Why We Need the Homeless

IMG_8941As Phillip Lopate points out, perverse humor and contrariness can help us break through our ingrained ways of thinking, can help us view emotionally charged problems in our world through a more constructive lens. With that in mind, here’s why we need homelessness, why we shouldn’t be trying to end or reduce homelessness at all, but rather encouraging it.

Homelessness is good for individuals because it provides an education in life not available by other means. If you’re young and homeless and have a sense of adventure, you can travel around the country in a Jack Kerouac sort of way, get to see more cities and small towns and different ways of living than you’d ever be able to do if you were not homeless and if you were working full-time to try and stay not homeless. We should encourage homelessness in our young people, as it would increase their civic and geographic literacy and help us avoid the high cost of a college education.

Homelessness is good for our society. First, it is good for the environment because people who are homeless often recycle things. They find discarded aluminum cans and plastic bottles in ditches beside streets and turn them in to recycling places in exchange for money. Homelessness is good for the environment because people who are homeless often leave very small carbon footprints: they usually don’t own cars, or if they do, they can’t afford the gas to drive them so they rely on public transportation, ride bicycles or skateboards (if they are young), or simply walk to where they need to go. They eat leftover food that would otherwise go to waste and have to be carted off in garbage trucks and take up space in land fills. This especially applies to all of those excess Starbucks pastries that have to be thrown away at the end of each day. Homeless people don’t use much electricity, especially if they live outside, and even if they stay in public or church-run shelters, the cost per person of heating or cooling the shelter area is quite cost-effective.

Homelessness is good for the economy because our US market economy is based on winners and losers, the wealthy and the poor: having people who are homeless on our streets—so visibly down and out and poor—reminds us that our economy is working. It reminds us on a personal level that we had better keep working or we will end up like them: homeless. It’s a good moral lesson for our children when they are lazy at school. We can point out a homeless person and say: “See—that’s what you’ll become if you don’t study harder!” Homelessness is good for the economy because, like migrant farm workers, many homeless people do day labor, such as construction or yard work, for very low wages. This enables businesses to turn a higher profit.

Homelessness creates jobs for people, especially jobs in public health and social work, as well as jobs for journalists and researchers who focus on homelessness. Homelessness and poverty support health care providers, teachers, social workers, and other professionals who are incompetent or impaired, and who wouldn’t be tolerated in care settings for affluent persons. People who are homeless—along with other poor people—help support medical innovation, since many of them serve as patients and research subjects in academic medical centers. Of course, these medical innovations mainly benefit affluent people who can afford health insurance to cover the cost of such innovations.

Please support homelessness. Our country needs more of it.

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From my medical memoir, Catching Homelessness: A Nurse’s Story of Falling Through the Safety Net (Berkeley: She Writes Press, August 2016).

Note: For this piece I was influenced by Herbert Gans’s article “The Positive Functions of Poverty” in The American Journal of Sociology (Vol. 78, No. 2, September 1972) and by Joel John Robert’s article “Ten Things We Can Do to Perpetuate Homelessness,” published in the Los Angeles Times (July 19, 2003).

Evicted

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“In languages all over the world, the word for ‘home’ encompasses not just shelter but warmth, safety, family—the womb.” ~Matthew Desmond

Part of my Summer Social Justice Reading Challenge included reading Matthew Desmond’s powerful nonfiction book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City (New York: Crown Publishers, 2016). Although I finished reading the book a month or so ago, I’ve been letting my thoughts about it percolate before writing a review.

First, it is a formidable book, with the hardcover edition being 341 pages with an additional 62 pages for a detailed “Notes” section. Since the author is a Harvard University professor and Evicted is based on his PhD dissertation research, the scholarly weightiness of the book is not surprising. As Desmond points out, there has been a dearth of research on the practice, policies, and consequences of eviction on individuals, families, and groups in the United States. Through his research and policy work, he seeks to address this issue. He has established the Just Shelter website to highlight additional stories of evictions around the country and to direct people to ways of helping at the local and national levels. For that I admire him.

