselves as incompetent.  We all want to think that we are at least capable of earning our own way in life, even if circumstances — personal, medical, or financial – are temporarily preventing us from doing so.

As I wrote in an earlier post, in all the years when I flew a sign on a Berkeley city sidewalk, only once did a person walk by and shout: “Get a job!”

It was just about the most refreshing thing I’d ever heard.   It was very common for passersby to point me to where all the services were — as if I didn’t know already — and the overall effect, after a number of years, was to drill deeper and deeper down into the depths of my psyche the disconcerting notion that I was somehow “less than” all the more worthy sorts of people — those who were capable of holding down jobs.

And I’m pretty sure that I speak, if not for all of the middle-aged homeless men and women in my position at the time, then certainly for a vast majority of them.

3. HOUSING

The first of the two “h-words” is akin to that of the two “s-words.”  Who needs to be “housed?”  A person who doesn’t already have a house, of course.   So when a social worker would refer to finding us “housing,” it only served to remind us of the essential difference between us and that other kind of human being, the one who was so privileged to be living indoors, who could conceivably delight in having moved to another place — a place of their choice, and more to their liking.

We could take no such delight.  The homeless person, even when told to move (which we very often were told to do), doesn’t really get to move to a new place.  Wherever we “moved” to, we were still homeless.  If a homeless person did find a place to live, it was because we had been “housed.”  It almost felt like we were animals being assigned to cages.  Compare that feeling to that of a person who had lived in a rental and who then succeeds in buying a house.   Possibly he moves out into the suburbs, or even into a gated community.  He gets to do what he wants to do, and take his pick of places of residence until he finds the one he likes.  That’s the sort of person who actually gets to move, and gets to move up in the world. 

Homeless people only need to be housed – and quickly.  It was a huge obsession of many of the indoor-dwellers in our midsts, especially of the ones who were trying to help us.  Something had to be done with us — hopefully as soon as possible  — and our own personal say-so in the matter was of limited importance in their minds.

And that says nothing of the kind of indoor dweller who didn’t even care if we were ever “housed.”  They only wanted us out of their neighborhood – and fast.  

4. HOMELESS  

Now for the big one.

I have probably used the word “homeless” ten times as much in the past two years indoors than for the past twelve years outdoors.  Even now, I prefer to use words like “outside” or “outdoors,” rather than “homeless,” whenever possible.  Partly this is because I feel called upon to emphasize that the main difference between those who are homeless and those who are not is that the homeless person lives outdoors — exposed and vulnerable to all kinds of external influences, human or inhuman, foul or fair.  Whoever is not homeless lives inside and is as such protected from the vast array of such external elements.

But the word “homeless” for some reason carries a number of unrelated connotations that obscure the real issues of those who live outdoors.   For this reason, many homeless people do everything they can to conceal their homelessness from those who live indoors.  The word “homeless” carries so much stigma, it drives the average homeless person into the realm of invisibility.

These kinds of homeless people, though far from the most conspicuous, are undoubtedly in the vast majority.  When I was homeless, any amount of money I was able to secure at in excess of my usual $17/day quota was considered to be license for me to take a bus or a BART train to someplace far away from places where I typically slept and attempted to earn my keep.  I did this so that I would not have to deal with the annoying barrage of repeated questions and irrelevant information that was sent my way as soon as someone figured out that I was “homeless,” or heard that word used in the context of my person.

Typical connotations on the word “homeless” include”drug addict,” “alcoholic,” “nut case,” “loser,” “lazy bum,” and a whole plethora of stigmatic labels that serve amazingly well to obscure the more essential information about the homeless condition.  As I said, these labels are unrelated to the real issues of those who live outdoors.  Plenty of people who live indoors could easily have any one of these labels attributed to them, and the homeless person may in fact have none of them attributable to his or her identity.  Even if these attributes are part of the homeless person’s experience, it serves no purpose to dwell upon them, other than to create a diversion from dealing with their true top-priority issue; that is, to find a place to live.  A dignified place to live.  A place to call their own, just as an indoor person buying a house can call their house their own. 

