Thursday, March 5, 2009

On an American Homeless Odyssey

We are, all of us, everywhere, poised upon some precipice in one or more areas of our lives. Relationships sail along on waters seemingly as smooth as glass. Nonetheless, storm clouds seem to billow up from nowhere at odd moments when we least expect them. Careers march their progress along apparently natural pathways until shifting winds alter trade parameters, upsetting traditional market patterns, thus creating imbalances which industrialists address with a lack of creative insight by reducing the workforce, placing road blocks in the boulevards to continued employment and economic security. The mettle of enduring friendships often erodes when the forge's heat exceeds convenience's limits. During those moments which impose life's greatest challenges, people - individuals, families, friends, communities and nations - must learn to band more closely together, coming to one another's assistance, lessening each other's burdens, cooperating in a harmony of mutuality, expressing understanding and communal empathy, and building an atmosphere of social unity. Those kinds of behavior patterns offer the only real opportunities for weathering the onslaught of sudden calamity.

However, the only model the contemporary world possesses for dealing with global catastrophe finds its roots in capitalism's expression of the Puritan ethic. The viewpoint endemic to that paradigm expresses only one potential solution: compete harder, with a leaner overhead and overwhelm the competition with a more efficient business model. Out from such an approach, the individual seeks to hang on to possessions, hold tight to belief systems and find a way to defeat one's competitor(s) - who are always one's neighbors and counterparts, fellow human beings. Thus the competitive model to which we cling stresses disunity, disharmony and disassociation. In the process, the self is exalted over all other interests. In this way, survival of the fittest breeds inhumanity on all levels, coalescing humanity's focus solely on self-interest.

In the contemporary world, the ramifications arising from the capitalist's approach to all areas of life (competition and a determination to defeat all others in one's own quest to gain a reasonable life) yields two related and predictable outcomes: 1) the rise of a super-wealthy class, along with 2) the rapidly growing underbelly of capitalism's waste as seen in the ever-spreading homeless phenomenon. Homelessness spreads throughout the contemporary culture at an alarmingly and exponentially increasing rate.

Those people espousing the contemporary world's version of the Puritan ethic tell you that homelessness only arises in those who are: 1) too lazy to work, 2) too stupid to learn the skills necessary to work, 3) addicted to a substance and consequently rendered unfit for the work force, and/or 4) psychologically/emotionally unfit for acceptable social interaction in the contemporary work force. The entire line of thinking which gives rise to the use of those four circumstances as explaining away the social maladjustment and economic plight of homelessness derives from elitist propaganda, spread and nurtured over the years, and which has now risen to the level of conventional wisdom. However, this propaganda does not gain veracity simply because it has become culturally accepted.

In the first place, there is no single model which can be applied as the common face of the homeless. Men and women of all ages, from all backgrounds, with varying levels of educational advancement, differing religious and political beliefs, and even multifaceted lifestyles all comprise the ranks of the homeless. Psychologists want to name all homeless as bipolar and give them mind-control drugs to reduce the vigor with which they express their individuality so the psychologists can then take the now malleable individualist and shape him or her into a meek, conforming automaton who will act in what society deems as acceptable behavior. Meanwhile, city governments enact laws declaring that no one may sleep on the streets, in the parks, or other areas within city limits.

Many of us who are homeless are highly intelligent individuals who possess an extensive work history of having been employed in highly responsible positions. Many of us are life-long non-conformists who refuse to be forced to not only accept but willingly conform to the culturally accepted lifestyle. Many of us believe that much of what comprises the culturally acceptable lifestyle is actually immoral, unethical and unnatural. Many of us have been cast aside by proper society as no longer offering a worthwhile contribution. Many of us suffer from injuries or ailments, yet find that the government refuses to cover under the terms of the disability insurance the citizen has paid into one's entire working life. Many of us function in the world just fine, finding employment, occasionally shelter, often camping out, and enjoy the mobility afforded in this lifestyle to move from city to city with the passage of seasons or years much the same way as the cowboy did in the 1800s. However, none of us are going to go away simply because you decree through municipal legislation that we cannot sleep within your city limits. Furthermore, many of you will find yourselves in the same situation during the next 2 or 3 years as this economy continues to reel, sputter and crumble due to mismanagement and corporate greed.