In an effort to tell the stories of people he studied and lived amongst (in order to study them), Desmond uses a third-person detached narrative approach similar to the one used by Katherine Boo in Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity (New York: Random House, 2012). In the “Notes” section he acknowledges that he declined to write in the more current first-person ethnographic narration, a “…postmodern turn in anthropology, which focused attention on the politics and biases of the author.” He goes on to invoke “classic” policy-relevant ethnographic books, such as Elliott Liebow’s Tally’s Corner: A Study of Negro Streetcorner Men (New York: Little, Brown &Company, 1967), in which he claims the authors “are hardly on the page.” (p. 405) This is a strange statement, since Tally’s Corner is written in first-person, despite it also being written from Liebow’s dissertation. 

Evicted reads more like a novel (Sinclair’s The Jungle comes to mind) than a heavy-duty social policy book. But as a reader, I was distracted by the frequent use of derogatory descriptors of people (moon-faced, redneck, etc.) and the fact that I could easily tell the places in the story where the not so behind the scenes author would play the role of the Great White (male) hope and bail people out of difficult spots. In the “Epilogue,” Desmond acknowledges both of these issues, but not in particularly convincing or reassuring ways. For instance, he mentions that people sometimes call him on the fact that he includes not so savory details about “poor people” and he replies that it doesn’t help anyone to try to gloss over realities—and that the tendency of kind-hearted liberals to portray poor people as saints is belittling and disrespectful. I agree, but there’s no need to describe people in a pejorative way.

The strongest part of Evicted comes in the “Epilogue: Home and Hope.” It is here that Desmond does an excellent job of highlighting the negative health effects of eviction on people, including the higher rates of depression and suicide among recently evicted people. And he has these things to say about the role of home for all of us: “The home is the center of life. It is a refuge from the grind of work, the pressure of school, and the menace of the streets.(…) The home is the wellspring of personhood. It is where our identity takes root and blossoms (…) When we try to understand ourselves, we often begin by considering the kind of home in which we were raised. (…) America is supposed to be a place where you can better yourself, your family, and your community. But this is only possible if you have a stable home. ” (pp. 293-4) Yes, housing is health care and yes, everyone deserves a safe and stable home.

My Homeless Shadow

IMG_1542“Most of us live homeless, in the neighborhood of our true selves.”
—Rachel Naomi Remen

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A few years ago, while working with Public Health– Seattle & King County on a medical respite project for homeless youth, my own homeless shadow resurfaced. I was in downtown Seattle at the YWCA women’s shelter, waiting inside the front lobby for the rest of our group to arrive. We were scheduled to have a tour of the facility to see how they ran their medical respite program. I’d taken the city bus and had purposefully dressed down in jeans, a sweater, and a raincoat. It was late afternoon, raining out- side, and I saw soliciting, pimping, prostituting, and drug dealing happening on the sidewalk in front of the shelter. The members of my medical respite group were buzzed in the front door. At the same time, a homeless woman resident walked up to me and asked, “Did you stay at a hotel last night on Aurora instead of here again?” Aurora Avenue is one of Seattle’s main prostitution areas. I looked up at her in alarm. “I’m sorry. You must have me mixed up with someone else. I’m not staying here, I’m just visiting.”

The people in my group overheard this interchange. Later, they teased me about it, saying how preposterous it was. I was a university professor, for God’s sake! There was no way I could be homeless, much less a homeless prostitute. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that my cover had been blown, that I’d been found out, that my homeless shadow was showing. You were homeless—why? What was wrong with you? Those are the questions people ask me—or want to ask me—whenever they discover I was homeless. Coming out of the closet about my own homelessness was never an option for me. It could derail my career, hurt my family, and marginalize me even more. It was largely why I had moved across the country to Seattle, to escape the memories of having been homeless in my hometown of Richmond, Virginia. But standing there in the YWCA shelter, I recognized the irony—and the hypocrisy—embedded in my reaction to the woman’s question. Here I was an outspoken advocate for people who were homeless, while secretly judging them, and by extension, judging myself.