So to avoid having to cut through the quagmire of all this unrelated labeling, I had to start by avoiding the label of “homeless” in the first place.  For it would be from that label that all the other distracting labels would spring.  If instead I somehow managed to be seen only as a fellow human being, in as many situations as possible, and not as a “homeless” person, then my chances of attaining a place to call my own were greatly enhanced.  And in the end of my homeless sojourn, that was exactly how I found a place I could finally call my own — by leaving all trace of “homeless” out of my persona, and finding a landlord who had no reason to see me as anyone other than a fellow human being.

Perhaps you saw the episode of Northern Exposure in which the character Maurice approached a disadvantaged man on the street and asked: “Are you homeless?”

The man replied: “I prefer the term hobo.”

And before I had gained more savvy in the realm of outdoor living, I once asked a man if he were “homeless.”  He replied: “Homeless is just a word.”

Not to mention, when somebody asked me recently, after I’d been living inside for almost two years, “Are you homeless?” — my reply was published in the post that bears that name.  

So when I finally succeeded in achieving the dignified dwelling place I had long sought, how many times do you think I used any of those four words, the two s-words and the two h-words?   Of course, the answer is zero.  I avoided all four of these words completely.  I hope that by now, you understand why.  

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Gratitude List 830

(1) I have a roof over my head.  (A lot of people don’t – and for a long time I didn’t either).

(2) Running water.   (There are people all over the world who lack it.)

(3) I can take a shower without having to wait in a long line with people whom I would worry might steal my things while I was showering.   (In fact, this is the first time in years that I have access to a shower without having to deal with other men trying to access the same shower.)

(4) Great 3 1/2 mile run three days ago, and nice 1 1/2 mile run before bedtime last night.  After all these years — specifically, since April 9, 1976 — I still have two strong legs and a good set of lungs.

(5) There are two comfortable spots to sleep in my apartment – a Queen size bed in the bedroom, and a cozy couch in the living room.  For many years, my mattress was three layers of cardboard on a concrete slab.  Nice to get a good night’s sleep.

(6) When I was homeless, my strengths were disregarded and my weaknesses illuminated.  Now that I am indoors, my weaknesses are overlooked, and my strengths revealed.

(7) I used to speak all kinds of misleading falsehoods in order to try and impress people.  Today I speak my truth — and if they don’t like it, don’t believe it, or don’t understand it, c’est la vie.  It’s easier on the spirit to speak the truth plainly, than to try and keep track of all those woeful webs we weave.

(8) This.

(9) I used to live here all alone, and was relieved and grateful, but lonely.   Now I live here with the woman I love — and am inspired, joyful, and fulfilled.  

(10) I was once rich in money, but lacking in faith.  Now I am lacking in money – but I am rich in faith.  I wouldn’t trade my present “poverty” for my past “wealth” for all the money in the world.   May the God of Love be Praised.

 

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Somebody Gave Easily

Lately there has been a gnawing sensation within me that a critical part of my story has been left out. I’ve been wanting to relate a certain turn of events that occurred in July 2016, after I had left Berkeley, but before I had moved up to Idaho. It may explain why it is that I am so passionate about what I am writing, and why I now know that my life has meaning.

To provide some background, I left Berkeley, California on the day that I received my monthly Social Security check for July. On that day, I bought a laptop. Knowing that four laptops had been stolen in a three year period in Berkeley, and that I was a known “mark” for the thugs and gang bangers who hung out by the local rapid transit station, my plan was to silently leave town before anyone caught wind of my acquisition.

The city where I landed on the San Francisco Bay Area Peninsula was a small town of about 25,000 composed almost entirely of upper-class Caucasians. I selected it because it was noted for a low crime rate and a peaceful aura. However, it wasn’t particularly friendly toward outdoor homeless types, and after the second time my sleep was interrupted by an officer of the law, I agreed to be transferred from my spot behind the local library to a shelter about twenty five miles South of there, in a more industrial neck of the woods.

At first, I was very impressed with the shelter. They had a number of programs designed to help homeless people get back on their feet and regain self-esteem. It was, however, assumed that I was an alcoholic or a drug addict, and daily twelve-step meetings were required. Still, I acquiesced.  I think twelve-step meetings are great, in general.  The only thing that bothered me was the assumption that I needed one. 

