Categories
Composer Homelessness mental health

Dangers of Liberation (Part Five)

For the sake of new followers I gained shortly before my hiatus, I’ve been thinking to reiterate some themes that are essential to this blog.  But for the sake of my longtime readers, I want to be careful.   In approaching the tail end of the “Dangers of Liberation” series, I wish not to fall prey to repeat information.   I’ve told my story so many times, in so many ways — from so many different angles — that I fear losing some of those who have followed me regularly.   Hopefully, after the last three Thursday posts in this series, my fears will have proven unwarranted.

A particular sound often heard is that I ought to get over the homeless topic and resume writing on other themes about which I am passionate.   This kind of sound does resonate with me.   But I also need to fulfill something I started here.   Hopefully I can impress upon my more longstanding followers that this is not exactly “repeat information,” but the announcement or heralding of something completely new.

After all, isn’t this the essence of liberation?   It is the opposite of being locked into any kind of box.   So what exactly happened after the cacophony of disturbing, disparate events described in the previous post?   How did I get from a place of hurling vindictive curses at the Almighty, to a position of recognizing that He had responded to those prayers, despite my curse?

I mentioned that on June 24, 2016, I walked quietly out of the City of Berkeley without saying a word.   This was immediately after buying a refurbished computer at Bill’s Computer Store on Shattuck Avenue after receiving an advance on my social security check.   Given that I was essentially a marked man, and that the sight of me with a full backpack would indicate to any one of a number of thugs and gang bangers that there was no doubt a laptop inside that backpack, one might think I’d have left Berkeley first, and bought the computer later.  After all, I had had four laptops stolen in Berkeley in the past four years, two of them the result of strong-armed robbery.

But the fact was, Bill had been working on an old Dell Latitude, and he was about to give me a much better deal than I’d have gotten from a complete stranger.   Moreover, I would need as much money as possible to start an entirely new life, outside of Berkeley.

Image result for dell latitude e6430

So, computer in tow, I headed for a small, out-of-the-way city called Burlingame, and for the all-night Royal Donuts shop, where I had some fair standing in the view of the nice Malaysian people who rolled doughnuts all night long, singing songs in their traditional fashion.  Though I was very eager to begin notating all the music I had “written in my head” while walking about the Berkeley city streets, I was also aware that I had practical matters to consider.  I needed to get some kind of roof over my head in a community where homeless services were few and far between.

Long story short, I found a shelter in a nearby city.   I recall the rules being fairly regimented.   For example, all shelter residents were required to attend daily meetings of either Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous.   I personally didn’t mind the meetings, because I have a reverence for the Twelve Steps and for that model of dealing with life’s difficulties.   But it was a red flag to find homelessness equated with drug addiction or alcoholism, as though those were the only reasons a person could have become homeless.   As one who was already painfully aware that most people in the San Francisco Bay Area were becoming homeless for socio-economic reasons entirely beyond their control, I found such stigma unsettling.

But there were some perks to being in the shelter.  I began working with a caseworker who rightly determined that the best thing for me would be to move to an entirely new State.   Then, as we began to work on this, I caught the flu.   Clearly, I had caught the flu from other residents in the male barracks who were coughing and sneezing throughout the night.  But the “mistake” I made was to let them know that I had the flu.  I went to the hospital, and came back with medical information.   When the people running the shelter learned of my medical diagnosis, their response was to kick me out of the shelter, lest I contaminate the other residents.

Something about this didn’t seem quite right.   For one thing, my immune system is such that I had only caught a flu twice in the past fifteen years, even though I had lived outdoors throughout most of that period of time.   That I had clearly caught the flu in the very shelter from which I was being expelled was obvious.

So I returned to the hospital in hopes of their letting me stay there.  But their reply was that they couldn’t make a special exemption for me being homeless, otherwise they would have to make exceptions for all homeless people, and the hospital would become overcrowded.  Standard procedure was to write “rest in bed for ten days” on the release form.  Of course, I did not have a bed.  But I couldn’t be made an exception — not in a part of the world where there are thousands of visible homeless people, night after night, lacking beds.

Next I tried the all-night bus that would run from Daly City to Palo Alto repeatedly.  This bus was a haven for sleeping homeless people who had nowhere else to go.  But when the homeless people saw me shivering and heard me sneezing, they too became concerned for their health.   The upshot was that the bus driver kicked me off of the bus, and I had now had literally no options but to suffer a flu of some 100+ degrees with no place to lay my head, except for outdoors in the elements.

