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, at which 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 wrong in 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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(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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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. 

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Gratitude List 850

(1) Coffee tastes great this morning.  Once again, it’s nice to be able to get a cup of coffee in my own apartment, having used my very own coffee maker. 

There was a time not too long ago when, if I wanted a morning cup of coffee, I had to wait at the bottom of a church stairway with about forty other people, enduring orders being barked at me by a security guard, being made to feel as though I were a criminal, even though I was a free man with no criminal record.

(2) Somebody left a great Black & Decker coffee maker out by the bin, and my lady friend prepares nice Seattle’s Best coffee every night. 

All I have to do these days if I want a cup of coffee is flip a switch when I get up.  I am truly living the dream.

(3) I think I’ll have my second cup right now.   

There was a time when they denied me a cup of coffee because I didn’t have forty cents, even though I had just played piano in the same building to a group of applauding fans.

(4) I slept in a nice warm bed last night, with the mother of my daughter and the love of my life. 

There was a time when I slept in a tent made of cardboard, worried that the approaching thief would find me, recognize me, and steal everything that I had – with violence.

(5) It’s been almost two years now since Somebody Up There snatched me off of an all-night bus on the S.F.Bay Area Peninsula and set me down in a studio apartment in another State, in a warm-hearted, Art-positive community where people took me seriously from the start.

(6) It used to be that I was widely disrespected, and literally mocked whenever I spoke of my work, or of Music, or of Art, or even of God.  I was thought to be either impudently arrogant or incorrigibly insane if I spoke of anything higher than the widespread assumption that I was nothing more than a worthless piece of homeless scum.  People these days may think I’m an oddball, but it sure is a relief they don’t think that I’m “scum.”

(7) I must never forget that a single 48-hour bus ride and a $200 loan landed me in a community where I was instantly accepted, and nobody doubted my words of truth, nor judged me as a pariah, nor cast me out as a leper.

There was a time when, for the life of me, I could not find anyone who would accept me as I am. 

(8) I have since then wanted to shout to the world that my personality did not change on a single 48-hour bus trip.  And in so many words, I am doing so.  Homelessness is not the problem.  It is the result of the problem.   When the world sees that, it will be a Great Day Indeed.

(9) That man who has not changed still comes across as a ding bat to many, all over the map, hard to follow, maybe even hard to work with, with impulse control issues, and dyslexia, and all kinds of other strange mental processes working against his ability to survive.  But my once and future wife came back to me when she saw this on the Internet, and saw therein the man whom she loved.  The words of the Preacher have never rung more true:

Two are better than one,
    because they have a good return for their labor:
If either of them falls down,
    one can help the other up.
But pity anyone who falls
    and has no one to help them up.
 Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm.
    But how can one keep warm alone?
 Though one may be overpowered,
    two can defend themselves.
A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.
–Ecclesiastes 4:9-12

(10) After twelve years of struggling to survive on the San Francisco Bay Area streets, I’ve been able to write a full length musical about Homelessness in America, all because I was finally able to get inside.  Yesterday I received the mix of the first song in my demo for that musical, the demo that  it took me months to save up $950 to record.  I worry that my bumbling personality might be a pain in the ass in the eyes of the very orderly engineer who helped me to produce that song.  But that worry is nothing compared to what I and countless other homeless people had to worry about on the streets, in a hole so deep you’d have to live it to know how hard it was to climb out of it.

We were assumed to be criminals.  We were assumed to be, as the singer states, “litter, scum and slime.”  Please help me to get the truth about Homelessness to the People of America.  Please support me in getting this message across, in the manner I know best — before it is too late.

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A Sacrifice of the Heart

If you are a person who knows what it’s like to be poor, have you ever noticed how quick people of privilege are to attribute aspects of poverty to something that has absolutely nothing to do with your financial situation?  Such as, for example, your mental health?

I live in a city of approximately 26,000 people, 30% of whom are at poverty level.  Most of the poor people in this city are reasonably happy and healthy.  This is one reason why I enjoy the unique city in which I live.   But it appalls me how readily some of my wealthier friends will assume that my current poverty must have been caused by a mental health problem, a drug or alcohol problem, or (quite simply) a moral failing. 

Although I will be the first to admit that I have mental health issues requiring treatment, I find it disturbing how often these issues will be cited as the reasons for my impoverished condition.  Many of the wealthier people who say such things would become much crazier than I am, if they, too, were to suddenly lost their shirts as quickly as I did in the year 2004.

