Gratitude List 1116

(1) I’m in good spirits this morning, and rested, after a lengthy period of anxiety and self-doubt.

(2) I’ll be turning 66 on Wednesday, and I have yet to have a serious physical ailment beyond a flu or a common cold.

(3) I’m at a new clinic where I have finally begun to receive effective treatment for my Severe ADHD and Dyslexia.

(4) Though I awoke discouraged, I found myself encouraged after a long talk with my good friend Danielle, wherein I was reminded of all the many positives in my present life.

(5) Just after Danielle and I got off the phone, I received a first-time call from Jennifer, the new behavioral health specialist at the clinic.   As a result of her influence and insight, I am uplifted.  I am now encouraged to focus on that which I am able to change; i.e., my own self, and not on those whom I am unable to change; i.e., most of my old friends and family members in the State of California.

(6) Alastair not only published two of my articles in the April issue of Street Spirit, but is giving me the opportunity to write regular monthly articles on a certain exciting theme, and also is willing to recommend my work to three major San Francisco Bay Area newspapers.

(7) I have found a publishing house in White Plains, Michigan willing to publish the anthology I am compiling of stories I’ve written about homelessness in America.

(8) Two weeks ago, I received a definite offer for a production of an unstaged concert-reading of Eden in Babylon at a local community theatre company.  The only reason I’ve not yet said “yes” is because a fully staged production is in the works at a much larger venue on the University level.   

(9) I have not met one person in this city who does not want to see Eden in Babylon produced here and elsewhere.   By contrast, there was not one person in the last city where I lived who cared about my musical at all.

(10) Three years ago I was in that city — and I was sleeping under a bridge.  I had been homeless and borderline-homeless in the San Francisco Bay Area for twelve years — and life was getting worse and worse.  Everybody I knew had given me up for gone.   Everybody I knew was just waiting to read my obituary, and I myself expected to die a miserable death in a California gutter.   Now, three years later, every prayer that I prayed to God in anger, yea, in outrage – is being answered – in spades.

Life will always have its ups and downs, and we are none of us perfect.   But the fact that I am not only alive and healthy, but also in the process of fulfilling my life’s dream, is little short of a miracle.  Glory to God – to the One True God — Jesus Christ – on High.

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Tuesday Tuneup 41

Q. Where would you like to be?

A. In a place of greater efficacy.

Q. What do you mean by that?

A. I would like to be more effective.

Q. In what way?

A. In many ways.

Q. Such as?

The Answerer takes a breath.  

A. Such as in my ability to help people.  To make a difference in their lives.   I mean, a positive difference — not a negative one.   Sometimes I just feel like my influence, try as I may to be helpful, winds up being hurtful.  I stick my foot in my mouth at some juncture along the way, and I wind up feeling — I don’t know.   Like a failure, I guess.

Q. Are you a failure?  I mean, objectively speaking?

A. I suppose that depends on what it means to succeed.

Q. What does it mean to succeed?

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A. Very good questions, these.  I think that success must mean different things for different people.   And our notions of success must be somehow wrapped up in our ideas as to life-purpose.   We have this American idea of success here — seems to be dwindling a bit — but it’s the notion that success is related to some kind of worldly advance in monetary gain, accumulation of property, or perhaps a surge in prestige, clout, power, or influence over others.   I don’t know.  A bunch of things that I never really think about.

Q. Then why are you thinking about them?

A. I lied.  Who am I trying to fool?   I think ahout them all the time.  But usually, it’s with  aghast exasperation.

Q. Aghast exasperation?

A. Yeah.  I drop my jaw, and stand aghast at what they all seem to expect of me.  I become exasperated —  not because I don’t have those things (money, property, clout, etc.) — but because people seem to think I’m supposed to have those things in order to be “happy.”  Drives me up the wall!   How would you like it if a bunch of people were always telling you how “unhappy” you are, just because you don’t have all the things they have, even though you don’t want them anyway?  (Not to mention, you’re probably happier than they are.)

Q. Why do you care what they think?

A. I don’t know.   Seems I get asked that a lot these days.   

Q. Do they care what you think?

A. Evidently not.

Q. Then why should you care what they think?

A. Again, I don’t know.   Golden Rule, maybe?   I mean, what is this modern-day hogwash about how we should all be completely indifferent to what other people are thinking?  I get so tired of everybody telling me I care too much about what other people think.   What am I supposed to do?  Stop caring?   That seems — unloving.   Did Jesus stop caring when He went to the Cross?