It was then that I got on my knees.  Somehow, after twelve years of homelessness and borderline homelessness, it was catching a flu and being denied an indoor bed to rest in and to recuperate, due to no factor other than homelessness, that finally got to me.

I will never forget the exact words to the prayer that I prayed.   Just after midnight on  July 17, 2016,  I hit my knees so hard on the pavement outside of the Sequoia Station in Redwood City, California, I compounded illness with injury in order to scream these words:

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!!!!

One might argue the theological validity of a prayer worded in such a haphazard fashion – or even its internal logical consistency, for that matter.  Such discussions would be another story altogether.  What is critical here, from the standpoint of Homeless Rights Activism, is that it was the first time I had actually offered the heavens a petition with respect to homelessness itself, and not to all these other stigmatic things that are so often attached to that label.

Mental illness, alcoholism, drug addiction and laziness are not identical to homelessness.   But, much as I despised the stigma that was often thrown my way — even to the insistence that, as a homeless person, I needed to attend A.A. or N.A. meetings in order to sustain residence in a shelter — I myself suffered from the same stigmatic assaults on my identity.   My true identity, as the sociologist Erving Goffman framed it, was “spoiled” by perceptions people have toward the homeless.

Stigma Quotes. QuotesGram

Had this not been the case, I’d have certainly found within me the power or presence of mind to have prayed such a prayer long ago.   In fact, the practical wisdom of leaving the State of California and the San Francisco Bay Area in particular had been offered me by friends whom I knew from the Internet as early as 2004 — when I was first becoming homeless.   But I did not have the ears to listen.

I did not have the ears to hear the fullness of the fact that my problem — far and away more serious than any of its associated labels — was homelessness.   I had basically bought into all the very lies that I disdained.

That, above all things, is what kept me homeless for all those years.  I saw the contradictory nature of what it was assumed I must be.   I saw the ridiculous horrors of myself and others being treated as criminals, our true stories disbelieved by authority figures.  I felt the frustration we all felt when having to face such demeaning treatment.   But still, I hung on to the false notion that there must have been something about me that was innately flawed in such a way that I would never warrant a normal, self-respecting living situation such as even thieves and criminals are able to secure in our society.  I never fully allowed the truth about homelessness to enter my heart.

Why not?

The short, simple answer would be low self esteem.  That, combined with a certain measure of social indoctrination.  When one hears something about oneself repeatedly, by people who appear to be in authority, one eventually begins to believe it.

But there’s a deeper answer than this.   The dynamic of believing what one is told about oneself is most common when one is a child.   In such a case, the looming figures of authority are one’s parents.   Though my father had been dead since 1985, and my mother more recently deceased, they still remained the original authorities, exerting their influence upon me even as they tried to steer me away from dangerous behavior.

My mother died on October 9, 2003.   That morning, I had beseeched Kaiser Redwood City to put me back on a medication called Klonopin, being as the past three years under the medication Gabapentin had been extremely challenging for me.    While it is true that the combination of the med switch and my mother’s death triggered what psychiatry calls a “first time manic episode,” and it is true that I lost a $50,000 annual income, a home, a car, and all my professional accounts in the process, there is a deeper truth at work here.

The full extent to which my relationship with my mother ensured on a daily basis the type of sanity I needed to function in the workaday world of the Mainstream was something I was not to grasp until years later.   Essentially, hearing of her death so soon after many of my senses were being dulled by 6mg/day of a powerful sedative — the highest legal dosage at the time — resulted in my blocking out the feeling of every interaction I had ever known with the person with whom I was undoubtedly the closest.

Like the motherless child whom I was, I then began to seek her guidance and comfort through the many disparate, detached figures of authority whom I soon found in the vast cosmic orphanage that is Homelessness.   The horrible degree to which her nurturing love was cloned by the callous manipulations of an impassive band of power-hungry scoundrels was something I would have to face fully, were I ever to come to know the true identity of my actual enemy in life.

The manner in which my mother represented the Mainstream needed to be understood and embraced in completion, if I were ever to succeed in crafting a life free of her restrictions, and full of the independent identity that is mine and mine alone.

It will take me two more posts to drive the point home.

