Authenticity and Community

To start off this Thursday’s post, I’m going to spin off of something I wrote last week:  

“What is being brought to light in the podcasts is how, when we were homeless, we were not in the position to be able to distinguish, among all the authority figures and “pseudo-authorities” in our midst, who were the ones who represented benign agencies whose role it was to assist us, and who were the ones who represented more-or-less adversarial institutions designed to investigate and incriminate us. All these “higher ups” were relegated into the box of our “observers from inside” – and thus it was difficult to distinguish them, one from another.

“In a corresponding way, it was difficult for those who lived indoors to discern from among those who were outside who was a legitimate candidate for genuine assistance, and who was of a criminal bent.   Those in the latter camp often feigned a need for assistance in order to gain benefits.  They were also often very good at it.  Whatever the case, I can assure you that I didn’t look much different than any other person on the streets — at least not at first glance.”

Having become homeless, I was dealing with this dynamic from the start.  Add to this the conditions under which the homelessness began; that is, that I had been subjected to a costly medical misdiagnosis that at first I embraced naively, only later to find myself headed for the streets.  The further I fell, the more it appeared that people in the medical profession were assuming authority over me.  This in fact was indicative of a greater phenomenon:  The further one descended down the socio-economic scale, the more people began to exert power and authority over that person.  The lower I got, the higher became the number of “pseudo-authorities.”  As more and more people seemed to grab power over me, I literally felt myself losing my last shreds of personal power–losing my value to society–as I became homeless.

The more people assumed authority over me, the more I rebelled against them.  After all, they did not know me personally and made no effort to engage me meaningfully.  What authority qualified them to boss me around?  Why should this particular batch of emerging new people, eminently random in my span of life experience, be the ones to whom I hold myself accountable?   In the case of the medical professionals in particular, I not only ceased to hold myself accountable to them, but I went so far as to address them from an adversarial stance, sometimes even a hostile one.  For it was they who had, in my view, initiated my demise. 

Abuse of Authority

The absolute audacity!  The very sort of people whom I thought should be held accountable for my downfall were now in a position of supposed authority over me!  They lived indoors; they had jobs with responsibilities and tenure; they wore badges.  Mental health professionals did not differ much from security guards in their approach toward us, when we were homeless.   Nor did we ourselves hold any particularly greater degree of respect for them than we did for anyone else who wore a badge.  

While my previous relationship with my psychiatrist had ordinarily been pleasant as well as at least potentially helpful, my new position with respect to mental health professionals was clearly one of assumed subordination.  Earlier, when I lived indoors and paid into my Kaiser health-insurance, I was happy to discuss life with my psychiatrist and more than willing to take her suggestions, since I felt she and I were on an even playing field.   But now, mental health officials often showed up in cahoots with police officers and fire department personnel, in a scenario where the badges even of emergency medical technicians seemed no less intimidating than those of the chief executive officers of major corporate hospitals.  The idea that any of these detached pseudo-authorities should even care to get to know me personally, let alone that I should be expected to blindly obey their uninformed commands, was absurd.   There was no reasonable choice other than to rebel.  

It was with such biases weighing upon me that I found myself eager to give musical and dramatic form to my emerging worldview.   For one thing, the season of life was quite exciting.  I was meeting other men and women who had fallen into the same predicament, and their views coincided closely with my own.  In fact, our perceptions began to build and feed upon each other.  Before long, I found myself overtaken by an alternate view of reality.  It was as though I had become a member of an alternative society, formed by the interactions that entailed among myself and others, as we all set out to interpret what had befallen us in a way that made mutual sense.

It was in such an atmosphere that I naturally conceived of the musical that was to become Eden in Babylon.  I felt an eagerness to use my particular skills to hone a medium through which a picture of youth homelessness in urban America could be presented.   Naturally, the Kids in the story would hang together and be protective of one another, in an environment where they were constantly having orders barked at them by desensitized pseudo-officials.  In such a scenario, an idealistic protagonist who finds himself subjected to brutal torture on the part of the “powers that be” in a psychiatric facility seemed to fit right in.

A New Life

Fast forward about ten years, and we find the playwright in a quiet college town in North Idaho, having not only lived inside for almost five years now, but actually having become acclimated to an accepting community of artists and academicians.  In the process, I cannot help but have gradually embraced some of the details of functioning in a healthy indoor community that, when I was outside, I would have shunned as “mainstream.”  The same system of tacitly acknowledged social conventions that I disdained when I was outside now appears at worst to be a necessary evil, and at best a convenience designed to make life easier on myself and on the others with whom I come into contact.