Let me provide a little glimpse into the homeless existence.

Most shelters are administered by the Salvation Army or other religious entities. Nearly all of these religious entities are Christian. The food served to individuals staying in a shelter is provided by charitable entities (sometimes, but very rarely, individuals) who are most often church groups. In order to stay, and eat, in a Christian run shelter, the individual is always required to participate in some kind of extended religious prayer service (the Salvation Army usually requires a half hour, other Christian groups require as much as an hour of prayer in conjunction with an actual worship service, all before the meal will ever be served) administered by the shelter's affiliation. Even when an individual finds shelter with a non-denominational, secular facility, many of the church groups who serve food require a pre-meal prayer.

I happened to stay in a secular shelter. I am primarily a Taoist/Zen Buddhist who does not believe in a thinking creator who consciously willed our physical universe into being and that there is no real plan or reason for existence other than to experience, grow and share love, honor and respect to, from and between all life. I could never, in good conscience, stay at a Salvation Army shelter or Gospel Mission shelter. The prayer requirements would be oppressive and the constant shoving down my throat of religious dogma would be demeaning to me and my beliefs as well as an unwelcome expression of superstitious mumbo-jumbo.

The shelter where I resided has beds for 100 men. Every shelter has requirements that homeless individuals must follow in order to remain continuously at the shelter. Salvation Army shelters put one to work, unpaid mind you, for several weeks or months in return for staying at the shelter. At the secular shelter where I stay, one must sign up with the "works" program and accept any job offered. Those are usually manual labor and normally pay at 10 cents per hour over minimum wage. If one is disabled, or has filed a claim with Social Security for disability benefits, that individual is, not only, not required to register for work, but is required to not look for work and may not accept work (meaning that individual will not have any source for money until the Social Security claim is decided (and those usually take a couple of years). Everyone, at all shelters, from what I can ascertain, is required to provide a daily breathalyzer sample as one re-enters the facility at night (meanwhile, pot smokers and hard drug users can come and go as they please without any real check or test). One cannot have any amount of alcohol on one's breath exposed by the test. If one does, one is denied entry, has their items given to them, and they are sent packing back to the streets.

I believe the length of continuous stay is limited at all shelters. The shelter where I was located allows one up to 90 days, but one must meet weekly eligibility requirements and have one's eligibility approved by one's case manager each week. In other words, one may stay for up to 90 consecutive days, but is approved for 7 days at a time (and, of course, any day one could be expelled from the facility for breaking a rule). Once one finishes one's initial 90 days, that homeless man must return to the streets for a minimum of 90 days before he may return to the shelter. At that point, the individual may choose between a 30 consecutive day stay (which would conclude the total number of days that individual may stay at the shelter during a calendar year or a 5 day stay. If an individual opts for the 5 day stay, that homeless individual must return to the streets for another 15 days minimum before he or she can return for another 5 day stay. One faces a cap in the total amount of 120 days in the shelter for a calendar year. If a homeless individual enters the shelter on the 90 day program and screws up along the way (for instance, comes in with an alcohol reading on the breathalyzer, or gets in a fight with another person residing in the shelter, or refuses work offered by the "works" program, or breaks some other rule) that individual will only be eligible for stays of 5 days at a time with 15 non-shelter staying day interludes. However, the remaining days not used from the original 90 consecutive day stay, continue as eligible days within the 120 day total framework.

The shelter within which I resided is a warehouse. There are 100 single sized bunk beds (50 upper bunks and 50 lower bunks) in the facility. The communal shower accommodates up to 6 people at a time. The shelter provides 3 urinals and 3 toilets along with 6 sinks. The dining hall does not have room for all 100 men at one time. However, there is a large outside patio area with several picnic tables and benches one can use as additional dining space.