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Categories
Activism Christianity Classism gratitude Homelessness

The Homeless Inequities

Happy Thanksgiving — to those to whom it applies.   Here’s a little talk I created yesterday.  It’s about twenty-five minutes long, explaining how my recent “Inequity Series” came about, what it means, and what we probably should be doing about it.  I’d be happy if you gave it a listen.

The Homeless Inequities 

We who live indoors have a lot to be thankful for.  I say, let’s give a “hand up” to those who could use it.  God bless you — and God bless America.

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Categories
Activism Artist Homelessness Sociology Writing

The Unforgiven in the Eyes of Man

I found this “plea” in my Zoho Docs folder, a folder I rarely open.  I had long ago forgotten writing this on March 18, 2016.   I was homeless at the time, and had been homeless for quite a few years.   Little did I know that my exact plea was to be answered, four months and nine days later.   Not only did I receive the “lock on the door, window, and power outlet” for which I was pleading;  I even received the “community of like-minded Artists and visionaries”  that I was hoping would replace my homeless community.   So I cannot help but post this plea — verbatim and unaltered, in all its raw and fervent appeal.  The only thing that has been changed is that the words now appearing in italics were once in caps, since it was written on a Facebook timeline.  

I apologize for my recent mania. Although — I’m thinking. What exactly is wrong with mania? What is there to apologize for? People tell me I “exhaust” them. But to me, almost everybody else seems to be moving in slow motion. Is it morally wrong that I think and move so quickly? Of course not.  But I begin to develop a chip on my shoulder. I do not know how to express this dynamic clearly or articulately, or in a manner that would be persuasive of my case. My “apology” — such as it is — is placed before your eyes in order that it may be held distinct from the mania that was placed in another venue. I am banking on your objectivity to help me to believe that I can find words to express my position in such a way that will incur the empathy of the powerful.

This is because I, despite an empathic nature, despite an articulate presence, have been robbed of my natural power by a set of conditions and circumstances that have persisted far past the point of the conscious choices that initially set them into motion. That set of conditions and circumstances is called, in a word, homelessness. It has been going on for eleven years now. I do not know how I have made it this far. But I do know that I am not going to make it much farther without real help from someone who has the power to help and who cares to help.  So: let’s get real.  

I cannot live outdoors any longer. I mean – I can, but we may expect my life to end within the next two years at best. From eleven years of Homelessness I am finally breaking down. I, even I. No one can take the overwhelming conditions of homelessness for long without breaking in some way at some point. That I have endured this long is miraculous — especially in combination with the fact that every single person who is homeless understands my issue completely – whether they can articulate it or not – and every single person who lives indoors believes that my issue is something other than what it is.

Initially, this dynamic fascinated me. It fascinated me on an academic level, sociologically, as an item of analysis.  But it has grown to disgust me. Not on an emotional level — but on a revolutionary level. Let me articulate my issue as clearly as I can. I know you love me – and I know you have had your own overwhelming issues. And I am proud of you. But please hear what my issue is. Every homeless person I know will echo this issue. I might as well speak in the editorial “we.” I speak on behalf of the Homeless People of the United States of America.

Our issue is that we feel unloved.

Much as I know that you love me, much as I know that my brother loves me, much as I know that my best female friend loves me – and if I have a remaining male friend who has not rejected me totally, he probably loves me too, whoever he is — I do not feel loved. None of us do. We feel unloved because it is not possible for us to grasp the disparity between the love that we see in the eyes of those who profess it – the love that I hear in your voice and in the voice of my brother and of my best female friend – and the other side of that dynamic, which is that none of the people who love us so will let us into their homes, much less agree to rent rooms to us, even in exchange for good money that we promise to pay. This is a universal homeless phenomenon.

Apparently, it is thought that we do not bathe. That our clothes are filthy. That we cannot manage. We will do something horrible in your house. If this were not the case, then why are we not in houses of our own? Although we know that the demand for affordable housing far exceeds the supply – in America – we still feel somehow blamed for the fact that we are the one who got left without residence.  It’s as though we’re all in a competition, we are the ones who lost the game, and the booby prize is homelessness.

Rather than look at us as “losers,” why not view us according to reason?   Because of high demand and low supply, somebody had to get left. It just happened to be us. We feel like lepers. We are the ostracized, the rejected, the pariahs, the untouchables. We are the perennial round pegs who did not fit, despite ourselves, into the square holes of the society that has discarded us.