In such a markedly different culture, the thought of finding a compatible doctor and therapist, and of exploring medications that might assist in adapting to the established social norms, does not seem very far-fetched at all.   There is at least a tangible ideal of connecting meaningfully with mental health professionals who may assist me along my path.  Before, it was like, “get him in, give him some meds, get him out of here.”  I’d be ejected from the system turnstile just in time to have all my new meds stolen out of my backpack in a food line.

But it is not only my position with respect to medical professionals that has changed.  If something unruly is taking place in the neighborhood, I am confident that I can call the local cops, give them my name, receive their assistance, and be regarded as a responsible citizen in the process.  This would not have been the case when I was homeless.  The menacing nature of all the “badges” has diminished since I’ve been back inside.  There appear to be fewer of them now, and the ones that there are no longer hover so high above me.  

Also significantly diminished is the sense of inexorable evil wrapped up in this entity we called the Mainstream.  No longer do I feel that there is this giant social ogre — the Mainstream — ready to expel me from all the blessings of indoor living if I don’t abide precisely by all its confusing restrictions and demands.   Because of this, I feel that the cry that was so often expressed by my homeless brothers and sisters has been heard in the affirmative.  “How can we get back inside without getting caught up again in the Mainstream?”  That was the perennial question.

Authenticity and Community 

The answer for me has been twofold.  I had to first agree with myself to be genuine and authentic in my approach toward others and toward life.  I had to be myself decidedly, and to believe in myself — otherwise I would construct from all my guise and façade the very Mainstream that I was trying to avoid.  Life would again become a game in which I had already proven myself a very poor player, and I would risk being cast outside once again.   

Secondly, I had to agree to give of myself to a community that I would serve and in which I would play a part.   Here in Moscow, I have found a supportive church group, I have volunteered at a recovery center where I have found an emotional support group, I have found artists and musicians committed to my work, and I participate in theology groups with professors from both of the nearby Universities.  This accountability – or connectivity – keeps me from the isolation that would occur if I were still setting myself as an entity separate from and almost opposed to the world — the natural iconoclasm that sets in when one becomes homeless.

Thus is found the construction of an authentic life within an authentic community.   This differs hugely from what I experienced for years before ever becoming homeless.  I remember on the Peninsula wondering if I had any friends among the many associates whom I classified as consisting of the “three C’s” — clients, colleagues, and co-workers.   Many of my associations were contractual, and more money was indeed made.  But few of my associations were truly meaningful.   In a sense, this experience of a threatening Mainstream that sought to devour my true identity was itself only a social construct, because it was composed of the consequences of my own hypocrisy.  All its many conventions and protocols were but a reflection of my own personal falsity.  

That ugly scepter need not return to rear its head, for it has been dissolved in the greater reality of authenticity and community.   And, as Kelsey Chapman pointed out in one of the podcasts, Eden in Babylon has evolved accordingly, in a way that parallels my own personal transformation.    According to Kelsey, earlier drafts evidenced a protagonist who himself stood separate from the culture with which he was concerned, and who felt a false sense of empowerment that he could fix the situation from a detached, single-handed position.  It’s possible I was a bit like that myself.  In any case, the new protagonist – the new Winston – is a person who, like his creator, now merges in an even way with his community. 

So the picture of the tortured Artist who ten years ago sat beneath a Starbucks awning in the dead of night while homeless, conceiving a scene in which his main character was subjected to torture in a psych ward, is no longer the prevailing picture.  The Artist is no longer tortured by same.

The workshop was more than a mere musical workshop, for it awakened the desire deeply driven into all of our Actors to display how each of their characters represented a greater principle at work in today’s society.  In that more holistic view, Eden in Babylon ceases to be a statement about the mental health industry or even about homelessness, for that matter.  It becomes a statement about classism — and how it fosters the abuse of authority and power — as seen through the eyes of those who lack power the most.   

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Gratitude List 1654

(1) Taking a week off from EIB rehearsals was just about the best thing I’ve done for myself in a long time. I caught up on my sleep as well as on reading and housecleaning. Was also able to devote more time to my daughter and to my friends. Grateful for the power of rest.

(2) The first column in the five week series is beginning to take off, surprisingly enough. Though the essential message — having to do with stigma — is a challenge to articulate, I have confidence that after five weekly columns, I’ll have gotten the point across. Grateful for the opportunity.

(3) I’ve sold five new From a Distance piano albums already. Taking the cash bit by bit to the Dollar Store for groceries is reminiscent of a former time of thrift, when all throughout the 90’s I took my tip money four nights a week to a Lucky grocery store after getting off my regular gig at Gulliver’s Restaurant. Never had a food bill in those days, never had to go to a food bank, never went hungry.

