It’s driving me nuts having to be outdoors while almost everybody I can halfway relate to in life is indoors. If I relate to the people who live outdoors, it is because we all live outdoors.
We share the values and mores of outdoor living in common, even if we share nothing else. But ninety percent of the time — damn right, we share nothing else.
Approximately three times a week, someone who lives outside, someone whom I’ve never seen before, emerges out of someplace where I’ve probably never been and threatens to knock the crap out of me. Yet I am a man of peace. I only want to make my music. I want to sit down with my laptop, crank up my music notation software, and compose.
Maybe five times a week, a person who lives inside (whom I’ve also never seen before) approaches me and asks: “Are you homeless?” How I have come to hate that question!
I almost disdain telling the truth, because I am so tired of seeing so much blood come pouring out of their heart, you’d think they’d have expected me to slurp it up and drink it.
Then, as they begin to promote whatever form of “help” they think best suits me, I find that in order to gain access to their assistance, I will be required to change my taste in food, my outlook on life, my political philosophy, and sometimes even my religion. I’m frickin’ 63 years old, for God’s sake!!
I worked all my life!! And they’re asking me to change my faith? Now, of all times? My faith is exactly what has kept me alive throughout 12 years of indignity and insanity.
Why should I abandon that which has helped me the most, in order to risk being hurt more than helped by the benign but misinformed intentions of a total stranger?
I know a very conservative homeless man who tells me he is expected to become a liberal because it is the liberals who are feeding him. But I have also seen many who identify as liberals become homeless, only to find themselves expected to become conservatives because, in their case, it’s the conservative Christians who feed them.
Why is it that, just because someone is down on their luck, they are expected to adopt the views of those who are not? Everyone is entitled to their own perspective, and it angers me that I should be expected to adopt the perspective of another person only because that person happens to have a roof over their head and more money than I do.
Just because a person is in a higher socio-economic class doesn’t make them right. All it means is that they are in a better position to take advantage of another person’s weakness. And in my case, that weakness is H-H-H- My God, I don’t even want to speak the word anymore!
What word? The H-Word! Homeless! The word that, in one way, nobody ever hears, and in another way, it’s the only word they hear. It’s maddening. It’s exasperating. It’s more than frustrating — it’s infuriating.
Then there are those who are not strangers. These are the ones to whom I once was close, perhaps even intimate — the well-meaning friends and family members who want to “help.” Oh, they’ll help all right! They’ll help in any way they can, shy of actually putting a roof over my head.
They’re always looking for the problem that “caused” me to become homeless, as if solving whatever that elusive problem might be could possibly solve the much more enormous problem that is Homelessness Itself. None of those band-aids can possibly heal the wound of homelessness. That wound is way too deep for that.
There’s this huge division between the people who live outdoors and those who live indoors. It’s almost as though we’re an entirely different species. I can’t seem to do anything to bridge the gap, nor can I seem to do anything to get myself back inside. I’ve tried everything.
All the suggestions everybody gives — they only lead me back to homelessness. They never hit the core issue at its heart. So I get into this space where I start thinking: “Well, screw it. What’s the use of even trying?” I shrug my shoulders.
I head back to my spot, lean my back against the brick wall of the BART station at the corner of Shattuck and Allston, take off my hat, and hold up a sign that reads:
BROKE AND HOMELESS
PLEASE HELP IF YOU CAN
I silently watch them all go by. I make eye contact. I look as many of them in the eye as possible. Then, slowly but surely, little bits of change find their way into my hat. Then a couple of dollars here and there, every now and then a five, a ten if I’m lucky, perhaps even a twenty. People ask if they can buy me a sandwich.
Some people sneer, but they’re easy to overlook. By and by, I calm down. I forget my frustrations, my angst. I meditate. I pray. I look around me, and it is a beautiful day in the city that I love.
An hour goes by, and suddenly it doesn’t matter any longer what they all think. No longer am I driven nuts. Then another half hour or so goes by, and I remember something. I remember who I am. I know who I am. I even like who I am.
So what’s that word I hear? The H-Word? Is that supposed to say something about me? Ah, but no, perhaps we have forgotten. Nothing says anything about me but the Me who Knows Who Me Is. I Am the One I Am.
Three hours go by. I pick up my cash. The sun is setting. I weave my way off toward the spot where I sleep, where nobody knows where to find me. I look to the stars, and say my prayers to the God who believes in Me.
Author’s Note: I am a person who became homeless at the age of 51 in the San Francisco Bay Area during a midlife crisis of enormous proportion, after working for many years as an elementary school music teacher and private teacher of piano and voice. After a long period of homelessness, mostly on the streets of Berkeley, I’ve successfully maintained an apartment in a different part of the country for the past 14 months, and have been gainfully employed for most of that time. This piece was written in Berkeley in early 2016. I hope it gives you a picture of what homelessness was like — for me.
Our Elders, Our Grandmothers
by Joan Beth Clair
There are old women living on the street in China.
There are old women living on the street in America.
Their faces are like fading fabric enclosed by peasant scarves.
Their bedless bodies fight the cold and tell us of
blankets of wealth that do not shelter.
No one can be brought to justice for this, not in a Supreme Court of any nation.
No one can be tried, prosecuted or arrested for these crimes of homelessness.
Not one billionaire can be tried for not giving away all or most of his possessions
to the poor and following Him.
There are elders, grandmothers living on the street in China.
There are elders, grandmothers living on the street in America;
and they are our elders, our grandmothers.
by Claire J. Baker
Nearly every day
a handsome young fellow
pushes a shopping cart.
Under bulging black plastic
cans? bottles? all he owns?
He looks like he should be
painting bridges, up high
shouldering a blue sky,
a net to catch him
should he fall.
He’s someone’s son,
brother or father — maybe
a sculptor’s model
for a modern-day
David of the Streets.
by Claire J. Baker
As soberly as God
a grieving woman lingers
beside a city pond.
her own reflection
like white flames.
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.