Double 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.
“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…
Posted in Advocacy, Public health
Tagged death penalty, Health care, Health care provider, Nurse, Nursing, racism, Richmond Virginia, slavery, Virginia, Virginia Commonwealth University
During 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:
I 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.