Homelessness is exhausting and soul sucking. Homelessness has marked me. Like the star-shaped surgery scars on my belly, the body harbors secrets. Homelessness is a type of deep illness, a term coined by sociologist Arthur Frank for an illness that leaves you feeling dislocated, an illness that casts a shadow over your life. That shadow never completely goes away. At some point it was time to acknowledge my homeless shadow, time to remember.

Note: This is an excerpt from my recently published medical memoir, Catching Homelessness: A Nurse’s Story of Falling Through the Safety Net (Berkeley: SheWrites Press, August 9, 2016).

Past Forgiveness: Part 1

DSC02140The following is an excerpt from my book manuscript titled Soul Stories: Voices from the Margins (under review). I’m sharing it here—and now—because I know of at least one young woman out there in the world who probably needs to hear these words. I’ll post a a “Part II” soon.

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In Regarding the Pain of Others Susan Sontag writes of the meaning of images depicting tragedies and traumas. Towards the end of the book she contends, “There is simply too much injustice in the world. And too much remembering (of ancient grievances: Serbs, Irish) embitters. To make peace is to forget. To reconcile, it is necessary that memory be faulty and limited.”

But I wonder if reconciling, if forgiving, is always predicated on forgetting. And, is forgiving always a good thing?

As I began writing this essay, a young white supremacist shot and killed nine black people during a prayer service in a historic black church in Charleston, South Carolina. The day after this hate crime atrocity, the relatives of those murdered came together and gave a public declaration in which they called on the shooter to confess his crime and repent. He was not admitting to any wrongdoing or crime, yet they forgave him for murdering their loved ones. They said that they called on their deeply held Christian convictions to guide them in this matter.

Was their quick and very public forgiveness a form of Christian witnessing, a rebuke to the Devil, to evil in the world? Or was it something else? I realize I am treading on difficult ground here, that being within my white privilege I can never know what the family members of those victims experienced. Of course, there is something admirable and noble in turning anger and vengeance into love and forgiveness. But then that becomes the standard and what if there are relatives of victims who can’t or do not want to forgive the white supremacist murderer?

Forgiveness is a peculiarly Christian thing to do.  Having been raised within an exclusively Christian worldview—with its turn the other cheek, forgive a person seventy times seven, forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors—I hadn’t realized that other major world religions like Judaism have different views on forgiveness. In Judaism, forgiveness can only be granted by the aggrieved person, and only after the perpetrator has asked for forgiveness and has made both atonement and restitution.

Forgiveness is also a peculiarly female thing to do; it is emphasized in traditional gender roles in Eastern and Western societies. Women are conditioned to be the family and community peacemakers, and forgiving is viewed as an essential part of that role. People who forgive are supposed to “soften their hearts,” release their anger and sense of revenge in nonviolent, nonliteral ways.

Robert Enright, a Catholic psychologist at the University of Wisconsin—Madison, has developed a 60-item Forgiveness Inventory to measure forgiveness, and an 8-step program leading to forgiveness. He has been dubbed “Dr. Forgiveness.” Through his research, he contends that people who forgive lead healthier and longer lives than those who “stay stuck” or “hold on to” resentment and a lack of forgiveness. He advocates the use of the “two chair technique” in counseling someone to forgive. The person sits in one chair facing an empty chair representing the person who wronged them. They tell that person—that chair—how they feel. Then they sit in the second chair, try to see things from the other person’s perspective, and talk things through with the imaginary person until they achieve forgiveness.

There is even an International Forgiveness Day, the first Sunday of August, established by the World Wide Forgiveness Alliance. (It has been changed to October 7th for 2016 for some reason.) The 2015 Forgiveness Day was on August 2nd, and at 2pm on that day people were called “to take two minutes to forgive someone and join over 2 million people in the Wave of Forgiveness.” On their website, they featured photographs and testimonials of the 2015 Heroes and Champions of Forgiveness. Most were women and it seems that most were women of color, a fact I find ironic given the power dynamics inherent in forgiveness.  I took the online 33-item Forgiveness Quiz with questions such as “Forgiveness is a sign of weakness,” and “I believe that revenge is devilish and forgiveness is saintly”—an echo of Alexander Pope’s famous line of poetry “To err is human; to forgive, divine.”

