I was blessed last night to spend the night at my pastor’s house on his farm, where I learned that he is also a farmer, and not only a pastor. It was great to be out in the beautiful country, away from the city, and away from Friendship Square, if only for a single night. It was funny, too.
It was funny, because when he invited me to stay the night, my first thought was: In all the years when I was homeless, when I lived on the streets, how many times did anyone ask me over to stay the night? When I was homeless, and I asked somebody if I could stay the night at their house, what was their answer?
No. No. No. No. Countless times the answer was No.
My fellow homeless people and I naturally became more and more discouraged the more these statistics accumulated. But we also naturally asked ourselves: Why did close friends and family members categorically refuse to let us stay the night at their houses? Even for one night?
In my case, even when I offered money to them to let me stay over one night and take a shower — or even just take the shower itself — they said “No.” Why?
Eventually, we all concluded what I am about to describe. They all knew that we were homeless. They also knew that we had a number of other problems, but that none of those problems had ever made us homeless.
They had let us stay over when we were total slobs. They had let me stay over when we were addicted to drugs. Often, they themselves were addicted to drugs. They had let us stay over whenever we were passing through, as long as we had not yet lost a place to live.
So why didn’t they let us stay over when we needed a place to stay?
The answer is simple. All the problems that they had known about had never made us homeless. Now we were homeless, and they did not know why.
Therefore, we must have some problem that they did not know about, and that problem must have made us homeless. Obviously, they thought, we had somehow screwed up our living situations in some way — otherwise, we wouldn’t have become homeless. Since that had to be the case, would we not similarly screw up their living situations as well? Sure we would.
They were not concerned about our problems of which they were aware. They were concerned about our problems of which they were unaware. Everyone has a little fear of the unknown, don’t they? That fear prevented each and every one of them from ever letting us stay at their houses when we needed to.
You can’t imagine how difficult it was for me to call up a very close family member ten days after I had become homeless in 2004, and ask him if I could stay for a while in his spare room, and hear the word “No.”
When I asked him why, he said, “I don’t care to expand.” Whenever I asked him over the years if he could elaborate, he said: “No.”
Why? Because he himself did not know the reason. He was not afraid of what he knew — he was afraid of what he didn’t know. What he didn’t know was why I had wrecked up my living situation, and he didn’t want to take the risk of my wrecking up his as well.
The simple truth was that in the urban area in Berkeley where I had become homeless, the demand for living situations far exceeds the supply. When I lost my last rental — for whatever reason — I could not readily get another one — for whatever reason. I then fell down into the hole called Homelessness, a hole so deep I tried for 12 years to climb my way out of it.
If you can imagine the hurt and the pain I felt from hearing my own brother refuse to let me stay in the spare room at his house ten days after I had become homeless, try multiplying that level of pain by fifteen. One by one, my closest friends and family members told me that I could not stay with them, nor even take a shower at their homes — not even in exchange for money. So the discouragement that was already strong enough soon became fifteen times stronger.
Whatever enabled me to become encouraged again? Encouraged as I still remain today, despite depression, despite mania, despite a medical condition, despite the loss of a job?
The amazing commonality that I shared with my homeless brothers and sisters on the streets of Berkeley, California, almost all of whom were enduring the same indignity as myself, affirmed our common dignity. Our conversations over a five-year period eventually lifted my spirit out of that hole, even though there did my body remain.
I’ve since been in touch with a Berkeley social worker. I asked him how my best friend Lauren was doing, if she was still on the streets, and if her health was holding up. I broke into tears when I learned that somebody had finally helped her with the initial deposit and last month’s rent, and she was now able to live on her disability in her own apartment somewhere in Southern California.
I have also heard similar stories, all across the board, of homeless people in my tribe pulling out of that gigantic hole, because our spirits had finally become encouraged by the hugeness of our common dignity, so much so that our bodies were soon to follow.
In Lauren’s case, it was her own brother who finally stepped up to the plate. In my case, it was a retired music teacher who knew what I was made of, and fronted me a one-way to Idaho and enough money for the deposit on an apartment.
But the dramatic lift in spirits is common in all cases. I went from being homeless on the streets of Berkeley, assuming I was to die a miserable, meaningless death on the streets, to having a job and an apartment in Moscow, Idaho, faster than the twinkle of an eye.
If that’s not an inspiration, I don’t know what it is. But remember, it is not just my inspiration. It is the inspiration of hundreds, maybe thousands, of some of the most inspired people on the face of this Earth.
That inspiration can make a difference. Please, let us make that difference — before it is too late.
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I Told Them I Was Homeless
by Andy Pope
I told them I was homeless and they began to discuss my mental health. I told them I was homeless and they began to discuss my alcoholism. I told them I was homeless and they began to discuss my drug problem, asking me which of various drugs was my “drug of choice.” I told them I was homeless and they began to discuss how much of a loser I was, how lazy I am, and how I should “get off my ass.” I told them I was homeless and they told me where the facility was, where the institution was, which program to join, what kind of treatment to get, where the shelter was, where the board and care was, where the halfway house was, and where all the other criminals are. I told them I didn’t become homeless for any of those reasons. But by that time I realized they weren’t listening.
Andy Pope is a freelance writer who lives in the Pacific Northwest. He is the author of Eden in Babylon, a musical about youth homelessness in urban America.