(4) I was a new man when I arrived at the recording session yesterday. The spirit of professionalism was striking, and we nailed “Turns Toward Dawn” on the 3rd take. The way that Liam and Cody work together, both with expertise in their respective fields, neither having known the other before a few short weeks ago, is beyond impressive. After the session, we ran “Oracle.” This was the first time I’ve accompanied it since Cody took over teaching the choral parts, and it rocked. I was blessed — I was jazzed — I was proud.

(5) Grateful for my church, where I’ve been a member now for over 4 1/2 years. They have supported me in my best and put up with me in my worst. Very thankful for my new life in Idaho, after years of struggling on the San Francisco Bay Area streets.

Don’t lose faith. Promise yourself that you will be a success story, and I promise you that all the forces of the universe will unite to come to your aid; you might not feel it today or for a while, but the longer you wait the bigger the prize.   — George Bernard Shaw  

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Re: “She Called Me Dad”

I have a Tuesday Tuneup planned but am foregoing it – and all other things — until this piece of social activism has been submitted. This may be a trigger for some people.

Something happened yesterday by surprise that was so emotionally wrenching, I burst into tears in the midst of all else that is going on at this time.

A few days ago I heard from Alastair (the Street Spirit editor) that they’d received a letter at the Spirit Office that was for me. They said a man had walked the letter into the office, unaddressed, and asked if they could please get it to Andy Pope.

Me being me, I naturally was fairly convinced that it was from some street hustler whom I’d offended, possibly with a threat against my life, or else contained some horrible blackmail attempt such as a photograph of the time I practically defecated in public I couldn’t hold it any longer. In fact, one of any number of high-profile formerly private activities could have been filmed or photographed — the privileges that one sacrifices when one gives up all privacy by living on the streets.

Instead, it was a handwritten letter from a dear friend named Mike. Mike and I had been homeless together for years down there, and we had a mutual friend whom I shall call “Maria.” Mike said that he had been reading my columns for “a few years” and that he especially appreciated the one I wrote about Maria.

Of course, I had been hesitant to write about a real person, and I changed her name to “Maria” when I wrote the story. I wrote nothing bad about her, but still feared it would embarrass her if it got back to her, or anger some of her friends. Still, I was moved to write a column called She Called Me Dad because this young Hispanic woman with a severe mental health condition — possibly Dissociative Identity Disorder — sat across from me where I had my spot where I flew my sign, and pretended I was her Dad so as to protect her.

As a severely disabled young woman alone on the streets, she was very vulnerable. Tweakers took advantage of her all the time, and Berkeley cops could have cared less, because people with conspicuous mental health disorders were generally lumped into the same bag as the other “losers and dirt bags” who appeared to populate the streets.

So Mike sent me two pictures of her — I wish I could scan them and show them to you — but of course I can’t do so without her consent. And like as not, I will never see her again, let alone do I know how to reach her.

In one picture she is seen holding one of two newborns in her arms, obviously caring for her baby as any mother would. In the other, she is seen at the Spot we shared, though of course without me.

He related that she had again been raped (I have no idea how many times she had been raped previously), went through with the pregnancy, and gave birth to twins. The twins of course were immediately taken from her by Child Protective Services.

I stared at the words and the pictures, and tears flooded my face. I’m not a crier, you know. That is, I don’t cry readily or easily. But it was too much for my heart not to be softened and touched.

Mike also shared that “Peaches” had died — which I had already learned from Kathy Kitzman, who was the Admin of Homeless Lives Matter at the time — and that my friend “Lillian” who had had three strokes and suffered from psychomotor impairment had come back for a while and then disappeared again. His reports brought back a panorama of a Berkeley that I’d forgotten about.

I usually think of Berkeley as this horrible place in time where a number of us did our best to look after each other while being routinely treated like shit by practically anybody who lived inside, and by at least half of the people who lived outside. I usually think of Berkeley as this horrible world. What I forget is how much LOVE there was among the decent people who had wound up homeless.

In a way, I’ve lost a lot of that love because life hasn’t been hard – I even get bored these days — which for me is inexcusable. Did I ever get bored on the streets? I remember how when we were homeless, if someone managed to score a hotel room for a week, it was a joke to say: “Wow – you might even get bored!”

Homelessness in Berkeley was a lot of hard things and a lot of good things, a lot of pain and fear and anger, and a lot of fun too. But it was never boring.

“What right have I?” I asked myself when I saw the two pictures of Maria and the vulnerable look in her eyes, “to be bored?”

I have a calling, I have a purpose. I better get on the ball.

Please help raise awareness as to homeless rights issues.
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Anything Helps
God Bless!

Is There Life After Homelessness?

