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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What Should You Know Before Becoming Homeless?

Somebody posted this question on the site called Quora over the weekend.   I figured I might be able to answer it.  I was homeless for a long, long time.   

You should know that people will not treat you as a full human being with needs, rights, and sensibilities akin to those of the rest of the human race. You will be continually dehumanized in ways that will confuse you, anger you, and seriously affect your self-esteem and your sense of dignity. By and large, you will either be faced with severe judgment by those who assume they are innately superior to you, or with a pathetic show of feigned empathy that will come across more like condescension than true compassion. You will often be lectured by those who have never been in your shoes and have no idea what your life is actually like. These people also will never listen to you, because they assume that you have nothing to say to them that is meaningful.

no humanityYou will be kicked out of your beauty sleep by cops, security guards, property owners, business owners, and worst of all, other homeless people. You might as well divest yourself of all remnant of worldly possessions — cell phones and laptops included — because they are all going to be stolen anyway. At food services and “feeds” you will be herded around like cattle, and orders will be barked at you as though you were a criminal in a jailhouse. Your 1st and 4th Amendment rights will routinely be violated by rookie cops who wake you up in the middle of the night and immediately search your backpack for drugs. During these violations, the cops will also run your “criminal record,” since it is also assumed that you are a criminal.

They will be surprised to find out that you are not a criminal, since obviously anyone who loses their house in a foreclosure or their rental in a California Owner Move In Eviction must be a criminal. After they do find out you are not a criminal, they will callously tell you to “move on” and sleep somewhere else. When you ask them, “where else can I sleep?” they will of course provide no answer, since obviously there isn’t one. Severe sleep deprivation will eventually set in, and it is likely you will become a bit delusional in your thinking. Your confusion will constantly disguise what your true issues are. Tired of harsh judgment, tired of false sympathy, you will rack your brains out trying to figure out what is wrong with the way people approach you, and what is lacking in their attitude toward you.

Finally, you will realize that what is lacking is respect. They will not respect you; they will not treat you as an equal; they will ask you inane questions that do not pertain to your situation at all, and then will not bother to listen to your answers. You will get tired of hearing people ask you about the weather, because the weather will be the least of your worries. You will ultimately conclude that the worst thing about being homeless has nothing to do with hygiene, sleeplessness, malnutrition, weather conditions, difficulty sustaining basic needs, difficulty focusing on anything at all other than your day to day survival, or any of the other things that make homelessness miserable for most people.

The worst thing about being homeless, you will undoubtedly conclude, is the way that you are treated. Good luck.

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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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A New Pair of Glasses

The first time in my life that I had ever lost a pair of glasses was on May 20, 2004, when I awoke in Golden Gate Park and realized that I had casually tossed my glasses down in the foliage when I was about to go to sleep the previous night. I and another person spent about a half hour trying to find them, then concluded they were lost. Since I had only been homeless since April 1, 2004, I had not yet come to terms with the many subtle nuances that would distinguish my homeless life from my previous life. Losing a pair of glasses is one of them.

When I lived in a house, I might have casually tossed my glasses onto the rug of my bedroom floor. I might have spent a few minutes looking for them, possibly even more than a few minutes, depending on the nature of the toss and the location of the landing. But once I had found them, I could not truthfully claim to have lost them. I had only misplaced them. The $300 pair of corrective reading glasses that I lost on that morning can never be replaced.

This is telling. Homelessness is not about misplacement. It’s about loss. In some cases — in my case, for example — deep loss. Loss that a person doesn’t get over very easily. In some cases, they might not get over it in an entire lifetime. In my case? Well, the jury is still out.

As I walked toward a certain cafe that morning where another homeless person was going to buy me a cup of coffee, I told myself: “Now I really *have* to do something about my situation! I’ve got to stop being homeless before this gets any worse. All kinds of things have been happening since I’ve been homeless that I could never have predicted would happen. Problems that used to take me five or ten minutes to solve have been setting me back for days.”

But then I thought: “How do I stop being homeless?”

I did not know the answer then, and I do not know it now. That was twelve years ago. Now is now. You cannot imagine the number of “subtle nuances” that have accumulated in those twelve years. If I became cold when I lived in a house, I turned on the heater. It took me less than one minute.