The people who most often allude to this fallacy will usually make no attempt to actually understand my condition.  They are clearly looking for a scapegoat — something beyond the scope of their experience that they can use to shift the blame away from the realities of poverty that they do not wish to look at.

“Hey Bob, I really hate to bother you for another loan.  I know you’re busy, but my car just broke down terribly.  I need it to get to work, and I just can’t afford the bill.  Is there any way at all you can help me?”

“Well, Bill, I know you always pay me back, but I’m getting to be a little bit bothered by the fact that you’re not many progress.  Don’t you think it’s high time you dealt with your mental health, so that you won’t be so chronically down on your luck?”

friend in needOnce again, this is classism – pure and simple.   It can be incredibly frustrating when one is doing their best to maintain a healthy relationship to society, and the frequent setbacks endemic to poverty are dismissed as signs of poor mental health.  Of course one’s mental health suffers when encountering such setbacks.  But poor mental health does not cause those setbacks.  This is only an assumption on the part of those whose lives are such that they never have to experience such setbacks, and thus don’t know what those setbacks are like.

In short, they don’t know what it’s like to be poor.

Now here’s another thing I’ve noticed.  It is often assumed that someone who experiences a life crisis that hurls them into abject poverty — or even homelessness — has gotten there as the result of a moral failing.

“Obviously, Bill screwed up.  Nobody gets from where he was to the streets that fast without having done something wrong.   That being the case, I have no sympathy for Bob whatsoever.”

“Amen, Brother Bob.”

But the reality is that many people of privilege are extremely slow to let go of what they’ve got. In many cases, their natural stinginess is the reason why they’ve managed to accrue so much in the first place.  But many poor people, knowing what it’s like to be poor, will give another poor person the shirt off their back.  I myself have been known to give my last twenty dollars to another poor person if I felt they needed it more than I do.  When I do so, I am confident they would do the same for me, if the tables were turned.

A lot of people become poor as the result of something good that they have done — something that a rich person, under the same circumstances, might not do.  For example, if one’s mother or father is in poor health, perhaps dying, a person who is lower middle class might have their parent come live with them, despite having to take on added medical expenses.   A rich person, under the same circumstances, will often send their parent to a retirement home.

Granted, the richer person can afford to send Mom or Dad to the retirement home, and the poor person cannot.  But if you were aging, ailing, and dying, where would you rather be?   In a retirement home among total strangers?   Or with your kids whom you love, knowing that they love you too?  Where would you rather die?   With your children by your side?   Or not?

It is not a moral failing to take care of an ailing parent.  It is actually an act of self-sacrificial love.  Love, in its purest form, involves sacrifice.   When one sends one’s dying mother to an “old folk’s home,” what sacrifice is involved?  Only money.   But when one invites their dying parent to come live with them, that is a Sacrifice of the Heart.

I find it ironic that people of poverty often are more giving and more loving than people of wealth, and yet in our society it is often assumed that poverty is an effect of moral failing.   While moral laxity can certainly lead to poverty, it is definitely not the case that poverty necessarily results from it.

When Jesus appeared on the earth, who did he generally hang around?   Rich people or poor people?   Anyone with a cursory background in Scripture will know that he hung around the dregs of society, the outcasts, the lepers, the pariahs, those who were so dirt poor they were ostracized and vilified by the Pharisees and Saducees of their day.

If the first arrival of Jesus Christ were to have occurred today rather than two thousand years ago, you know who He would hang around?

The homeless people.  For my homeless brothers and sisters are the lepers of today’s society.  Let them in!   Let all of us in — before it is too late.

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Treasures in Heaven

In my blog, I often discuss how homeless people are stigmatized in our society.  I  have also identified myself as a Christian. But the identity of a Christian is spoiled by stigmatic perception every bit as much as the identity of a homeless person is thus spoiled.   Therefore, I think it’s about time I did my part to diffuse a few of these stereotypes.

I almost fear telling others I’m a Christian, because I am often assaulted immediately with accusations of being a sexist and a homophobe.   But what is more germane to the present-day purpose of this blog is how much classism seems to run rampant in American Christianity.  This is especially evident in what is often called the Prosperity Gospel.