Q. But isn’t there a difference between caring about them, and caring about what they think of you?

A. No!  They ARE what they’re thinking!!  Whether they think it about me, or anybody else, or the fencepost!!

Q. But do you KNOW what they are thinking?

A. Yes!  It’s obvious what they’re thinking!   They even tell me what they’re thinking!  They do that all the time.   How can I not know what they’re thinking?   They’re always telling me that I’m this worthless, no good, lazy impoverished bum who made “poor choices” throughout this poor life, otherwise with his talents and abilities he’d be living in the frickin’ Taj Mahal, or in some big mansion like that one place where I lived a long time ago.   As if I care to live in a mansion.   I’m just grateful I’m not flying a sign and sleeping under an overpass with a boatload of tweakers.   

Q. You once lived in a mansion?

A. Yes.

Q. What was it like living in a mansion?

A. Freaky is all get-out.  My landlord had more money than he knew what to do with.  He gave me this huge upstairs flat with a private bathroom and a marble floor on the shower.  The guy had two Steinway grand pianos, recording equipment  . . .

Q. Why was that freaky?   Why not beautiful?

A. I don’t know.  I just didn’t belong there somehow.  The guy had a Jaguar, a Cadillac – expensive Belgian furniture you weren’t even supposed to sit on — I just felt like it was out of my league.

Q. And what, pray tell, is your league?

A. Wrong side of the tracks, man.   Poor but thrifty parents.  Neither of them left a will.  Neither of them had anything to leave.  I’ve gravitated toward poor people all my life.  I feel a kinship with people who are impoverished, and I feel out of place among people of greater means and privilege.

Q. But why is that side of the tracks the wrong side?   Why not just — another side?

A. Because of the very thing I said at the top of this whole page.  

Q. Refresh my memory?

A. I said, I wish I could be more effective.   And it just seems like, in this society, if you don’t have at least some means, at least some privilege, you’re not effective at all.

Q. But can’t you be effective in other ways?   Like say helping a friend of yours with a personal issue?   It doesn’t cost money to do that, does it?

A. But that’s my whole frustration!   I don’t help people right.  I say the wrong things.  I get the feeling they should be talking to a professional, and yet — every time somebody’s told me that they couldn’t help me, and I needed a professional, I took it as personal rejection.

Q. Do you feel like a hypocrite?

A. Yes.  If I feel rejected because a friend is telling me that my issues are “too much of them” and that I need “professional help,” then what right do I have to suggest that some friend of mine needs professional help, rather than to talk to me?

Q. But if they talk to you, won’t you just stick your foot in your mouth again?

A. Yes.   And that very well could be the reason all those other people told me that I should see a professional.   They meant well, but they didn’t have the facile or expertise to help me.

Q. Would you consider seeing a professional?

A. I already do.  And I got a stack of bills higher than the ceiling.

Q. Andy – what is the bottom line?

A. You keep asking me that.

Q. Andy – what is the bottom line?

A. See what I mean?

Q. Andy – what is the bottom line?

Andy takes a breath.  

A. The bottom line is that, for a variety of reasons ranging from my being a social imbecile, a dork, a clutz, an unemployable space case, disabled, scraping my nuts off trying to keep up with the rising cost of living, not being able to get around, not having a car, and just generally being a weirdo,  I just don’t consider myself to be very effective.  And I would like to be more effective.

A. So with all that working against you, how can you be effective?

Q. By doing one great thing before I die.  By doing one great thing that will reach people — and that will make a positive difference in their lives.

A. Wow — do you have any idea what that thing might be?

Q. I know exactly what that thing might be!  And by the way, so do you.   Daylight’s burning.  Time’s wasting.  Money doesn’t grow on trees.  LET’S GET THIS SHOW ON THE ROAD. 

The Questioner is silent.

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A little bit goes a long, long way.

The H-Word

This post is an expansion on the fourth “buzzword” cited in my previous post, The Homeless Buzzwords.  I wrote it on request from Alastair Boone, the new editor of Street Spirit, whose fine editing is already evident in this piece.