We feel unloved because we do not understand how all these people who love us are permitting us to persist in a pattern of life that we have pleaded with them to help us to escape.  For some of us, those pleas have been sent out for years.  In my case, for eleven years.  During that time there have been brief oases of residence that have lasted in some cases as long as six or seven months or more, before — before what? Something happened, and we are out in the wilderness once more.

What is that happened?  Why did we lose those short-lived residential sites?  It is because we didn’t want to sell used cars for our landlords, nor trim their marijuana plants. The housemates didn’t like the way that we paced the floors, or perhaps we were possessed of an annoying tick or snore that kept them awake at night. When asked to put something in the microwave, we who were absent-minded put it in the broiler oven instead. When it was discovered that we had been homeless, that somehow explained everything in the eyes of the potential landlord, and those eyes moved on to the next applicant — the one who had references and a credit rating, the one who either had not been homeless, or else was remarkably good at hiding the fact that they had. If the latter were the case, and one would possess that depth of discretion (I, by the way, do not), then one would probably have been shrewd enough to have avoided homelessness altogether in the first place.

In my case, after seven years of struggling, I finally became homeless by choice. That choice was made long ago.  Made gladly, as you know. The problem is that it is no longer my choice. But I am having the devil of the time acting on the new choice – which is not to be homeless – because the stigmata that is Homelessness radiates from my forehead like a scarlet letter, as though warning everyone who crosses my path that I, like the others, having dabbled in the darkness that is homelessness, am thereby marked and branded. I differ from Cain only in that I have not yet killed a man. But I am just as marked, living in the awful place of confusion wherein the love of God so fills my heart that I know I am forgiven, and yet I know not what it is for which one must forgive me. I know that only God has forgiven me, and suspect that only God can.  For we are those whom Man cannot forgive: The Unforgiven in the Eyes of Man. Not only that, but we do not know what we did that they won’t forgive us for. Ask ten people, we get ten different answers.

Homeless? You must be lazy. You’re not? Then you’re a loser. You’re not? Then you’re a dead beat. You’re not? Well then, shall we say, scum bag? Dirt bag? Piece of shit – that’s it! You must be a piece of shit. No doubt you are seriously drug-addicted. Hard drugs, the kind that ought never be discussed, much less indulged. You must be an alcoholic. Or severely mentally unhealthy – yes, that’s it. You’re a wing nut. Homeless? What do you mean by homeless? There’s got to be a reason for it.

Well, yes there is a reason. By definition, a person is homeless because he does not have a home. Whatever those other problems are – and believe me, if you’re homeless for long enough, you’ll encounter them all- they certainly cannot be solved until the problem of Homelessness that preempted them is solved. Otherwise, they will only recur again and again, because Homelessness feeds them. They come with the territory. We not only are homeless, but we will always be homeless, and we should always be homeless. We not only will never have a place to live indoors again, but we should not ever have a place to live again.  Through the impaired vision of America, homelessness is seen not as a temporary state of affairs, but as a permanent and insoluble, incurable condition of the soul.

It is not that I happen to be able to withstand cold temperatures and inclement weather. It is not that I sleep in thunderstorms without a bedroll, shouting “Bring it On!” and exerting mighty pelvic thrusts toward the stars with each successive lightning bolt or thunderclap. It is not that I have not worn a jacket since 1985, or that I ran my half-marathon PR in 35 mph gales high on LSD flanked by local city cops. It is not that I am gonzo. True – I got exactly what I asked for, and if my book on the subject, the book that has needed to be written for years now, the book that explains the conditions from homelessness according to an author who actually is homeless and not according to some detached liberal social worker or socio-economist or some other form of clueless ivory tower bleeding heart do-gooder – but from the card-carrying, gun-toting homeless bro in dick mode, the real homeless man, AKA Yours Truly. That book is being written faster than these words are being penned, however spontaneously. And people tell me I exhaust them?  Ha!  They ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