The Prosperity Gospel, in short, is a particularly inviting deception that equates spiritual blessings with material success.  Of course it is entirely conceivable that once a person decides to live according to spiritual wisdom rather than careless foolishness, one might find oneself advancing in material gain.  If one, for example, has been blowing all of one’s money on drugs, hookers, and other forms of escape, one would naturally notice a pleasant increase in one’s financial status once such expenses have ceased.  The Proverbs of Solomon are all about that distinction.  However, we find such wisdom in many sources other than the Bible; and I for one would submit that most of the Proverbs are merely common sense.

Besides, it is also quite plausible that a person can be extremely happy living a minimalistic lifestyle with very few possessions at all.  In fact, in Matthew 19 and Mark 10, we read of a young man who had “great possessions” who walked away from Jesus in sorrow when advised that he should give up all he owned in order to inherit eternal life.  Does such denial of worldly goods equate spiritual blessing with prosperity?  Obviously, the opposite is the case.

treasuresConsider also these very famous Scriptures:  “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 19:24)  “The love of money is the root of all evil.” (1 Timothy 6:10).  And without bothering to quote every word, passages such as James 5:1-11 and Luke 16:19-31 hurl severe warnings in the direction of the wealthy.  But where in the Bible are such warnings thrown in the direction of the poor?  Nowhere.

To the contrary, Luke 6:20 includes the words: “Blessed are you who are poor.”  Where in the Bible do we find the words, “blessed are you who are rich?”  Again, we find them nowhere.

A proponent of the Prosperity Gospel will almost always cite Jeremiah 29:11 from the New International Version of the Bible, as follows:

For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord,
“plans to prosper you and not to harm you,
plans to give you hope and a future.”
Jeremiah 29:11
N.I.V.

Although it is true that the word “prosper” figures in this translation, a quick scan of several other popular translations will reveal nothing of the kind. In the English Standard Version, for example, the phrase “plans to prosper you” reads “plans for welfare.” The same phrase in the time-honored King James reads “thoughts of peace.” So this single verse, taken completely out of context in a modern American translation, is hardly a valid rationale for a deception as extreme as the so-called Prosperity Gospel.

In the Bible, once again, where exactly are material acquisitions equated with the kind of provision that brings real fulfillment, inner peace, personal happiness, and eternal security?  Nowhere, really.  The only time when material gain is cited as a blessing from God is in a context where the greater blessing would be the evidence of God’s love; for example, the last chapter of the Book of Job.   And love, according to 1 Corinthians 13, abides forever.  Material blessings vanish at the grave.

In conclusion, I would contend that we who are spiritual ought to set our affections on the things that are above and beyond our material disposition (Colossians 3:2), rather than on the passing pleasures and comforts of this world.  The expression, “you can’t take it with you,” ought not to have been coined in vain.

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth,
where moths and vermin destroy,
and where thieves break in and steal.
But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven,
where moths and vermin do not destroy,
and where thieves do not break in and steal.

For where your treasure is,
there your heart will be also.”
Matthew 6:19-21
N.I.V.

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The Voices That Count

In the sixties and early, pre-Watergate 70’s, we heard a lot about the Generation Gap.  It seemed that the schism between those who represented the Establishment, and those who had “dropped out” or represented what we called the counter culture, was much too wide for the sake of constructive communication.  Much tension occurred as a result, and it often morphed into violence.

That gap was called the Generation Gap because those who comprised the Establishment were substantially older than those of the emerging counter-culture.   But today, I find ourselves immersed in an even more serious gap than the age-based gap — a gap that is based on class.  

Speaking in general terms, it has not been uncommon for there to be a millionaire in office.  But a cabinet composed largely of billionaires?   That’s a new one on me, as of 2016.  And I’ve been watching this kind of stuff go down since the sixties – since before Watergate – since before the War on Drugs.   

And what about on the other side?   Poverty has abounded forever.  But for so many poor people to lack roofs over their heads?   For poverty to engulf the disabled and the developmentally challenged?  The Class Gap has never been so wide.

There has always been division – but not like this.   There has always been tension – but this is unprecedented.  And what about communication?  It’s almost impossible for those in the privileged classes to even understand what the impoverished are trying to say.  This creates frustration among the underprivileged, and frustration turns to anger, turns to outrage, turns to hate.  I see a lot of outright hatred emerging from those who struggle,  as they turn to those whose material and monetary wherewithal make them better equipped to help balance the scales, and receive only insensitivity and indifference in return.

