Normally I ride my bike or walk down to the Green Bean on Wednesday to sit in the wide-armed easy chair by the fish tank and write out my thoughts. Today I had some errands to do, and since I’m still feeling the last barbs of a heavy chest cold, I drove. I had the radio dial turned to the local NPR station and all the way downtown weighty authoritative voices came out of my car dashboard: Are we in a recession? Is there a way to stimulate the economy? What do the indicators mean? Who’s suffering the most?
As I drove along I passed the construction site where the old Wachovia building is being turned into spectacular-views-of-the-city condos. I passed nice new restaurants with handsome signs and shadowy high-ceilinged interiors; dress shops with headless mannequins looking beautiful and remote; dreamy New Age-y hair salons. At the same time I passed through another Greensboro, a Greensboro mapped out in invisible ink. It’s the city of the poor and the homeless. Just like the more visible city, it’s made up of individuals who wake up every morning, live out their day in a web of experiences and relationships, eat, sleep, talk, laugh, read, and at the end of the day fall asleep and roam through their own unique night landscape of dreams. They know the economy well. Why do I never hear their voices on the radio?
Last Thursday Tim and I went to annual Housing Summit sponsored by the Greensboro Housing Coalition. I’ve known Tim for a couple of years now; he started out coming to Food Not Bombs to eat, and began coming earlier and earlier to set up the tables and generally lend his common sense to the operation. He’s taken primary responsibility for the new kitchen project at the HIVE. The Summit was well attended in spite of icy, rainy weather—several hundred good, dedicated kind-hearted people made it there. I don’t know this for sure, but I would guess that Tim was the only one among them who was homeless. Thousands and thousands of dollars worth of social workers, non-profit agency executives, government officials, academic experts, policy analysts, number crunchers, client service providers. And one homeless guy.
One of the principles I learned from Isabell when she was herself learning about anarchism is that people know best what’s best for themselves, and its corollary, the people most affected by a decision should have the biggest say in the decision. It’s pretty obviously when it applies to us and people like us; more difficult to see when we’re talking about the “other”, whoever our other might be.
Homeless people are America’s ultimate other. If owning a home represents the American Dream, homelessness is the American nightmare, and like all nightmares we try to shove it as far down in the collective psyche as we can. Unfortunately, with it goes real flesh-and-blood people who get shoved in all the ways our culture knows how to shove people—jailed, warehoused, hassled, humiliated, patronized, stigmatized. We make it difficult for people to take care of their most basic needs—we withhold food, shelter, withhold even a place to go to the bathroom–unless they have money, then we arrest them for stealing a loaf of bread, for sleeping outdoors, for urinating in public. We don’t give them a place to wash and clean their clothes, then we call them “dirty.” We shake our heads and say that if people are homeless it must be because they’re mentally ill, then we slowly drive them crazy.
For a long time I’ve wanted to write about the things I’ve learned from the people I’ve gotten to know at Food Not Bombs, but something hasn’t felt quite right. Finally I remembered another principle of anarchism that I learned from Isabell: we shouldn’t speak for other people, nor should we let other people speak for us unless we ask them to.
So in that spirit, last month I asked Tim if he would sit down with me and talk while the recorder ran about the experience of homelessness. Tim has been homeless for five or six years; he has helped me to understand that homelessness is as dynamic as any other condition of life—as dynamic as marriage, as parenthood, as work, as school, as aging, as illness, as love. He has helped me to understand that where you are in homelessness at any given moment is simply where you are at that moment, and that the condition of homelessness is as much internal as external. You can slip into homelessness while you are still living in a house; you can slip out of homelessness long before you move inside. I think that’s the aspect of homelessness—or of homedness for that matter—that awes me: the amazing resilience of spirit that allows people to make a full life out of the most rudimentary materials.
Tim has become a kind of one-man homeless welcoming committee. I watch him at Food Not Bombs, and I understand he does the same at lunch down at Potter’s House, going up to people who look lost and afraid, saying a kind word, telling them where they can find the food or shelter or other services they need, if those services are to be had. He helps people past those first terrifying days when all the safety nets that keep the rest of us in our homes have torn through. I wish there were more of him.
It’s always the same story. If they didn’t have to be there they wouldn’t be. They got confused, and then they got more confused, and it’s hard on them. They feel ashamed. They’re sad, they’re depressed, they’re confused. I’ve invited several people down to my tent—you know, give them a place for the night so they can figure out what to do for the next day. Food’s a top priority, then somewhere to…finding a spot.
When you sit back and hear all the stories, they’re actually all the same, they’ve just changed the names and the places. For a lot of them homelessness is probably from addiction, but I think actually something happened earlier and they never got that resolved, or didn’t even know it, and if they were prone to be addicted one thing led to another. Everyone wants to get out of homelessness, but they don’t need to get out and go right back to the same situation they were in before. You’re supposed to learn from your mistakes, right? So if for some reason you find that job and you’re working every day and you get out, then all of a sudden you’re not homeless anymore, but before you know it you’re right back there at the same edge as before. You didn’t go anywhere.