The day begins with lights on and a good morning announcement over the loud speaker at 5 A.M. The dining area is opened for coffee at that time. The coffee is usually very weak, and many men purchase their own instant coffee to have a decently flavored cup. The coffee maker/dispenser is pulled by about 5:30 A.M., so one had best be quick if one wants a cup. Breakfast is usually served at about 5:45 A.M. The breakfast varies, depending on which charity is providing that meal. One day a week “clients” usually receive scrambled eggs with cut up hot dogs in them (they call it quiche). On another day, “clients” receive scrambled eggs and bacon. Once in a while, four students from the University of Arizona drop by to feed the sheltered men breakfast omelets consisting of diced potatoes, scrambled eggs, grated cheese and beans or sausage in a flour tortilla. The shelter also serves some breakfasts. When it does, the meals are: one day a week is reserved for pancakes, another for French toast, another day is usually reserved for cold cereal and a fourth day is reserved for oatmeal or cream of wheat. Only on rare occasions does the shelter prepare eggs and sausage for inhabitants.

All shelter occupants at all shelters are sent packing, and must be out the door by 7 A.M. If one does not have a job, one must go looking for work. That usually begins with a trip to the "works" facility to register and see if they have any work for you that day. If one does not have a job, that individual's continued residency is earned by showing 10 jobs applied for per week. Since I am disabled and pursuing a disability claim, I was not allowed to look for work, but I was still sent out at 7 A.M. with everyone else. None of the “clients” may return to the shelter and be on the lot before 4:30 P.M. Doors for re-entry open at 5 P.M. What men do between 7 A.M. and 5 P.M. is up to each individual. The homeless men must fill their own days.

Dinner is usually served about 5:45 P.M. Dinner usually consists of a main dish, a side dish, bread and a dessert. The main dish nearly always contains meat. The rare times when it does not contain meat, it contains cheese. If there is a vegetable, it is nearly always put in with the main dish. The side dish is nearly always coleslaw or a green salad (and salads are nearly always just lettuce out of a bag). Very rarely, canned corn is served as a side dish instead of salad. The main dishes might be spaghetti with meat sauce, meat lasagna, sloppy Joes, macaroni and ground beef in a sauce, bean burritos, or a dish they call gumbo but which is boiled beans with some kind of meat in it (and no okra). I'm sure you understand, there are variations of these kinds of meals, usually with ground beef as the basis. Once a month, a family brings fried chicken.

The men are not allowed to bring food into the shelter. Therefore, if we want to eat, we must eat that which is served to us. I am a vegetarian. I am unable to process meat through my bowels. If I eat meat, I end up not being able to relieve myself of waste. Several weeks into my stay, I saw my physician. During the course of that doctor visit, I was informed that because of my high blood pressure, I may not eat dairy products anymore (no milk, no cheese, no butter, no yogurt and no eggs). Also, an analysis of some kidney stones I passed revealed that the stones are 70% calcium caused by excess calcium buildup from green leafy vegetables, especially spinach. I was told to stop eating green leafy vegetable matter (salads), to stop eating beans of all kinds, and to stay away from calcium enriched items (like orange juice which has calcium added). As you can see, from that point forward, I could no longer eat anything served at the shelter with the breakfast exceptions of cold cereal (but without the milk), pancakes, and oatmeal or cream of wheat (again without any milk on them) and the dinner exceptions of the occasional corn side dish and some of the desserts.

I receive food stamps. The amount I receive basically allowed me to spend $5.50 per day (that amount was increased on April 1st to about $6.60 per day). So, I have to live on what I can purchase at the grocery store for that amount. I find I can get an apple, an orange (or tangelo sometimes), a couple of bananas, two or three Roma tomatoes, an avocado or two, a carrot stick or two, some juice, a bread roll or two, a small tub of potato salad (if I get this I must reduce my vegetables and fruit somewhat) and maybe even a treat like an apple fritter or cherry turnover each day. It's not a lot, but I make do.

