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

PhotoNine

“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.

Who Will Tell the Story?

DSC00528“My hometown of Richmond, Virginia is a city anchored to its past by bronze and marble Confederate shrines of memory, by an undying devotion to the cult of the Lost Cause. I was born and raised in the furrowed, relic-strewn Civil War battle fields on the city’s tattered eastern edge. A captive of its public schools, I was taught official Virginia history from textbooks approved by the First Families of Virginia. But I came to understand the shadowed history of my state by caring for its outcasts.

These lessons began while I was in nursing school. The modern hospital of the Medical College of Virginia curled around the former White House of the Confederacy like a lover. My clinical rotations were nearby in the crumbling brick former colored-only hospital, which then housed indigent and homeless patients, as well as prisoners. Most of these patients were black, so I called it the almost-colored-only hospital. The prisoners, shackled to their beds and accompanied by brown-clad guards, were from the State Penitentiary, located across town. One of my patients was a death-row inmate. When I spoon-fed him his medications, I was simultaneously afraid for my own safety and ashamed of being an accomplice to murder. I knew I was nursing him back to health only to return him to be killed by the state. I wanted to talk to him, ask about his family, about his life in and outside of prison, but the stone-faced armed guard loomed over me. I knew from experience not to discuss my ambivalent feelings with my  nursing instructor. She considered these to be inappropriate topics. I wanted to finish nursing school as fast as I could, so I kept silent.” (pp. 57-58, from my forthcoming medical memoir Catching Homelessness: A Nurse’s Story of Falling Through the Safety Net, Berkeley: She Writes Press, August 9, 2016.)

I was reminded of this passage from my book this past week as I read the NYT article “Who Will Tell the Story of Slavery?” (Lorne Manly, June 29, 2016). Manly describes the (sadly to me, oh so familiar) political dueling going on in my hometown of Richmond over the location of the National Slavery Museum. Former Virginia governor L. Douglas Wilder (our nation’s first elected African-American governor, who was more recently also the Mayor of Richmond (2005-9), wants to establish the museum in the former First African Church (now owned by the Medical College of Virginia/Virginia Commonwealth University and located next to the main hospital I describe above). But the current powers-that-be, including the current Mayor Dwight C. Jones, want to locate such a museum at the historic site of the notorious Lumpkin’s Jail, a former slave prison, dubbed ‘The Devil’s Half-acre,’ the site of which was recently located and excavated. (see the Smithsonian Magazine article “Digging Up the Past at a Richmond Jail,” by Abigail Tucker, March 2009.)

The Richmond indie bookstore, Fountain Bookstore, where I’ll be doing a Catching Homelessness author event (Tuesday October 11, 2016 at 6:30 p.m.), is located a few blocks from the site of the former slave prison in the Shockoe Bottom area of Richmond. Perhaps I’ll include a reading of this section of my book. And not keep silent anymore…

The Pebble in My Shoe

IMG_1805“I write about what most fascinates me right now,” said John McPhee, by way of Robert Michael Pyle, both amazing trail-blazers, or perhaps trackers, of that strange beast that is creative nonfiction. McPhee has written books on subjects such as oranges, the island of his Scottish ancestors, family doctors, college basketball players, the shad as Founding Father fish, and the history of the birch-bark canoe (my personal favorite). Pyle, who is also a biologist, a lepidopterist (butterfly expert), and founder of the Xerces Society for invertebrate ecology (saving our butterflies and bees), has written about butterflies and trees and Big Foot and life. My favorite contemporary female trackers of, or perhaps more fittingly, expanders of the boundaries of creative nonfiction are Terry Tempest Williams and Rebecca Solnit. When Women Were Birds: Fifty-Four Variations on Voice (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2012) by Williams and A Book of Migrations (London: Verso, 211) by Solnit remain two of my all-time favorite books.

Each of these great writers of creative nonfiction sweep us along on explorations of their own current fascinations, obsessions, questions–the pebbles in their shoes, as one of my writing mentors, Stephanie Kallos puts it so aptly. What is it that you carry with you, that at each step insistently reminds you of its existence? The pebble of obsession doesn’t have to be a large rock-sized, inscribed with the muse-whisperer one as shown in the photo here (my historian son made that for me a few years ago–coolest present ever!). But is should be of sufficient significance to be likely to matter to other people besides yourself.

My pebble, my obsession, is and has been for many decades now, the wicked problem of homelessness. I call it a wicked problem, not so much because it is evil or immoral (which I happen to think it is), but because it is so vastly complex a problem that it defies easy solution. Hence, all the well-meaning but expensive and time-consuming ’10 Year Plans to End Homelessness’ implemented (much more than 10 years ago now) in so many U.S. cities, and that largely failed. The term ‘wicked problem’ was coined by two UC Berkeley professors of urban planning, Horst W.J. Rittel and Melvin M. Webber, to describe difficult social policy issues such as poverty, crime, and homelessness. (Read their still surprisingly relevant journal article “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning” Policy Sciences (4), 1973, pp. 155-169.)