Within the little community I live in, certain ones help each other and that’s just the way it works. You can’t always help everybody, but I’ve met a lot of folks, I’ve seen them come and go. Once you become homeless, you wonder “What do I do now?” A lot of them, they go, “Well, I’ll go to the day labor, get some work.” When that falls through and you don’t get sent out this day, this day, this day, and you’re having to move—once you start moving you realize you’ve got to declare yourself homeless. Reality sinks in. You end up moving from spot to spot until you find a good one, and then that one can only last a while. If you don’t go out to work it plays mental tricks on you—you get depressed. You’ve got to get over that. If you don’t, it eats you up and you slowly deteriorate, and if you have an addiction you keep going to it. You need to have something meaningful to do every day.
What’s better: to have nothing and be happy, or have everything and be miserable? Homeless people will accept the simplest things of life and be happy about it—we’re just talking about some kind of decent shelter with the minimum of requirements. We’re stuck in a culture that says, unfortunately, that you need to be indoors out of the cave, you need to have running water, you need to have a light bill, you need to have a water bill, you need to pay taxes, and then we’ll accept you. Most folks don’t realize that they got confused about all of this, about what was going on. Stress—stress is just a question you haven’t got an answer to, so they get stressful, all stressed out because they’re confused, they don’t know the answer, what to do for this or that, when instead somehow—we don’t know how—but somehow things work out, they really do, they really work out along the way.
I remember my first night out, I had no idea what to do. Right in downtown Greensboro I said “Well, this is it. It just starts right here.” I didn’t know the Weaver House existed, and here I was sleeping outside in the rain. I had no idea. So I can understand when I see somebody new, that they have no idea of where to go, of what to do, who to ask. You can tell, they won’t admit it, but they’re scared.
Homelessness isn’t about having a roof over your head. It’s more about a person figuring it out for themselves. Homeless people need a place to be so they can get their thoughts together, because I’m pretty sure 10 out of 10 of them grew up in a house. It’s very few that were a homeless child. Some of them, they don’t want to accept the reality of it, they just feel “This ain’t right– something’s not right.” They’ve gotten off their timeline. They were meant to be somewhere else. And yet they’re here, and a lot of them, they just want to get back on the same timeline that was supposed to be their purpose. When you become homeless, though, the bubble pops.
One thing a person needs is time to themselves—that’s a fact. It’s almost chemical. I believe a person needs some place to be, something to do, and–Michele says–somebody who cares. This is just a natural thing, but you can’t do it on a mass scale all at one time. You’ve got to just keep digging at it, keep watching people and going “they’re ready.” I don’t mean a place like Urban Ministry; I mean a place where they can have time to catch up with their thoughts. They went for day after day without their thoughts. They got confused, and then they got more confused. To be able to survive this long you’ve got to…you’ve got to go through it all. You’ve got to figure it out and be happy with it, and once you are you can tell a difference in the folks. I can tell just by looking which ones are comfortable within their own skin.
If you do it on a mass scale it will attract those who aren’t ready to be there, or shouldn’t be there, people who have lost their energy. You’re supposed to be able to produce your own energy, your own basic instinct to survive, but you don’t know, you’re confused. And tired, tired all the time. You might try to lie down and die, but it doesn’t happen. You end up having to get up anyway.
So what’s it going to take? All right, once somebody has a place to be, the next is to find something for them to do that they really want to do, that they enjoy doing, that’s worth doing. They feel as though someone’s in control other than them. That’s the deal, they’ve lost control. They’re scared. So you’ve got to…what? Re-empower them. Let them know it’s OK. If they keep working at the day labor they’re going to go on staying in this small little circle that they’re living in, and they’re not going to get anywhere. They say “But if I don’t do that I’ll be thrown out of my place!” They’re right there homeless anyhow, they just don’t want to admit it. Our culture says: “Go get a job,” but actually in a lot of cases that’s the last thing they need right now. That would actually cause more damage—it actually does cause them more damage, and they stay in this horrible circle, and they just keep doing it over and over and it’ll slowly keep eating them away until they can actually come to terms and get a grip.
If we could just set up some kind of units and say “Look, we’re not going to hassle you, you can be here and have a start.” All the land’s owned by somebody so instead of saying it’s trespassing—just give them a place where they can be, no matter where it’s at. Don’t put them all in one place. Let them be wherever they want to be, then open the doors. They’ve got to be somewhere, then give them something to do.. There’s always something someone can offer. Society—our society—has forgotten this. They came over here in their fancy ship and they forgot. One side needs the other. Until the human race figures out that it’s the human race…that’s the hardest part.
The answer is it’s cheaper to go ahead and do something now. Go ahead and set something up, and over the half the people will even help set it up. They will help for themselves. Quit hassling them.
Thanks to Michele Forrest for the photos of homeless camps and Food Not Bombs. If you want to know what’s going on with homelessness in Greensboro and the world, make a habit of reading her wonderful blog ChosenFast.com