The shelter where I stayed offers another service which I believe is unique to it among shelters nationally. This shelter has a van capable of seating 12 people. So, the shelter provides one ride (for up to 12 men) in the morning from the shelter and makes stops at the closest DES office (Department of Economic Security, the office which administers state economic aid), the Guadalupe "soup kitchen" (this charity operates 7 days a week, is funded and staffed by a Catholic church) where one may obtain morning coffee, day old bread donated by the bakeries of local supermarkets, and sack lunches prepared by the Guadalupe staff. The third stop offered by the van was a downtown park, however, due to the current economic crisis the third stop was changed to a branch, day office of the homeless shelter near that park. At 4:45 P.M., the van did return to the downtown park to pick up as many as 12 men who wanted to ride back in it to the shelter. However, when the economy turned sour, the ride “home” was discontinued entirely. Nonetheless, I think this is a pretty remarkable kindness offered by that shelter.

In the evening, after the dining room is cleaned up from dinner service, the room and the patio are open for client use. Cigarette smokers tend to congregate outside since smoking is not allowed indoors. The shelter has a couple of chessboards for those who want to play chess. A water fountain is provided in the dining hall (strangely enough, another one is provided in the bathroom area). A large screen, flat screen TV was donated for the dining room. However, the TV doesn't go on until about 7:30 P.M. It is at about 8 P.M. when a snack is provided and a DVD is selected for evening viewing. One may stay up as late at night as one's inclination or whimsy dictates. However, after the movie is over, the TV goes off. Sometimes the snack is fruit. Sometimes it is cookies. Once a week the snack is a sandwich (a piece of lunch meat inside two pieces of bread, plain - no mayo or mustard). However, the usual snack provided is pretzels.

The shower is open for use 23 hours per day. There is a hygiene table which offers soap, shaving cream, roll on deodorant and shampoo. However, the shampoo and the shaving cream are doled out in small doses, just enough for one usage. The soap bars are small and don't seem to make much in the way of suds. The deodorant is communal, so if one wants to use it, one applies it at the table (and the same roll on dispenser is used for each person who uses it). One can also apply a dab of toothpaste to one's toothbrush from a communal tube. No mouthwash is allowed into the shelter, because mouthwash contains alcohol and could be used for drinking purposes. The same is true of after shave lotion. One may also obtain a Q-tip a day. The shelter stopped supplying razors due to the budget crunch it incurred along with the rest of the nation. I was fortunate because I had my own Q-tips, shaving cream, deodorant, toothpaste, razors, bath soap and shampoo while staying at the shelter.

For most people, the lifestyle provided by this shelter wouldn't be too bad. The food, especially, is great for people with a normal diet. However, there exist circumstances making life in any shelter, even one as kind and giving as the one in which I dwelled, less than desirable.

The mix of men residing there is varied.

Some men in the shelter are what I think of as being, institutionally homeless. Those are the men who really do not want to work. They are mostly alcoholics and drug addicts. They come in for a day or two, or maybe even 5. They do this when the money they receive from their government check (VA pension, Social Security pension when old enough, Disability check, etc.) runs out toward the end of the month. As soon as the new month arrives, they go rent a room in a motel, buy the substance of their choice, and binge until they are broke again. These men are prone to arguments. They might even be dangerous.

Also present are methadone users. These are the men, who theoretically are using methadone to quit their heroin habit. However, most of them never really kick. They stay addicted to methadone, getting weaned down to low levels, but then getting sick enough to need more. I can't tell you how many there are, but there are more than just a few as I've become aware of at least three, without even asking. Some of these men are prone to theft, and one's personal items are not necessarily safe in the shelter.

Let me offer this example. I had coffee stolen a few days running when one of the methadone users weaseled his way into a “stay in” program for a few days in a row. He had asked me for coffee and I told him, "No, I don't ask for anything from anyone and can't give anything to anyone." Well, he just took it. One morning, I confronted him about it. We were called into the office to speak to one of the shelter managers. I was calm, kept my arms folded on my chest and leaned back against a desk while I explained why I suspected him (and there was strong circumstantial evidence, and I admitted it was circumstantial). The man came at me as he started his reply. I didn't flinch, but I didn't move to protect myself either. The shelter case worked got in between us, protecting me from any possible attack, and wrote the other man up for it. I felt I had to stand my ground and protect my possessions if I were to be respected and my property kept safe. It seemed to have worked, for a while.