Most of my answers to the quiz questions using their Likert scale were neutral because my real answers to these questions were “it depends.” Nevertheless, my composite score told me I tend towards being a more forgiving person. Even though I think it is a rather silly and oversimplified test—and I question our society’s insistence on forgiveness, especially gendered forgiveness—I find my test result to be comforting. I also find that comfort disquieting.

Simple Ways to Help the Homeless

IMG_8789When people discover that I have not only worked with homeless people for the past thirty years but have also experienced homelessness as a young adult, the number one question they ask me is, “So what should I do when I see a homeless person on the streets—what can I possibly do to help?” In fact, while working today at the University of Washington, a longtime and well-known health journalist asked me this question. So, for her, and for all the other well-intentioned people out there with the same or similar questions, here is my list of “Simple things you can do to help the homeless” followed by a list of my favorite resources for finding out more about homelessness:

  • Respond with a smile and a kind word—even if it is “No—sorry” when you are asked for a handout for coffee, a meal, or spare change. There’s nothing worse than for a person to be ignored.
  • Carry fast-food restaurant certificates and flyers with local resources to give to the homeless when they ask for food or money.
  • Buy Real Change or whatever your local homelessness/poverty issues newspaper is—if there is one in your area.
  • Support an agency that provides services to the homeless, especially agencies that also work on upstream solutions to preventing homelessness, such as low-income housing or job-training programs. An example is Habitat for Humanity, whose vision is of a world where everyone has a decent place to live.
  • Be informed and become an advocate for local community solutions to homelessness and poverty, as well as state, national, and international ones.
  • Consider joining advocacy organizations, such as the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

The following organizations are all well-respected sources of up-to-date information and resources for individuals, groups, and communities to learn more about homelessness and what to do about it.

I personally do not give money to anyone asking for spare change. That is a choice I make, not because I am concerned people will use the money for drugs, alcohol, tobacco or anything else I may consider unhealthy choices, but because I have decided to use my money to support agencies I know and work with and which provide direct services as well as advocacy. I do make sure that I try to make eye contact and say a polite, “No, I’m sorry, I can’t” whenever anyone asks me for money. And I do intervene nicely but firmly whenever I witness someone belittling a homeless person with derogatory comments like “Just get a job!” Such aggressive, judgmental comments should not be tolerated in a civil society.

Note: the list of resources and “Simple things you can do to help the homeless” is adapted from my forthcoming medical memoir, Catching Homelessness: A Nurse’s Story of Falling Through the Safety Net (Berkeley: She Writes Press, August 9, 2016).

The Homeless Cover Girl

PQAV8786Double take. In the Age of Appropriation lines blur between reality and representation. That is what went through my head this week as I stared at the photograph from the cover of my medical memoir, Catching Homelessness: A Nurse’s Story of Falling Through the Safety Net (Berkeley: She Writes Press, August 9, 206) which was also on the cover of a recent edition of the SF Weekly (Vol. 35 no. 24, June 30-July 6, 2016). One of my favorite university librarians had been visiting her family in San Francisco over the 4th of July weekend and had seen “your face from your book’s cover photograph” and had wondered how they got it and how they could use it. Many people who know me and who have seen the cover of my memoir assume it is a photograph of a much younger me. To be clear, the photo is not of me: it is a stock photo taken of a young, white, blonde-haired woman posing as a homeless person.

The SF Weekly cover story for that week was titled “The Great Eliminator” by Chris Roberts (pp. 10-13), and was accompanied by yet another version of the cover photo, this time with the cardboard sign branded with “SF Homeless Project.” The article mainly focuses on the contemporary homelessness problem in the United States and specifically in San Francisco, and firmly places the blame on former President Reagan. Roberts ends his article by highlighting local efforts to allow police to clear tent encampments, and states, “Reagan, were he alive, would surely approve. He would definitely recognize the landscape. It’s just as he left it.” (p. 13)

Nothing new with that; just more of the same “blame Reagan—he caused all this mess” trope. I have no love for Reagan, but I also think it’s not at all helpful to keep scapegoating him. The contemporary homelessness problem is much more complex in terms of causation (and “fix-ation”) than any actions of one person or administration.