That I have pleaded persistently with people who do have the power to terminate this way of living for me and help me into dignified indoor situation  – not a “shelter” – nothing to do with “services” – nothing to do with a “program” – nothing to do with agencies, facilities, or institutions, but an actual living situation that entails outside the realm of homelessness, that (unlike the others) does not simply lead the homeless back to homelessness.   A dignified living situation, where it will not be assumed that I am a criminal, that I plot crimes when so visibly preoccupied – I do not – where my writings of music and text and script on all levels will actually be met with a supportive environment of like-minded Artists and visionaries,  rather than with further attempts to transform the vibrancy of this particularly uniquely gifted Child of the Most High into an impassive robot clone who serves the purposes of a sterile society consisting of those whose claim to fame is neither to threaten, not to make waves, not to cause wrinkles in time or similar anomalies that would disrupt the deluded flow of a culture gone awry.  I refuse to join the ranks of those whose brains have been suspended until further notice so that they no longer can think for themselves but only serve the purposes of the State and of spiritual wickedness in high places when I AM A CHILD OF GOD! I AM A CHILD OF THE MOST HIGH KING! I AM BORN OF THE UNIVERSE THAT IS UNFOLDING ACCORDING TO DIVINE DESIGN, and I HAVE A RIGHT TO BE WHO I AM!

And I’m tired. Believe it or not, I — even I — tire. I exhaust even myself. So I close.

These could be the words of an asshole. But they are not.  They are the words of a person who has been chosen to receive a message that he will articulate with precision and persuasive power. It is a message that America needs to hear – and that the nation, yea the world, has not yet heard. It is not that the message has not been delivered. On the contrary, it has been submitted en masse. It is that those to whom it has been spoken either have not listened, or they have not needed to hear it. Who has not listened to the message? Those of you live indoors. Who does not need to hear it? The homeless people of America who, ironically, are the only ones listening to it.

I can no longer abide the fact that only other homeless people are hearing the message that needs to be heard by those who are not. Somebody somewhere please grant me a place to live indoors that contains three prerequisites:

(1) It must have a window. I will probably need air from the outdoors at all times.

(2) It must have a lock on a single door, and a hide-a-key under a stone outside.

(3) It must have at least one power outlet.

I will provide the rest. I will pay up to $460 a month. But no more, because I will need to have a grocery chain like Safeway deliver food to my door. If somebody wants to kick down a new pair of Size 11 1/2 New Balance running shoes, it will be greatly appreciated, but not necessary to the task. I need – obviously- to write.

To write – the Homeless Message to the Mainstream of Modern American Life. What we want – is to be heard. What we want – is to be understood. What we want – is to be believed. What we want – is to be respected. We could care less if you say you “love” us — because, we cannot believe that you love us, and yet never let us in your home to so much as take a shower in exchange for money. We will believe that you love us when you begin to listen to what we have to say.  

It will take me approximately five months to finish the book which currently is outlined in a 12 – page single space outline in standard outline form which I will submit to anyone interested.

My daughter, I love you. And I am proud of you. My brother, my sister, all of you — I love you.  But I have something to say and I am going to get myself into the position where I will be physically and technically able to say it. Somebody get me out of the situation where I have to spend 90% of my time searching either for outdoor power outlets or chump change for North Berkeley coffeehouses with attitudes.

Here is the ninth and of last of my speeches on the Homeless Phenomenon in America. It is called “A Parallel and Opposing Culture.” Please – don’t just listen to it. Believe it.

And whoever happens to have gotten to the bottom of this, if there’s a God in Heaven or Beyond, that Power will bless you richly.

AMEN.

Andy Pope
Berkeley, California
March 18, 2016

A Parallel and Opposing Culture

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Categories
Activism Creative process Homelessness mental health public speaking

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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Categories
Activism Homelessness journalism stigma

How I Got Inside

Attached is a verbatim transcript of the first story I had published in my new column in the new Street Spirit.  My column is called “Homeless No More,” and my story is entitled “How I Got Inside.”  This is based on a blog post called Bigger and Better than the Streets, also written on request of Alastair Boone, the new editor-in-chief of Street Spirit.    However, this version involves signature edits and additions.  As such, it stands on its own.

Note also the illustration provided.  The caption reads: “A drawing of Andy getting on a bus and leaving the Bay Area, soon to be housed elsewhere.”  Outside of being an outstanding illustration in its own rite, the work of one Inti Gonzalez, portions of it are charmingly telling.  Note how the homeless Andy is haggard, with a more unkempt beard, wearing a helmet, carrying a sack on a stick, eagerly boarding the bus for greener pastures.