With the institutionally homeless, the drama never really ends and they will bring it into the life of anyone they decide they don’t like. For instance, a few days to a week after I had the “conflict” with the thief, someone ratted on him for using drugs. There is a woman who is in charge of the shelter, so she decided to go through his belongings to see if he was in possession of any drugs. She never actually found any. However, the whole time she was conducting her search (and when one enters the shelter, one signs a waiver allowing one’s belongings to be searched at any time during one’s stay), the man continued to get in her face and spoke in a very loud voice as he expressed denial. He was expelled from the shelter. I’m sure he was expelled because he couldn’t control his behavior with her just as he couldn’t with me.

After that, I did occasionally run into this man. At first he accused me of ratting on him, which I didn’t and couldn’t because I wasn’t aware enough of his activities to be in a position to rat him out. Furthermore, I wouldn’t do that anyway. I am well aware that could get one killed or severely injured. He later found out I didn’t rat on him. Nonetheless, whenever he ran into me, he always had some accusation to sling in my direction. One time, as we rode on the same bus, he commented that he wished he had a gun so he could kill me. His reasoning was that, because I got him in trouble once (notice he never accepted any personal responsibility for any of his own actions), and he was written up for it, that led to him being evicted.

My response to him was to ignore him. I never looked at him and never responded to anything he said. I was pretending he didn’t exist. I liked to think of him as a figment of everyone else’s imagination. Things didn’t end there, however. Recently, I had some shower shoes stolen from my property. The shoes had pumpkins on them (my birthday being Halloween, it seemed fitting to have and use those shoes), so I realized no one would dare wear them around the facility. But I also realized this was likely a message. He had some new friends who, shortly before the theft, had come to stay at the shelter. I believed it was a statement, letting me know, “See, we can take anything of yours we want at any time.” I brought the loss to the attention of the man on duty, be he wasn’t concerned.

Now, at the same time as this occurred, that night and for the 3 nights preceding its occurrence, no charities showed up to feed us. The shelter didn’t have much on hand available. The dinners, which weren’t very edible for me in the first place, turned into something you wouldn’t feed your dog as table scraps. Given that I wasn’t feeling safe there any longer, the lack of food available to me, and the cutting back on services in general, I decided it was time to leave the shelter (at about the 60th day).

I’ve been struggling mightily since. I found a dry wash near the University in a residential neighborhood that seemed safe, so I spent a night there. I didn’t see anyone come around that night. So, I felt it was safe enough to leave my backpack there with most of my things in it. There was an area where the road went over the wash, a cemented bridge over a cemented wash. The thing was, it was blocked on the other end because it was cemented closed. Consequently, most of the area was completely dark. I put the backpack way in the back of that darkened area, thinking it wouldn’t be seen there. Well, I left the U of A before dark only to discover that someone did find it, had torn it all apart, and was laying there taking possession of my things. I chased him off, but realized I couldn’t leave my things there, so I needed a new sleeping site.

I spent one night in the University of Arizona library, working on my writing all night. The next night, I couldn’t stay at the U of A because they announced they were going to check for non-students between 1 AM and 7 AM, times the library computers are reserved for students, faculty and staff only. I spent that night in a 24 hour Laundromat. The next day, I had a suggestion made by some people I knew from the shelter about a place to stay where I had a general familiarity already with the location. It was in the dry Santa Cruz River, where I stayed when I first arrived in Tucson, but further south, just out of the city limits, meaning fewer potential hassles with the police. I stayed there the first night incident free. I even took a trial walk out to a Walgreens to pick up a prescription that was ready, a walk that probably took me a couple of hours. I left my backpack, and when I returned, it was there and no one had bothered my area. I finally felt safe. Well, I shouldn’t have. The next day, when I returned from the U of A, my sleeping bag, plastic tarp and backpack had been stolen. In the backpack were all of my clothes (other than what I am still wearing), all my paperwork from the doctor, my application for housing assistance, the paperwork for my Social Security Disability claim, and a folder in which I had placed the last of the photos from my life which I had saved (photos of old girlfriends, old friends, clippings from stories about me in newspapers and magazines, autographs from famous people I had met, and other personal items of memorabilia).