About five days into my sojourn at the shelter, an unfortunate turn of events took place. In the Men’s Barracks, where I slept on a bunk in close proximity to about twenty-five other men, I caught a flu.  I went to the hospital, where I was told I had “viral bronchitis” — which I’m pretty sure is just a fancy name for a high-follutin’ flu.  I definitely do not have bronchitis in any other sense.  In any case, I was given the usual stuff, and told to “rest in bed for ten days.” 

But when I went back to the shelter, they told me that because I had a contagious disease, I could no longer stay at the shelter.  This disturbed me.   After all, I had obviously caught the flu at the shelter.   So I was not the only person there with a flu.  Half of the guys in the barracks were coughing, sneezing, and wheezing from all their cigarette smoke anyway.  Here I’m this guy with an unusually strong immune system, who had caught exactly two flus in the past fifteen years, works out, doesn’t smoke or drink — it very much upset me that I was being reprimanded for my honesty.

So I went back to the hospital and explained what happened, hoping they would let me in to recover.  But at the hospital, I was told that they couldn’t show any special preference for me, just because I was homeless.  

“I know you have the flu, Andy, but let’s face it.  Homeless people come in here trying to get an overnight stay all the time, for all kinds of reasons.  If I were to let you in, I’d have to let in the whole lot of you.   I’m sorry, Andy, but that’s just the way it is.”

A rush of numbing fright consumed me.  I suddenly realized that I was going to have to fend with this flu outdoors!  I’d seen homeless people die overnight after catching a flu!  I feared death – but I was too young to die — and generally a very healthy, fit human being.   But what could I do?

Throughout the next five days, my condition worsened.  I was sneezing, and often visibly perspiring.  The driver of the all-night bus stopped letting me inside the bus at night, because all the other homeless people who used the bus as a sleeping spot were complaining that I might be contagious.  I told him that viral bronchitis is only contagious in the first two to three days.  But this was to no avail.

Then one night, something came over me.   And this is why I now know that my life has meaning.   I was walking by the Sequoia Station in Redwood City, wondering where to sleep that night, when suddenly I dropped down on my knees and screamed at the top of my lungs.

God!!  If there is Anybody out there, I don’t care Who you are, or what your Name is, if you can feel me, where I’m coming from, please — I do not care about drug addiction or alcoholism, or mental illness, or being a lazy bum or a slacker or a slouch – I care about Homelessness!  Please put an END to twelve years of totally unpredictable, totally unreliable, ANYTHING CAN HAPPEN, ANYTIME ANYWHERE HOMELESSNESS!!! In the name of Jesus Christ I pray –
AMEN!!!!

Granted, it was an impulsive emotional outburst, and I’m sure any theologian worth their salt could easily chop holes in the wording.  But I felt an eerie sense of calm when I got back up to my feet. 

I looked around.  The night was still and quiet.  My spirit was overwhelmed with the clear feeling that Somebody had heard that prayer — and that Somebody would honor it.

A couple days later, as the symptoms of the flu subsided, I remembered an associate of mine, a now retired music teacher with whom I had worked when I was still a sheltered elementary school music teacher making a modest living on the Peninsula, before all this homelessness ensued.   He had earlier said that if I could choose a spot outside of the State of California where the rents would be cheaper and I could conceivably live off of my Social Security, he would spot me the one-way ticket.

The rest of my story I have told.  Here, there, and elsewhere.  Within forty-eight hours, I had rented a room at Friendship Square on a temporary basis.  Three days later I signed a one year lease on an apartment that would have rented for $900 in Berkeley, and was only $275 in Moscow, Idaho.  I alighted upon the city of my birth for the first time in sixty-three years — a city that I knew nothing about whatsoever, other than the fact that I was born here.   Three weeks later, I applied for a part time job and was hired — after years of being considered unemployable and mentally incapable of working in the State of California. 

I only later learned that Idaho Repertory Theatre was founded in this city on the year I was born, and that the Lionel Hampton School of Music sports a city-wide jazz festival every year here — in the town where I was born.  I only later walked through one of the city gates, and saw the city proudly proclaiming itself: “The Heart of the Arts.” 

I’m not going to ask you to believe in God, if you don’t already, after having read these words.  The word “God” after all, is only a word.  If you ask ten people the meaning of that Word, you are likely to get ten different answers.  I know what I believe, and you probably do too.