If I become cold now, I go about town looking for extra layers of clothing outside the good will stores, in the “drop boxes.” and on the ground. And remember – there are about a thousand other homeless people living in this city. Many of them are very much like me, and so many of them are doing the exact same thing. We fight each other over a pair of pants. It can literally take me days to turn coldness into warmth. Sometimes you don’t even bother. You’re starting to become hardened. You’re tired of fighting another homeless person for the only sweatshirt in your size.

This, too, is telling. Homelessness is not about warmth – it’s about coldness. It’s about discovering that your lifelong friends and family members, the very people whom you thought were truly supportive of you, are suddenly very leery of you. They won’t take your truthful statements at face value anymore. They keep looking for the “reason” why you’re homeless, and in so doing completely ignore the obvious fact that you are homeless because you don’t have a home.

So you turn to them for support, just the way you always used to, in the hope that they might help you to find a home, just the way they always used to help you help you deal with a difficult co-worker or help you after the break-up of a relationship. They cannot seem to imagine that all these problems you are having are the result of the conditions of homelessness, and not the cause. They find that while you always used to be noted for your punctuality, you suddenly are showing up late. They correlate this with your increasing instances of absent-mindedness, and conclude that you need a psychiatrist. You know in your heart that as soon as you are no longer homeless, you won’t have these problems anymore, so you start to feel a bit brushed off.

They brush off your need for a place to live by providing answers for all the other problems, while ignoring the fact that these other problems are related to all the “subtle nuances” that distinguish your homeless life from your previous life. You suddenly realize that half of these people you thought were so supportive never really did a damn thing for you at all. Anybody can give advice. It takes somebody who really loves you, to let you in much farther than that. But they’re not letting you in. You thought they loved you. But where is the warmth? Why is your own brother, even having a spare room in his house, forcing you to sleep out in the cold?

Finally, you yourself become cold. You thought you were warm, but all these cold blasts are turning down your temperature. The cold blasts accumulate. You used to be able to handle cold weather, but you’re getting older, and it’s getting harder. You used to think you could endure homelessness till the ends of your days. Now you know that if you don’t get inside soon, those days will be drastically shortened. The many unanswered pleas for dignified shelter accumulate. The failed attempts at getting a stint in a homeless shelter to lead anywhere but to another homeless shelter accumulate.

The subtle nuances themselves accumulate. When I lived indoors, how many times did I lose my cell phone? If I recall correctly, none at all. Since I’ve been homeless, how many different cell phones have I had? It pains me to count. “Why is Andy losing his cell phone so often?” I seem to hear them ask. It’s not just because there’s a drastic increase in Andy’s absent-mindedness. It’s because homeless people steal from homeless people. If there is a cell phone in my backpack, I can guarantee you it will be gone within a month or so. Usually, within a week.

As far as the $300 pair of protective reading glasses is concerned, talk about your “luxury” problem! I’ve been buying non-corrective readers for $1.10 at the dollar store for as long as I can remember. And the rate at which I am losing them is steadily increasing. I cannot solve this problem – of losing my glasses 3 to 5 times a week – without help. Real help. From someone who cares. Somebody help me. Let me keep a pair of reading glasses everywhere I try to use this computer. Somebody help me. Give me a place to live. Somebody, somebody, somebody —

“Why isn’t Andy helping himself?”

Because Homelessness is not about love. It’s about hate. Jesus could have had a place to live, you know. He could have lived anywhere he wanted to. So why did he choose to live outdoors? Well, look at this way. If Jesus had been living in some nice plush three-story house and living the good life, how would that have prepared him for the event that He knew was coming, when He would have to endure the mockeries of those who tortured Him to death out of pure hatred for anything so good as Him? How would He have been tough enough do produce enough love to compensate for all the hate in all the history of the world?

The thing is, I’m not Jesus. I’m not headed toward that kind of event, but I am headed toward an event that will be sufficient for who I am. Let me in, please. Before it’s too late.

Andy Pope
Berkeley, California
June 12, 2016 7:52am

lost pair of glasses

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