Rittel and Webber write, “As distinguished from problems in the natural sciences, which are definable and separable and may have solutions that are findable, the problems of governmental planning–and especially those of social or policy planning–are ill-defined; and they rely upon elusive political judgment for resolution. (Not ‘solution.’ Social problems are never solved. At best they are only re-solved–over and over again.)” (p. 160)

But who would we be, as individuals, as a society, if we didn’t even try? That is the core question, the obsession, the pebble in my shoe.

Postcards of Homelessness Across America

AFAA292C-DF0D-4ECB-A259-C1F1A5C447F0During a recent cross-country car trip with my family from Seattle to Washington, DC, I recorded impressions of the state of homelessness from a traveler’s perspective. We spent time in the following major (and not-so-major) cities: Seattle, Washington; Boise, Idaho; Salt Lake City, Utah; Albuquerque, New Mexico; Austin, Texas; Houston, Texas; New Orleans, Louisiana; Atlanta, Georgia; Richmond, Virginia; and Washington, DC.

The face and interface of visible street-based homelessness change radically from place to place. The demographics of rough-sleepers vary by location, with Seattle, Salt Lake City, and New Orleans having the largest proportion of teenage and young adult ‘visibly homeless’ people. Atlanta, Georgia, Richmond, Virginia and Washington, DC had the oldest and the highest proportion of African-American people who are visibly homeless, on the streets.

Boise, Idaho had very obvious ‘anti-homeless’ city ordinances and police enforcements on the downtown streets. Salt Lake City had the most visible apparent efforts to reach out and help homeless people–with downtown restaurant people giving free meals to some people pushing their belongings around in shopping carts–sidewalk rest/restroom/community pop-up areas that seemed tolerant if not friendly to everyone. I realize it is the headquarters of the Mormon church (and state) and that there is most likely a darker, more complicated flip-side, but I also would be unfair not to report some of the positive attributes that I experienced while there.

I took photographs and wrote notes (and Instagram ‘reports’) throughout my cross-country trip, focusing on health and homelessness. I left postcards of my forthcoming book, Catching Homelessness: A Nurse’s Story of Falling Through the Safety Net (Berkeley: She Writes Press, August 2016), on various community boards in coffee and bookshops (and gas stations) along the way. Here is a (more or less) chronological slideshow of my ‘postcards of homelessness’ impressions across America:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Going Home

IMG_7388I was born and raised and became homeless and then ‘back-out-of homeless’ in my hometown of Richmond, Virginia. Richmond, as the Capital of the Confederacy,  is a complex city with a complex history. I left Richmond in 1990, ostensibly to move to Baltimore to go to graduate school, but mainly to try and leave the ghosts of my past behind. But there’s that irritatingly true maxim of “wherever you go, there you (and your ghosts) are.” That’s why I researched and wrote my forthcoming medical memoir Catching Homelessness: A Nurse’s Story of Falling Through the Safety Net (Berkeley: She Writes Press, August 9, 2016). It was an attempt to make some sense of my past, of my relationships–including my relationship to the South that formed me.

For my book, in a chapter tilted “Greyhound Therapy,” I end with this paragraph:

“Here’s the thing: some geographical cures do work. Sometimes it takes radical change to get your life back. I wanted to move as far away from my birthplace of Richmond as I could get. It was a place I found disorienting. Once I graduated, I took a full-time academic nursing job in Seattle and I got my son back full-time. I also met a wonderful man, Peter, and his young daughter, Margaret, who have both become my family, my home. I can now revisit Richmond—for a short time—and not get lost.”

But then, in a recent essay version of “Greyhound Therapy” published in the Front Porch Journal, (Issue 32, May 2016) I added the sentence, “The real truth is I no longer return.”

Be careful what you write. Less than a month after I wrote that sentence I was back in Richmond, eating at my favorite restaurant there (Comfort), as a pitstop on my family’s cross-country road trip to Washington, DC. And today I found out that I will return to Richmond again this fall, for a Catching Homelessness book reading/signing at my favorite Richmond indie bookstore, Fountain Bookstore, located downtown in Shockoe Slip, an area with a sullied history of slave and tobacco trade. So for all of my friends and relations,  and former co-workers at the Daily Planet and Fan Free and CrossOver Clinics, and students/faculty/staff/alums of the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Nursing, and fellow members of the James River Writers Association, come on down to the Fountain Bookstore on Tuesday October 11, 2016 at 6:30pm and we can share stories of the meaning of home–and of homelessness. And of writing your way back home.