And then, on his arrival!  Suddenly his beard is trim, his hair short and styled – he’s even wearing a Hawaiian shirt – as he bounds into his pristine new place of residence with a shit-eating grin on his face.  I see “white male privilege” reflected all over, which makes  sense in the context of my having moved to a largely all-White State.  But the white male couldn’t have felt too privileged a few weeks back, flying a sign on a Berkeley city sidewalk all those years.

In any event, here’s the text.  You can see for yourself what I wrote on the subject.

When I was homeless in the San Francisco Bay Area, I relied to a large degree on the moral support of lifelong friends and family who were not. For one reason or another, it was not feasible for any of them to let me stay in their homes for any substantial length of time. Still, they frequently provided me with encouragement, and on occasion sent me money. While I was often upset that nobody was “letting me in,” I nonetheless was dependent on their emotional and financial support in order to endure the ongoing conditions of homelessness.

One of the reasons why I delayed the decision to leave the Bay Area for so long was because I was attached to my support group. I felt that my old friends and family members were just about the only people who knew that I was a competent guy who had landed on the streets as the result of a costly medical misdiagnosis. They were the ones who knew that a mistreated health condition had led to a mental breakdown, as my inability to properly manage a health condition threw me into first-time homelessness at the age of 51. They were the ones who watched in horror, as one by one I lost all my accounts, and could no longer keep up with the high cost of living on the S.F. Bay Area Peninsula. But still, they believed in me, and they did what they could to help me get back on my feet. Of course I needed their support!

The only thing they didn’t do was to let me stay with them. Ironically, to have offered me housing, even temporarily, would have been the only thing that could possibly have helped me to get back on my feet.

But they could not do this. They had their own concerns. Meanwhile, I watched while the sordid conditions of homelessness gradually transformed me from a naïve, overweight singing teacher to a scrawny fraction of my former self. Gradually, I got to be half-crazed from protracted sleep deprivation. Often, I became fully crazed from feeling that I was treated like a sub-human mutant, rather than an equal. Passersby sneered at me in disgust.

In order to cope with this massive sense of ever-increasing dehumanization, I turned at first to marijuana, though I’d smoked no more than twice since the 80’s. Then, during the last three years of my homeless sojourn, I turned to a harder drug. I used speed to desensitize me from the cold—both the physical coldness of temperature, and the spiritual coldness of the condescending mockers in my midst. One by one, my old friends and family members, with rare exception, abandoned me. One of them recently told me: “We were all just waiting to read your obituary.”

Finally, in June of 2016, I picked up my social security check and walked out of the city of Berkeley without saying a word. “If the drugs won’t kill me,” I told myself, “the thugs who dispense them will.”

For a month I wandered the other side of the Bay in search of a permanent answer. But nothing seemed to work. In a shelter, I caught a flu, and was kicked out for that reason. The hospital wouldn’t let me in, because if they let me in, they’d have to let all of us in. I got kicked off of the all-night bus for fear of contaminating the other homeless people, who relied on the all-night bus as a shelter.

In desperation, I got down on my knees. I told the Universe that all I wanted was “a lock on a door, a window, and a power outlet.”

Then I took action. I began googling keywords until I found a place in the Pacific Northwest that rented for only $275/month—something that would easily have gone for $900/month in the Bay Area. It was a tiny room in a converted hotel—but it would do the job. I called an old associate, someone whom I’d worked with long ago when he was a music teacher at a middle school. Hearing my story, he agreed to front me $200 for a one-way Greyhound ticket to a new life. After that, I told my story to the prospective landlord, whom I called while still in San Francisco. To my amazement, he agreed to hold the place for me until I got there.

Forty-eight hours later, I was sleeping in my new room. It had a window, two power outlets, and three locks on the door. Four days after that, I signed a one-year lease. Three weeks later, after years of being considered unemployable in the San Francisco Bay Area, I landed a part-time job as a piano player at a small-town church.

A part of me wishes I had made the decision earlier. It would have spared me the last three years of psychic hell. But had I made the decision earlier, I would have abandoned the bulk of my support group. For me, leaving my support system and moving out of town was what it took to lead me to housing. However, it is a common misconception that the homeless crisis would be solved if homeless people just picked themselves up and moved out of town. This is not always the case, nor is it always readily possible.