I have lived almost sixty-five years, and I have watched this trend worsen.  We tend to frame our differences around race, gender, culture, ability, sexual orientation and age.  But seen through a lens less often considered, many of these differences really boil down to differences in socio-economic class.

I have worked for the wealthy, and I have generally found them to be very nice people: courteous, accommodating, and caring.   I have also been down and out, and have lived on the streets, where the tension is much more intrusive, and etiquette is held to be unnecessary — so much so that any use of it is often viewed to be hypocrisy.   On the other hand, the language that is commonly used for communication on the streets is often regarded as crass or even abusive among those for whom such communications are unnecessary.

A poor person who is broke, who finds five dollars on the street, will naturally see it as gift for which to be grateful.  But when I told a person who was wealthy that I had found five dollars, that person literally shouted: “Shut the f—k up!”   Once when I was renting a room from a very wealthy landlord, he came down and saw me counting the pennies on the table.  Scowling in disgust, he shouted: “Stop that!”  When I was in a similar position, and I asked a friend for five dollars, he replied: “Five dollars is not going to solve your problem, Andy.”  But five dollars could have kept me alive another day.

I saw five homeless people die overnight, having preexisting medical conditions, unable to withstand one more night in the cold.  Had any of them had but five dollars, they could have gotten inside a bus and slept throughout the night.   Granted, the problem of homelessness would not have been solved by five dollars.  But a far greater problem might have been solved — the problem known as death.  

This is why frustration mounts, for that same person was perfectly magnanimous toward me when he wasn’t hung up on needing to “solve my problem.”  Nor was I asking him to provide a solution, as though nothing but a detailed plan to get me off the streets would be satisfactory.  I was only requesting a small amount of money, fearing an overnight death in the cold, as I had seen my other friends die.  So naturally, it is easy to rage and roar at the rich in light of such a constant cold shoulder.  But to do so does little good for the cause, for some have done so with violence.   

I have written a musical that explores the effects of classism, social stigma, and homelessness on the youth of today’s America.  I conceived of this musical because I have been there.  The impoverished may not be able to afford tickets to this musical once it is finally produced.   But the impoverished, the homeless, and the underprivileged, are not the ones who need to see this production.  Those who need to see it — at least according to its author’s intent — are those who have never experienced the energy of the streets, nor of the outdoors, of Nature, and the terrifying adventures thereof.  I write from a position of one unsheltered, and I write to the sheltered – not to shatter their shelter, nor scatter the remains of their relics abroad to destruction, but to show them the shamelessness of those who are without, that they might be moved, and share of the shelter that is within.

The gap created by class distinctions and social stigma in America has always been wide.  Throughout history, it’s been very wide, and a very difficult one to bridge.  But it can be bridged — and it must be bridged — if America is to endure.   After all, a chain is only as strong as its weakest link.  But we do nothing to strengthen our weak links.  We throw our elders into poorly run board-and-care homes, rather than care for them ourselves.  And some of the shelters into which we throw our homeless are little more than glorified prisons.  Should we really be that quick to discard from our company those who have lost their homes?   

viktor frankl
Viktor Frankl

Many of us who have escaped the horrors of continuous homelessness seem driven, or even desperate, to convey a message that at first may appear to be unintelligible.  A similar dynamic took place, on a much more grotesque, grandiose scale, when those who survived the Nazi concentration camps emerged with a sudden upsurge of vigor.  Viktor Frankl reports that many such survivors entered immediately into massive consumerism, guzzling beer and gobbling down huge helpings of their favorite foods, of which they’d been deprived.  In Frankl’s case, he launched wholeheartedly into the book that became Man’s Search for Meaning.  They who have survived the conditions of homelessness often display a similar spike of renewed motivation, drive, and sense of purpose. 

The gush of enthusiasm with which we who have survived the conditions of homelessness often seek to reveal the hidden secrets of the Homeless Experience can be off-putting.  But the message itself is little more than a restatement of time-honored principles that have helped hold this nation together for over two hundred years.  I did not coin the phrase: “United We Stand; Divided We Fall.”  Still, because of the frustration we tend to express when we feel we are not being heard, and the violent, hostile nature of a conspicuous minority among those who seek to express it, they who have the power to do something about the matter quite naturally turn their ears to more appealing voices.  If only they knew that in so doing, they are shunning the voices that count.