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

His answer still sticks with me. Homeless is just a word, one that is over-used to describe the experience of somebody who, for one reason or another, does not have a place to call their own. It fails to capture any of the individual characteristics that make the homeless person, well, a person.

homeless stigmaIn the twelve years when I lived outside, this word had a way of making me feel that I was in some way distinctly set apart from the rest of the human race. At times, the word suggested that possibly I was not even fully human. I quickly learned that in this over-generalization, the “H-Word” carries with it so much stigma that its usage actually had the power to actively work against me in a number of different ways.

I often found that avoiding the label of “homeless” was the only way to reach my personal goals. For it would be from that label that all the other distracting labels would spring. Drug addict. Nut case. Lazy Bum. Loser. If instead I somehow managed to be seen only as a fellow human being, and not as a “homeless” person, then my chances of achieving my goals were greatly enhanced.

Not the least of these goals was to find dignified dwelling. Not just any old place to live, but a place that I could truly call my own, where I could attend to all the things that make me the human being who I am—not just the homeless guy, but the human guy—the unique individual who goes by my name. Too often I had seen landlords reject a prospective tenant after learning that they had been homeless at some earlier point in time.

Even recently, a 65-year old man came to the Recovery Center where I work, and was extremely open about his having become homeless at the first time in his life. He had received assistance from St. Vincent DePaul and another charitable organization in the area, and was referred to me to help him find a room at a local residence hotel, where I was on good terms with the manager.

However, by the time I contacted the manager on his behalf, the manager had already heard about the man through the grapevine, this being a very small community, and the man in question a very outspoken fellow. The landlord explained to me simply:

“No, Andy — if I let him in off the streets, I will have let them all in. And I’m sorry, I just can’t take that risk.”

I had hoped to head off his reputation at the pass, but unfortunately it preceded me.  I then remembered how another landlord of my acquaintanceship had once told me, point blank:

“If there are ten people on my rental application, and I find out that one of them has been homeless, there will soon be only nine people on that application.”

Sadly, all of this corroborates with my overall experience with the homeless condition. Not only landlords and apartment managers, but people in general do not like to have homeless people on their premises. There seems to be a prevailing notion that if a person has become homeless, then they must have somehow “messed up” their living situation somehow. “Therefore,” continues the line of thought, “let’s not have them mess up mine.

So, at the end of my homeless sojourn, when I finally did find a place that was to my liking, what do you think I did? I found a landlord who had no reason to see me as anything other than a fellow human being, in a place where nobody would have any knowledge of my homelessness, and I basically started afresh from scratch—just to get my foot in the door. Literally. The H-Word in no way entered into the process.

The H-Word, after all, is divisive. Its essential function is to cause division. The person to whom this word applies—the “homeless person”—is pitted against the person to whom the word does not apply; the “housed person,” if you will. From that moment on, it’s: “You stay in your camp; I stay in mine; never the twain shall meet.” By categorizing all the vastly disparate reasons that one might live outside under the umbrella of “homeless,” society gives itself permission to ignore these stories altogether. If the H-word doesn’t apply to you, then you can put those people in a box and carry on your way.

People who have been so privileged as to always have lived indoors often don’t grasp that the H-word is not just a neutral label used to describe one’s state of living. It also packs a punch that has the power to keep you from finding a place to live, and from leaving the experience of homelessness behind. Simply put, this word carries in it a certain violence. Because of this, I prefer to talk about those who live “outside” or “outdoors,” rather than “the homeless,” whenever possible. 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 as such is protected from the vast array of such external elements.

Acutely aware of such disparities, many people struggling with homelessness will do everything they can to conceal their homelessness from those who live indoors. They become driven into the realm of invisibility in order to avoid the stigma that arises as soon as the question is posed: “Hey – are you homeless?” When spoken, the flood of unwanted connotations and generalities comes rushing in. In the midst of all this, the truth of the actual person who is happens to live outside—their individual and unique story—is forgotten.

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When You Gotta Go . . .

When I was homeless in the San Francisco Bay Area, I had an awfully hard time getting myself to a bathroom on any kind of regular basis.

It wasn’t so bad when I only had to go No.1, as we used to call it.  I could usually find some kind of bush to duck behind, and the cleanup process wasn’t nearly so involved.  Also, the sense of stigma or shame attached to the act of having to pee outdoors wasn’t nearly so severe as the corresponding sense of shame involved in having to go No.2.