But what I find most disturbing about this edition of the SF Weekly is their use of this stock photograph of a young, attractive, scrubbed clean, white girl to represent the face of homelessness. Especially given the fact that the feature article has nothing to do with youth homelessness in the Bay Area—there is no context for this photograph. Unless you notice the magazine’s significant number of “Adult Services” advertisement pages, which begin with Dan Savage’s sex column “Savage Love.” According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, one in five of the close to 12,000 “runaway” adolescents reported to them during 2015 was likely a victim of commercial sexual exploitation. And we know that when you add survival sex (trading sex for basic survival needs like food, clothing, and shelter) into the equation…well, let’s just say it is extraordinarily dangerous to be young and homeless and female (or transgender—sexual exploitation and violence also occurs for young men but at much lower rates).

The homeless cover girl in the red hoodie is not me, but she could have been me. For the cover of my medical memoir, I had hoped to use a photograph of one of my favorite collographs by my my late mother—an abstract picture of a ladder going up to a floating house (“Ladder to a Room Apart” 1984, Ruth Singley Ensign). To me it captured the essence of my story of spiraling into and climbing back out of chaos and homelessness. But my publisher nixed that idea and steered me towards this cover, that at least puts a (partial) face on homelessness. So there she is on the cover of my book and on the cover of the SF Weekly. She’s looking way too fresh-faced and scrubbed and manicured to “look homeless.” And donning a totally improbable and impractical bright red hoodie to look like a homeless version of Little Red Riding Hood minus the Big Bad Wolf. But posing homeless.

Beyond Violence: End With Responsibility

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“Face of the Abyss” Josephine Ensign, Mixed-media on canvas, 2015.

“We begin a poem
with longing
and end with
responsibility

And laugh
all through the storms
that are bound
to come

We have umbrellas
We have boots
We have each
other”

~Excerpt from Nikki Giovanni’s poem “Where Do You Enter.”

And from Attorney General Loretta Lynch : “This has been a week of profound grief and heartbreaking loss. After the events of this week, Americans across our country are feeling a sense of helplessness, of uncertainty and of fear. We must reject the easy impulses of bitterness and rancor and embrace the difficult work — but the important work, the vital work — of finding a path forward together.” (As quoted in the NYT article “Shootings Further Divide a Nation Torn Over Race” by Timothy Williams and Michael Wines, July 8, 2016.)

Last night, as the many peaceful protests occurred in cities around the country over the latest police killings of African-American people (Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge and Philando Castile in Minnesota), I finished reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ memoir The Beautiful Struggle (New York: Spiegel and Grau, 2008). Coates has been called the ‘angry black man of choice for progressive-type white people,’ and perhaps there is some truth to that quip. His writing manages to be angry but not bitter, highly educated while somehow sounding more authentically gritty.

The Beautiful Struggle is almost a love letter to his father, W. Paul Coates, a former Black Panther, and the founder of the Black Classic Press. Coates’ more recent book, also a memoir of sorts–but one written as a love letter to his own son-(and a much stronger book in my opinion), is Between the World and Me (New York: Spiegel and Grau, 2015). As I look at these two books of his lying side-by-side on my desk, I realize the covers of both (as well as of the hardback edition of The Beautiful Struggle) are black and white and red. A classic and powerful color combination, but also one that today, as the violence and killings of not only African-Americans but also of the Dallas police officers continues and just seems to escalate, black and white and red takes on a new—and gruesome—visual meaning.

“Hate gives identity.(…) We name the hated strangers and are thus confirmed in the tribe.” (Coates, Between the World and Me, p. 60.) But, as hippy-dippy and starry-eyed as it might sound, doesn’t love also give identity? And if we begin to name the loved strangers, don the boots to walk through muck on that path forward, perhaps we get beyond violence and despair. End with responsibility: individually, tribally, nationally.