From this description of my experiences, you can begin to see what it is like to be a homeless person today. The petty becomes your focus. Drama circles in on you, even when you are trying to do nothing more than stay away from the world and its circumstances. There is really no where one can feel safe. There is no way to be certain you can hold on to anything, even your sanity. Just when you think you have secured some measure of routine and some reasonable lifestyle, the buzzards circling overhead will strike from above and eat your flesh while you are alive. Don’t ever get comfortable. Don’t ever let your guard down. Don’t ever feel safe. Don’t trust anyone.

I’m sure you are wondering, “Why doesn’t he return to the shelter?” Well, I can’t. Because I left, there is either a 30 or 90 day waiting period before I could return to it. But, since you’re likely still thinking the shelter isn’t half bad, allow me to return to describing shelter life, there’s more you ought to know.

The shelter also has its fair share of ex-cons. Some of them get on a program which aids them in re-integrating with society. Most of them end up become institutionally homeless. Most of them have addictions to one or more substances. They can be argumentative and dangerous as well. They are also prone to theft.

In addition to these men, the shelter houses a number of people, like I, trying to obtain Social Security Disability benefits. Some of us are really infirmed (again, like I, who Social Security seems to think is willing to make myself homeless just to avoid work, so benefits are denied, and one must learn to play the institutional bureaucracy game). Others are looking for a free ride. One also discovers that there are a large number of former military veterans living in shelters. It seems, over the last several decades, all of you out there who have demanded we support our troops when they are sent off to war refuse to support those same troops when they come home. They often return with PTSD. They have difficulty finding employment, and many end up on the streets - unwanted and no longer of use to the society who sent them to fight battles on their behalf.

There seemed to be a fair number of pot smokers at the shelter. There also seemed to be a fairly constant supply of pot. I don't use any these days. However, in the morning, when walking away from the shelter, I was always greeted with the aroma of burning marijuana in the air, announcing to everyone except the shelter workers that a group of men stood nearby, smoking marijuana. Since I did not know who I could and could not trust, and therefore, did not want to risk my bed if someone decided to rat me out (read, Mr. Methadone Man), I'm stayed clean. Besides, I really don't need it, and I never really liked the wake and bake. I never got anything done and later in the afternoon I ended up with a headache from the wake and bake, so I tended to eschew that scenario. At the end of my time living at a friend's home, I was only having a couple of hits a night anyway, and only when he offered (I, obviously, didn't have any money with which to purchase pot). I don’t really miss marijuana. However, it was the best pain reliever for my chronic back pain which I have yet found.

There are clearly a number of drinkers among the homeless in the shelter. I do not know how they get away with it, but I saw empty half pint and pint bottles of Popov vodka on the ground, so someone is drinking and getting away with it. I hardly ever drank during the last several years. So, not drinking was not an issue for me. Clearly though, Popov seems to be an alcohol used often, because I see empty bottles of it all over Tucson in my daily travels. Maybe it's cheap? (Perhaps one can say, "One knows when one is bottoming out because one starts drinking Popov Vodka.")

The hygiene habits of many of the men in the shelter leave a lot to be desired. No one covers their mouth when they cough or sneeze. When I first got there (and was eating the food), one man coughed directly at my plate of food. Needless to say, I was sick for 2 weeks after that. Few of the men wash their hands after using the restroom. Some don't shower regularly. A few never shower at all (and smell like it, too!). Some men never seem to even change their clothing, let alone turn their dirty clothes in for laundry service (which comes up for everyone in the shelter every 8 days - and which I took care to make sure I used each time my turn arose). There is no Kleenex provided in the shelter. So, rather than tear off a bit of toilet paper, nearly every man in the shelter, and nearly all homeless men I see on the street, simply uses one finger to close one nostril and blows hard out the other. They may do that into a bathroom sink, into a large trash can, while they are standing next to you and engaged in conversation, or just anywhere when the urge strikes them. One could become jaded to the occurrence except that the really liquid, runny mucus which comes out sometimes drools down their facial hair or face. The art of "hocking a loogie" has been mastered by most of these guys, too. Perhaps I am a little too squeamish for some of these practices? However, I do, nonetheless, find them repulsive.