Below the illustration is an excerpt from my personal diary.   

The Battle After the War – Homelessness and Housing

I’ve thought about almost nothing but homelessness in Berkeley throughout the past five days. It’s a disease; it’s a disorder; it’s PTSD; it’s been triggered.   So I thought I’d take the opposite tact as oft-advised. Rather than distract myself from the triggers, I would embrace the experience completely.

In that spirit, I created this talk, called It Can’t Be Forgotten. Later I judged this effort harshly. Not the fact that I did it — that I don’t mind at all. I was happy, thrilled, and thankful that I completed the spontaneously conceived task, exciting as it was to undertake it.

What I judged was its quality. Two glaring errors stood out. For one thing, while I spoke often of the “inequality” factor, I did very little, if anything, to back up how that sense experience was valid for those of us enduring the Homeless Experience. It could just as easily have been a reflection of my own individual inferiority complex as it was an alleged manifestation of a social injustice.

Secondly, when this issue of inequality arises in the speech, I adopt a tone of voice that seems excessively strident. This could make the listener uncomfortable. The stridency could be alternately interpreted as either anger or sarcasm, something of an almost bitter outrage enters into the vibration from time to time, and the whole thing can make one very uneasy. This is especially the case if one can only tune into the upset tone of voice, and figure this guy’s got some kind of ax to grind, and then never tune in to the actual content of the dissertation, due to the fact that the ostentatious style has stood in the way.

I just now listened to the whole thing for the first time this morning. I don’t find it nearly as objectionable as I did during yesterday’s listen, but that may be because as a listener, I’m simply getting addicted to the repetitive playing of an interesting piece, and I’m getting into the groove of it. But it also may mean that my original objections are not so objectionable, because to remove that element of anger as well as the component of vagueness as to what exactly made us all feel so unequal and so dehumanized when we were all together back then on the streets, would be in essence to assault the very concept of the piece. It is what it is. If it makes you uncomfortable, good. What does this say about you?

That question asked, the speech, on that level, succeeds.  What might be a distraction from that success, however, is if a certain kind of listener jumps to the conclusion, based on early, as yet undeveloped information, that the piece is “about” Internet trolling, trolls, etc.  But it’s not.  It’s about homelessness, inequality, and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.  The troll is only used as a device, to serve as a trigger.

8:06 a.m. – 2019-08-10

 

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The Fine Linen She Wears

After this I heard a sound like the roar of a great multitude in heaven, shouting:

“Hallelujah!
        Salvation and glory and power belong to our God.
For His judgments are true and just.
He has judged the great prostitute

who corrupted the earth with her immorality.
        He has avenged the blood of His servants
that was poured out by her hand.”

And a second time they called out:

“Hallelujah!
        Her smoke ascends forever and ever.”

And the twenty-four elders and the four living creatures fell down
and worshiped God who sits on the throne, saying:

“Amen, Hallelujah!”

Then a voice came from the throne, saying:

“Praise our God,
        all you who serve Him,
and those who fear Him,
        small and great alike!”

And I heard a sound like the roar of a great multitude,
        like the rushing of many waters,
and like a mighty rumbling of thunder, crying out:

“Hallelujah!
        For our Lord God, the Almighty, reigns.
Let us rejoice and be glad.
        give Him the glory.
For the marriage of the Lamb has come,
        and His bride has made herself ready.
She was given clothing of fine linen,
        bright and pure.”

For the fine linen she wears is the righteous acts of the saints.

 — Revelation 19:1-8

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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?

canstock27956854.jpg

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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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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Restorer of Streets with Dwellings

Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
and your healing will quickly appear;
then your righteousness will go before you,
and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.
Then you will call, and the Lord will answer;
you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.

“If you do away with the yoke of oppression,
with the pointing finger and malicious talk,
and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
then your light will rise in the darkness,
and your night will become like the noonday.
The Lord will guide you always;
he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land
and will strengthen your frame.
You will be like a well-watered garden,
like a spring whose waters never fail.
Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins
and will raise up the age-old foundations;
you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls,
Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.”

–Isaiah 58:6-12

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Weep and Howl

Come now, you rich, weep and howl
for the miseries that are coming upon you.
Your riches have rotted
and your garments are moth-eaten.
Your gold and silver have corroded,
and their corrosion will be evidence against you
and will eat your flesh like fire.

You have laid up treasure in the last days.
Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields,
which you kept back by fraud,
are crying out against you,
and the cries of the harvesters
have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. 

You have lived on the earth in luxury
and in self-indulgence.
You have fattened your hearts
in a day of slaughter.
You have condemned and murdered the righteous one –
And he does not resist you.

–James 5:1-5

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