I was lucky to have found a sympathetic person who would front me the money for a one-way-ticket to another state and help me with an apartment deposit and a few other odds and ends. Not everybody can find such a benefactor. Also, we cannot deny the obvious fact that I am a white male brimming with the semblance of “white privilege”even while living on the street—if only for the ability to decide to move to a state largely composed of other white people. While I obviously did not possess a whole lot of privilege per se, I looked as though I could conceivably be, or become, a privileged person. Let’s face it: Had I been Black or Hispanic, to show up in a largely white neighborhood would not have worked to my advantage.

So in a way, I had it easy. At the same time, however, I believe that there is a way out for everyone. Though the sheltered world does not know it, homelessness is not the same thing as alcoholism, drug addiction, or incompetence. It’s not the kind of thing where one needs to “change their ways” in order to overcome it. In order to overcome homelessness, what one needs is dignity. We are all created equal; we are all endowed by our Creator with inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We are all bigger and better than the streets.

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Homelessness Sociology stigma

Different Strokes

This is one of a series of pieces written on request of Alastair Boone, the editor-in-chief of the social justice newspaper, Street Spirit.  

Our society seems to be obsessed with putting people into boxes. Rather than take the time to actually get to know an individual for who they are uniquely, we like to make snap judgments about them according to their appearance. For example, if a man is seen flying a sign on a sidewalk, we think: “That guy’s a lazy bum.”

But what if that man is not a lazy bum? What if he’s someone who, for one reason or another, needs to fly a sign on that particular day, in order to raise money quickly for some certain necessity that he lacks? For all we know, he could be raising money for transportation to a distant town where someone has offered him a job. In that event, what would make him a “lazy bum?”

Pin by Margie Manifold on Science - Sociology & Cultural Practices
Erving Goffman

Sociologist Erving Goffman refers to this phenomenon as “social stigma.” He defines social stigma as the extreme disapproval of (or discontent with) a person or group on socially characteristic grounds that are perceived, and serve to distinguish them, from other members of a society.”

Many people are socially stigmatized in this fashion. A cop might be stigmatized, thought to be brutal or inhumane, only because some cops are inhumane. Naturally, those are the cops who attract the public eye. But we’ve all met good cops, haven’t we? When I was homeless, I encountered cops who treated me more humanely than some of the social workers whose job it was to help me.

Religious people are also often stigmatized. Some people think that just because I identify as a Christian, it means that I must be sexist, anti-gay, and a proselytizing Bible-thumper, ready to cram my theology down their throats. But anyone who actually takes the time to get to know me will readily tell you that I am none of those things.

In my personal experience, I have never been stigmatized more than when I was a homeless person. I was lumped into the same box as virtually every one of my fellow homeless people. And when solutions were offered to end my homelessness, I found that there was an alarming “one size fits all” approach. My personal story, if even listened to, was disregarded completely.

You’re homeless?” one would say. “Here’s what you do. I’ve got a lead on a live-in drug rehabilitation program.”

Now, there are a number of flaws with that kind of reasoning. First of all, it presupposes that homelessness and drug addiction are synonymous. This is folly. Many homeless people have never used illegal drugs at all. On the other hand, many people who live indoors are severely addicted to all kinds of drugs. They just don’t let anyone see it.

Secondly, suppose a person is a drug addict. Is a “live-in drug rehabilitation program” necessarily the solution for them? There are twelve-step programs, sober living environments, a program at Kaiser called LifeRing, and a program called Rational Recovery. Similarly, if one is homeless, one might be directed toward a board-and-care home, a live-in psychiatric facility, a halfway house, or transitional housing. And those options will work for many people.

I spoke with a formerly homeless woman who enrolled in transitional housing and spent seven months in a group facility, giving them a percentage of her disability check every month. At the end of the seven months, she had enough money to pay the first and last months rent and security deposit on a studio apartment. She seemed quite content with her situation the last time I saw her.

I myself received a call from someone at the Berkeley Food and Housing Administration shortly after I had left Berkeley for another State. It turned out that my name had come up on a list of senior housing options, and they were willing to offer me my own one-bedroom apartment near Lake Merritt. While that might sound wonderful, it would also have kept me in a part of the world where I had developed far more detrimental associations than beneficial ones. Although I was tempted to drop everything and move back to the East Bay for sentimental reasons, I knew deep down that it would be a backward move.

I have had two places of my own since I left Berkeley. The first was reached by googling keywords such as “college town,” “small town,” “affordable rent.” Those and other keywords eventually pointed me toward a place of my liking. But if another homeless person were to start googling keywords, their keywords might not be something along the lines of “big city,” “multicultural,” “low unemployment rate.” One size does not fit all.