Another of my pet peeves while staying at the shelter concerned how a particular situation was handled. One sightless man lived among us. When he needed to get around in the "dorm," he usually asked someone near him to lead him. So, when he needed to urinate, all the men who help him lead him to the urinal. However, by the time the sightless man gets ready to urinate he invariably misses the urinal and ends up urinating right on the floor by the urinal. So, there is nearly always a puddle of his urine on the floor by the urinal that one would have to stand in to urinate at that particular stall. I really don't get why the men who lead him didn't simply suggest that, since he never gets it in the urinal (and it isn't his fault), why not lead him to the toilet so he could sit down and be fairly certain of hitting the mark? I guess that would be too much to ask. I guess it was also too much to ask to have a restroom sanitary enough not to present such a health hazard.

I also have to wonder at the logic behind sending all of the men out of the shelter for 10 hours every day from 7 A.M. to 5 P.M. Is this not a reversal of AA/NA principles? With so many men at the shelter having substance abuse issues, isn't the idea of sending them back out to the streets essentially one which puts the addict back into the very same environment, among the very same people and in the same situations which would provide temptation and potentially lead to relapse? I understand that the shelter cannot take on the problems of 100 men 24/7 unless it has a much larger staff and one trained to handle a wide variety of psychological, socially adaptive, and emotional issues. However, sending them right back into the environment which reinforces substance abuse rather than deters it doesn't make any sense either. The shelter does provide a couple of AA meetings per week in the evening, but I am sorry, I just don't think that is enough to offset ten hours per day, 7 days per week of re-immersing the addict/alcoholic into the environment of temptation and among the association of users.

What do homeless people do with their days? Some panhandle. Some drink and/or use drugs. Some get methadone and find a quiet park in which they sleep most of the day away. Some walk around, not really knowing what to do, looking for coins on the ground. Some shoplift. Some look for work. Some go to the library and read or use the computers, mostly playing online poker or mob wars. Some find friends, hang out and talk the day away. Some do puzzles. Some work on their writing projects, or pen new blog entries. Some find a place to watch TV, or watch their favorite shows on the computer at the library.

How the public reacts to homeless people and homelessness in general imposes a profound influence on the homeless. Let me offer myself as an example.

My appearance tended to cross boundaries before I had my belongings stolen. I was always clean and neat. I smelled decent. However, I also wandered around some of the time with nothing to do, looking for change on the ground. I do that even when I am going somewhere in particular. I also have a much darker tan than one would expect of someone not living a homeless lifestyle not named George Hamilton. I use the computers at the University of Arizona, and because of my age (56 years), I do not look like someone who belongs there (I don't dress like a professor and don't carry books, notebooks, writing paper or go to classrooms and certainly do not look like someone in his early twenties who might be expected to be a student). Yet, my clothing, even now, does not look disheveled or filthy. I still make sure to wash my face and hands as often as ever, and I take showers as often as I can (up to three times a week). Sometimes, when I eat my lunch, I sit on a park bench (or just munch while using the computer at the U of A), but, other times, I have to sit at a bus stop to eat. One dead give-away of being homeless is carrying too much stuff around, or carrying bedding around.

Consequently, I am sometimes approached by homeless people asking for change or cigarettes or bus fare. However, I also get stares from people who show their disdain and contempt, clearly viewing themselves as superior to me. Hey, people, I am the same guy today I was a few months ago. I'm still the same man who worked on "Puff the Magic Dragon" and "Annabelle's Wish." I'm still a published poet. If you look me up online, you'd think I was "somebody." But, when college students see me on campus or when someone approaches a bus stop and sees me sitting there eating my lunch, I become sub-human in their eyes and am treated as such.

