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.

Please donate to Eden in Babylon.
A little bit goes a long, long way.  

 

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.

Please donate to Eden in Babylon.
A little bit goes a long, long way.

The H-Word

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

People who have been so privileged as to always have lived indoors often don’t grasp that the H-word is not just a neutral label used to describe one’s state of living. It also packs a punch that has the power to keep you from finding a place to live, and from leaving the experience of homelessness behind. Simply put, this word carries in it a certain violence. Because of this, I prefer to talk about those who live “outside” or “outdoors,” rather than “the homeless,” whenever possible. I feel called upon to emphasize that the main difference between those who are homeless and those who are not is that the homeless person lives outdoors—exposed and vulnerable to all kinds of external influences, human or inhuman, foul or fair. Whoever is not homeless lives inside and as such is protected from the vast array of such external elements.

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

Please donate to Eden in Babylon.
Anything Helps – God Bless!

 

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.

Please donate to Eden in Babylon.
Anything Helps – God Bless!

 

(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

Please donate to Eden in Babylon.
Anything Helps – God Bless!

Gratitude List 869

(1) I was able to finish the remake of my new speech last night, even though it kept me up till 4:30 in the morning.  Grateful for the space and privacy to do such things without disturbing others, or being disturbed.

(2) Jan loves me.

(3) A great way to overcome the bitterness of a troubled past is to indulge the blessings of a promising present.

(4) Somebody made a nice, detailed comment on my piano playing over the weekend.  Grateful to have been trusted enough to be given a key to a church building with a Baldwin grand piano.   There was a time where any effort to play a church piano was met only with concern over “insurance issues” — implying, of course, that I was the type of guy that would do damage to the property.

(5) Nice strong coffee.  Grateful to have my own place of residence and my own coffee-maker.  There was a time when the only reason I went to a 7am A.A. meeting was because it was the only way I could figure out how to get a cup of coffee in the morning.

(6) It was suggested last night that every morning when I wake up, I can “dedicate the day to God.”  It took a while, but I’m thankful to have done so.

(7) Glad to hear that the heat wave will be over on Thursday, which is great timing, since I get paid on Friday.  Thankful for the promise of double blessings, back to back.

(8) Happy to have heard from Alistair Boone, the new Editor-in-Chief of Street Spirit, with the news that I’ll be kept on as a regular montly contributor, in the wake of Terry Messman’s retirement.  

(9) Extremely grateful to no longer be homeless in the San Francisco Bay Area.   I honestly thought I would never be able to live indoors again.

(10) Extremely thankful for the State of Idaho, where my experience has been that people treat each other decently and respectfully — like equals.   Thankful no longer to have to be lectured, ridiculed, dimissed, ostracized, vilified, and looked down upon as though I were not even fully human.  It is incredible to no longer be regarded as a piece of worthless homeless scum.   Thank God for my new and remarkably better life.  I never dreamed it possible — He loves me, after all. 

Please donate to Eden in Babylon.
Anything Helps – God Bless!