Until we, as a society, slow ourselves down enough, and open ourselves up enough, to listen to the plethora of unique stories that homeless people generally tell truthfully, we will not come close to solving the “homeless problem.” In my case, the first person to listen to my story was a retired music teacher. He knew I was truthful because he recognized a fellow music teacher when he saw one. For another person seeking to escape the throes of homelessness, the first person to listen to their story might be a construction worker or a restaurant owner.

So, while transitional housing programs and halfway houses have their place, a true solution to the homeless predicament will never be reached until we recognize that the homeless person is an individual, endowed with rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness no more and no less than anyone else on the planet. As long as the wall of division that separates a “person” from a “homeless person” still stands, no lasting solution will be attained. But once that wall is broken down, the solution will be plain to see.

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Homelessness stigma Writer Writing

Decision

Sally Hindman RT of Book Announcement

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Activism Homelessness Sociology stigma

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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Activism addiction Homelessness Spirituality stigma

Order of Business

Does the crackhead become homeless,” someone asked, “or does the homeless person become a crackhead?”  This question was posed on the site Quora, where I am an infrequent volunteer contributor.

I took the question to be indicative of a certain social perception; i.e., that the usage of illicit substances is so widespread in the homeless populace that it is difficult to discern which came first: the drug addict or the homeless person.  I have observed that both can happen, but that the latter occurs a lot more often than many people are inclined at first to believe.

This is because people have a way of wanting to find out why someone has become homeless.  If they can pin their homelessness on a secondary issue, unrelated to the defining factor; viz., that a homeless person lacks a roof over their head, then they can effectively deflect attention away from concern over homelessness by replacing it with concern over that secondary issue.  But that issue, be it drug addiction or what-have-you, is only secondary.  The primary issue is homelessness — and people don’t want to look at it.  So they look at the “why” instead.

nietzsche quote on truth and illusionThis is because it is easier for most people to live with the perception that a person became homeless because they were a “crackhead” (or drug addict, alcoholic, etc.), than it is with the sense that a homeless person may have become homeless for reasons that were completely beyond their control, and that cannot possibly be attributed to any kind of behavioral flaw or defect of that person’s character.  The homeless person needs to somehow be blamed for having gotten themselves as far low as they’ve gotten themselves.  This is so that the focus can become on what they ostensibly did wrongin order to result in their homelessness; and not on the homelessness itself.

The situation is further complicated by the widespread misconception that drug addiction and alcoholism are behavioral flaws, rather than as spiritual maladies that can be arrested through faith in God or a Higher Power.   So it becomes easy to say: “Well, that guy became homeless because of his crack addiction.” A perception like that can easily soon morph into: “If he would just deal with his crack habit, he would be able to get out of homelessness.”

However, it is not true that if a person could deal with their “crack habit,” they could necessarily find a roof over their head. It may make it easier for them to find their way out of homelessness, but homelessness is a pretty deep hole, with many elements besides drug addiction obscuring the way out of it.

If, however, a person didn’t start using street drugs until years after the overall conditions of homelessness began to gnaw away at their better judgment, that person is less likely to be believed. This is because people don’t like the idea that homelessness might have resulted from anything other than a supposed “behavioral flaw or character defect.” If it was revealed that homelessness were the result of situations entirely beyond the individual’s control — for example, a foreclosure, an illegal eviction, or a costly medical misdiagnosis — then one would be forced to absolve the homeless person of any sense that they had “deserved” their homelessness, or that “bad choices” they had made were at its root.

In that case, one would be faced with the challenge of having to show compassion for the homeless person, rather than levying judgment upon them. Unfortunately, it is easier for most of us to judge others than to have compassion toward them.

For this reason, more people are likely to believe that the “crackhead became homeless” (as a result of their addiction) than that the “homeless person became a crackhead” (as a result of their homelessness.) Therefore, there are more homeless people in the latter camp than many are willing to believe.

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Activism Homelessness public speaking Sociology Spirituality

(Talks 2018) – Talk No. 3

This morning please find the third in our Talks 2018 series of talks on the Homeless Experience. This talk is intended to demonstrate how, even if a person has made a conscious choice to be homeless, that person is likely to soon find themselves entrenched in a condition from which it is almost impossible to escape.

Homeless by Condition: Part Two

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