But I tell ya – when you gotta go, you gotta go.   There were times when I held it in for an hour and a half or more.  Only one thing was on my mind as I went from bathroom to bathroom, finding all of them locked, and getting the sense that whoever was in there wasn’t about to step out in the near future.

I’ll never forget how one day, I finally gave up, because I just couldn’t hold it any longer.  I found a fairly secluded path of greenery, and figured I could use the large leaves for toilet paper.

“Let’s make this quick,” I said to myself, looking from side to side.  Squatting, I did the deed as thoroughly as I could possibly manage in a fairly paranoid five-second interval.  Then I reached for the leaves.

At that exact moment, about twenty U.C.Berkeley co-eds came waltzing around the corner, smiling and chatting merrily amongst themselves.  You should have seen the look on their eyes when they saw what I was about.  (I’m sure the look on my own eyes was a sight to see, as well.)

All of these musings come in the wake of San Francisco Mayor London Breed’s recent comments that “homeless advocacy groups that receive funding from the city need to better educate the homeless to ‘clean up after themselves.'”  She went on to say: “there is more feces on the sidewalks than I’ve ever seen growing up here. That is a huge problem and we are not just talking about from dogs.”

sad truthWhile these comments may seem to many to be fairly sensible at face value, I would have to say — from the perspective of a person who spent several years swimming the quicksand of homelessness in the S.F.Bay Area — that the mayor’s insights are rather shallow.  While I personally never had to take a shit on the sidewalk, can you imagine the difficulty I would have had in “clean-up” if I had?   For one thing, what would I have used to clean up the feces?   Certainly not toilet paper.  If I’d had access to toilet paper, I’d have had access to one of the many locked bathrooms I wasn’t able to get into.  And that’s the very situation that would have driven me to have to take a dump outdoors in the first place.

Would I use my shirt?  Perhaps the only shirt I had?  Somebody else’s shirt?  A rag of some sort that I would have readily acquired — from where, exactly?  What about a dustpan?  Or a make shift dustpan, quickly constructed from — from what exactly?  

Let’s get real here, people.  We’re talking about homelessness.  The homeless person is at an incredible disadvantage compared to just about any other person in today’s society.  There were times when I was virtually immobilized for hours or even days because I couldn’t come up with a pair of shoelaces, and I basically had to sit still, penniless, until the money to buy them surfaced.  Under such conditions, in the time it would have taken me to come up with a viable device to wipe my shit off of the sidewalk, there could easily have been KRON news cameras covering the scene, further prompting the ludicrosity of such comments as Mayor Breed was so quick to make.

Anybody making a visit to downtown San Francisco will easily observe that the demand for usable bathromms exceeds the supply by a ratio of at least 100-1.  Rather than focus her energies on further demeaning the homeless and inferring that homeless rights advocates are not doing their job properly, why doesn’t the Mayor funnel some energies into adjusting the budget to include more portable toilets in the Financial District?

I would further submit it is not only homeless people who are affected by the appalling lack of public bathrooms in the Bay Area.  Recently, a security camera in San Francisco’s SOMA district caught both a truck driver and a non-profit employee defecating on the sidewalk.  Afterward, they simply walked away to carry on with the rest of their days.  Why is it assumed that all this feces comes from homeless people?

What all of this points to is the overall refusal of society to recognize that homeless people are not the problem — they are the result of the problem.   If statistics are correct and there are in fact only 7500 visible homeless people in San Francisco, how difficult would it be to budget in 7500 tiny houses, and encourage each homeless person to live indoors in privacy and dignity?  

Sure, not every homeless person would go for it.  But a lot of them would — I know I sure would have — and it would be a step in the right direction.  At least the homeless individual would be treated as a full human being whose needs and rights are being considered along with those of the rest of the human race — not like a pariah, an outcast, or a leper.

We really need to take that leap.  Remember that homeless people were not, as a general rule, born homeless.  None of us were born on drugs or drunk or severely mentally disabled.   If we became that way, it was largely the result of having to cope with the extreme conditions of street life, and of having to struggle for survival night after night, and year after year.  It was not the other way around.

Homeless people are human beings with basic needs and inalienable rights just like any other kind of human being.  The sad thing is that homeless people are not, as a general rule, treated like pople — they are treated like homeless people.   And what that translates too, ironically, is that they’re treated like shit.  

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