But I will ask you to believe that my life has meaning — and purpose.  If you can help me in any way to move that purpose forward, please do. I’ve been sleeping in gutters for almost half of my adult life.  That I did not die a meaningless death on the streets of Berkeley is an absolute miracle.   I have written a full-length musical about homelessness since I have been off the streets, in addition to numerous blogs, and five articles published in Street Spirit.   If you can help me in any way with the money I need to make a demo recording of three songs from my musical, please believe me:

giving-is-easy-620

That one has got to be true.  After all, Somebody gave pretty easily — once I finally, earnestly asked.

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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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Your Moment is Now

The “s-words” and “h-words” alluded to in the first sentence of the post below are not cuss words.  They stand for “shelter,” “services,” “homeless,” and “housing,”   At the time when I wrote this post, I had begun to practice the elimination of these buzz words from my vocabulary.  It was becoming increasingly important for me to live indoors again, and the use of any one of those “buzz words” would work against me when seeking an affordable rental.   A person who has not been homeless doesn’t tell his prospective landlord he is in need of “shelter.”  He merely says he’s looking for “a place to live.”   

“Your Moment is Now” was written two weeks before I moved into my present-day apartment in Northern Idaho, a little over one year ago.  It describes how I was kicked out of a homeless shelter for having caught a flu, and thereafter found that there was no hospital that would keep me overnight, and no friend or family member who would take me in — as illustrated in an earlier post.  Please be advised that I was running a 103 degree temperature at the time when I scribbled down these words.  I say that in the hope you will forgive me if my writing style wasn’t quite up to par. 

I’ll be brief without using either of the s-words or h-words.

About five days ago, I was kicked out of the “dormitory” for having contracted a contagious disease there. It’s not a big deal – it’s viral bronchitis. It is only contagious during the first 2-3 days.

Unfortunately, this has left me to deal with the situation in an outdoor environment. I’ve been twice to the doctor who says that I need to rest in bed for ten days and drink a lot of fluids.  Obviously, I do not have a bed in which to rest.

fluI petitioned for an overnight stay at the hospital but was denied it on the obvious basis that overnight stays in hospitals are not generally granted to people for conditions that can be taken care of at home. Obviously, I do not have a home at this time.

I believe that if I can stay inside in a bed for 72 hours, leaving only to hydrate and use the bathroom, I will probably recover. I am not recovering, unfortunately, in the outdoor realm of living. Frankly, I have only had a flu like this twice in the past fifteen years. The first time a friend of mine fronted me $700 so I could get two weeks in a hotel room. I paid her back according to terms, but she is not in that position right now. I also am declining to ask for money, which I feel would be crass.  To request actual short-term lodgings, on the other hand, seems to me to be only logical, and appropriate to the cause at hand.

My petition goes out to those who live in the Greater San Francisco Bay Area, and to the hearts of the Greater Humanity at Large. If somebody can provide so much as a floor with a rug for me to crash on for three days only, I will provide the Greater Humanity at Large with a lot more than said Humanity has evidently expected of me.

If not, I’ll subsist as usual, and perchance even survive. But know that when I say that I have watched numerous people in my position die needless deaths overnight, my statement is not hyperbolic.

People of compassion: now is your chance. Let me in. Let one of us in.  There are thousands upon thousands of Americans forced to sleep outdoors tonight.  Some will die tonight if no one lets them in.  Please, people of compassion — Let Us In.

Andy Pope
July 13, 2016
San Francisco, CA

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I Told Them I was Homeless

I told them I was homeless and they began to discuss my mental health. I told them I was homeless and they began to discuss my alcoholism. I told them I was homeless and they began to discuss my drug problem, asking me which of various drugs was my “drug of choice.” I told them I was homeless and they began to discuss how much of a loser I was, how lazy I am, and how I should “get off my ass.” I told them I was homeless and they told me where the facility was, where the institution was, which program to join, what kind of treatment to get, where the shelter was, where the board and care was, where the halfway house was, and where all the other criminals are. I told them I didn’t become homeless for any of those reasons. But by that time I realized they weren’t listening.

Andy Pope
August 9, 2016
Homeless Villa, USA

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