I've got news for you, folks, all homeless are not drug-addict, alcoholic, panhandling, smelly, unkempt, useless bums. I've met a homeless man who speak 14 languages, fluently (!), and just wants to escape being badgered by the CIA into working for them. Another homeless man I met (about half my age) dropped out of the University of Arizona, though he was a philosophy major and has a clear and keen mind. I've seen other homeless: who travel the world, who can offer keen insight into most situations, who are excellent chefs, and on and on. There is a wealth of talent and skill among the homeless which is not being utilized for the betterment of society and the individual's opportunity to lead a productive and affluent life. This is not the fault of the homeless person, nor does it render that person as being less than human, or at least a substandard human who deserves to be treated with disdain if treated anyway at all.

The way the economy is going, more and more of you are going to be joining me on the streets before much longer. Don't think it can't happen to you, because if you do, you will be the exact person homelessness will take in its grasp. I've seen married couples in free clinics for the homeless seeking badly needed medical attention because they lost their jobs, their homes and their medical insurance. I've met skilled tradesmen who have been rendered homeless, men in their 30s, who should be in the prime of their lives. I've met people with naïve personalities and trusting natures, taken advantage of by others and rendered homeless as a result, and then continually robbed of their own funds as they con the naïve into supplying liquor and drugs just to retain their friendship. I've met youngsters in their late teens and twenties who cannot adapt to the current culture and don't want to because they find it anathema.

Everyone alive deserves a little respect and to be treated like an equal. Sure, it's no longer politically correct (and consequently, not socially acceptable) to treat racial, ethnic and religious minorities as less than equal. However, nearly every single one of you, nearly every day of your life treats the homeless as inferior. By treating us that way, you reinforce poor self images which were ingrained by demanding parents. You reinforce our lack of belief in ourselves.
Consequently, you help keep us in our position. You, who want to preach about Christian charity, can go do something nice for someone once a month, or maybe donate a few bucks to a charity once a year, and pat yourselves on the back. You daily actions and attitudes expressed to the homeless belie that image of the charitable humanitarian and brand you as being a social elitist and classist bigot.

Do not believe that your savior will absolve you of your arrogant inhumanity and narcissistic sense of superiority. No, because if the stories about your savior are to be believed, he took the leper in his arms and healed the leper, he stopped the stoning of a prostitute and he loved all the downtrodden and he damned the consumerist, elitist commerce practiced in the temple, while preaching a message that sought to bridge the divide of classes, demanded everyone live a daily life which exemplified the teachings of their religion, denigrated opulence, scorned wealth, and offered love and inclusion to the poor, the hopeless and the downtrodden! Indeed, ask yourselves just how would Jesus treat the homeless? Would he scorn them, ridicule them, ignore them, refuse them aid, food or shelter? No! He would tell you they are your brothers and sisters and must be treated as such.

Well, the saddest truth of all is that the continued manner in which this generation, this culture, and this economy seek to proceed in the face of so much suffering will doom you to the same fate as those you scorn today. Your economy is in an accelerating downward spiral. You are caught in a cycle - too few people have enough discretionary income to buy the products the wealthy want to sell you. So, the wealthy lay off more people as a means of trying to maintain their income level through reducing expenditures. The more people laid off, the fewer products bought, leading to more layoffs and on and on. This will continue until the widespread poverty becomes so perversely proliferated that the poor will rise up against the wealthy on a global scale. You cannot defeat the economic enemy called poverty with competitive, truculent, avaricious capitalism. You must create a new model. The model must be one in which all people can share a modest, responsible affluence, no one should be wealthy and no one should be poor. That is the goal this world must learn to pursue. You must learn to work cooperatively, harmoniously, responsibly, ecologically, and humanely to create a better future, a lasting future, a peaceful future, and a fulfilling future.
This essay has been selected by Sabellapress for inclusion in an anthology which they will publish and release in the summer of 2009 under the title, "Unhoused Voices: Granting Change for the Homeless."

4 comments:

Michelle said...

BRAVO.

emma said...

I agree Bravo

Shoreline Driftwood said...

Thank you both for the kudos. I was nervous about "outing" myself as being homeless. Thanks for continuing to accept me.

Shanti Perez said...

Thank you for sharing this, Don. Emma told me to read it. I'm glad she did.