Homeless Feet Come Full Circle

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Josephine Ensign/ foot care at Cross-Over Clinic, Fall 1986, from Freedom House brochure.

“I did a lot of foot care at the clinic… Of course, it had its Biblical roots, but there was something about foot washing that most people found comforting and even pampering…I knew that having your feet cared for could somehow make you feel better all over…Almost all the homeless patients I saw had foot problems. They had to walk around town to get to different agencies, meal sites, and day-labor pools. They walked in the rain and the snow and the heat, usually in ill-fitting, secondhand shoes with dirty, holey socks, and carrying heavy backpacks.”~ from my book Catching Homelessness: A Nurses Story of Falling Through the Safety Net, pp 86-87.

In this excerpt, I was referring to homeless patients I cared for when I worked as a nurse practitioner at the CrossOver Clinic in my hometown of Richmond, Virginia in the mid to late 1980s—over thirty years ago. But I could be (and indeed, am now) writing about currently homeless people and foot care here in my adopted hometown of Seattle, Washington.

There is this brief part of a haibun (prose mixed with haiku) reflection I wrote after helping with a foot clinic at ROOTS Young Adult Shelter in the University District near where I work: “Tonight in the homeless shelter a 19-year-old man from Georgia says, ‘My momma always told me not to go barefoot and I didn’t listen. That’s why my feets so bad. And I have to walk everywhere on them now.’ He reaches down and gently rubs his brown gnarled feet soaking in a white plastic basin. His feet are darkly scarred and calloused: the feet of an old man.

walking barefoot/we find our way/though cruel paths scar”

(From Soul Stories: Voices from the Margins, in the haibun/chapter titled “Where the Homeless Go”).

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And there is this description of a foot care clinic I helped with at Mary’s Place, a downtown Seattle women and children’s homeless drop-in center: “The most delightful—and tender—foot clinic patient we had that morning was the petite three-year-old daughter of a young North African immigrant mother. The child pushed around a pink plastic toy shopping cart from the shelter’s playroom, and she wore a dress, bright striped tights, black Mary Janes, and a huge pink feather boa around her neck. She came and sat on a metal folding chair while one of the students washed her mother’s feet. The little girl wanted her own feet to be given the same attention, so her mother removed her shoes and tights. Baby toes! So cute!… I wanted to scoop her up and protect her from the traumas, the abuses of the world. But, of course, I knew I couldn’t do that. It made me sad to watch her toes curl up in delight as she splashed her feet in the basin of soapy water.”

(From Soul Stories: Voices from the Margins, in a chapter titled “Walk in My Shoes.”

IMG_0678And finally there is this King5 TV news report on the University of Washington School of Nursing foot clinic I helped with a few days ago (“UW Nursing Students Host Tent City Welcome Party” by Heather Graf, January 13, 2017). Rusty, the homeless resident of nearby Tent City 3 (currently on the UW campus), told the nursing student working with him that he had never felt so pampered. Small things go a long way. They always have and always will.

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.

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.

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.

Safe Sleep Matters

IMG_8022Good sleep supports good health, including mental health. We’ve all experienced sleep disruption and sleep deprivation at some point in our lives. Pulling ‘all-nighters’ while cramming for exams in school. Being a new parent. Being a caregiver for someone ill or injured. Being a night-shift nurse or other worker. Times of insomnia. We know from experience that not getting enough sleep can make us cranky at best and dangerous to ourselves and others at worst (as with driving-while-fatigued). So why, as a society, do we insist on making it a crime for homeless people to sleep, or even to simply rest?

This morning, while walking my dog in my Seattle neighborhood, I passed a small public park where a man dressed in ragged clothes lay sleeping in the shade of one of our lovely Pacific Northwest conifers. It is a hot day, and it gladdened my heart that when I passed him again several hours later on my way home, someone had placed bottled water near him–and he was stirring, reaching for the water. And no police officer was shooing him away. An increasing number of cities are criminalizing homelessness, including passing tough anti-loitering laws for public parks and sidewalks.

For anyone who has ever been homeless, or who takes the time to talk with and understand more of the lives of people experiencing homelessness, finding a safe place to sleep is one of the biggest difficulties. People who are homeless and are rough-sleeping are at great risk of being victims of crime, including of targeted hate crime (although homelessness is not a ‘protected’ category under federal hate crime laws). Whatever meager belongings they have are at risk of being stolen. Women are especially vulnerable to sexual assaults while they are sleeping or resting.

That is why I was heartened on my recent stay in Portland, Oregon to be able to visit the consumer-run nonprofit group Right to Dream Too. This is how they describe what they do and why they do it :”Right2DreamToo (R2DToo) was established on World Homeless Action Day, Oct. 10th, 2011. We are a nonprofit organization operating a space that provides refuge and a safe space to rest or sleep undisturbed for Portland’s unhoused community who cannot access affordable housing or shelter. We exist to awaken social and political groups to the importance of safe undisturbed sleep.”

The city corner lot where Right to Dream Too is located is a noisy one, what with being on a busy street (Burnside) and with wrecking balls whacking down buildings all around them. Yet it is an amazingly welcoming and peaceful oasis inside. A check-in desk, people doing shifts of self-policing the area for security, a small eating area next to a couch and bookshelves filled with books. Covered, airy gym-type thick mats raised on pallets where people can sleep. Neatly stacked piles of sleeping bags and pillows. (They told me that most of their budget goes towards laundry for the bedding). Tents in the back for staff members who stay there longer term. Well-maintained port-a-potties. Flower boxes. Brightly painted cast-off doors around the perimeter. Donated bicycles and clothing. A special tent filled with computers and information on job-hunting and health, social, education, and legal services. A palpable sense of peace and community. And even a small community garden!

The five-year-old program is, of course, at continual odds with the various powers that be in Portland and are soon to be moved to another site out of the downtown core–less convenient for the ‘houseless’ consumers of their services, more convenient to the downtown developers, condo and business owners. Here are some photographs I took of my visit (with their permission).

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Down and Out in L.A.

IMG_6660Los Angeles, what with its population of over 40,000 people who are homeless and with the nation’s largest concentration of chronic homelessness, is an interesting (and distressing) city to live in. Or to visit. Unless you limit yourself to staying within the sanitized realms of either Disneyland or La-la Hollywood-land.

I was in downtown L.A. for four days recently to attend a national writers conference, but also to see if I could get some sort of context to the problem of homelessness in this giant car-centric sprawl of city–a city like no other. Not being from Los Angeles, it is difficult to decipher what is real and what is just another stage set. Where else would Don Draper (Jon Hamm) of Mad Men saunter through a writers conference and serve as guest editor for a literary magazine’s special edition on advertising writing? (Yes, this really happened, and yes, he is even more handsome in person.) And where else would car crash scenes complete with dazed people staggering around with bloody heads happen right outside one’s hotel? (Yes, this really happened as I was trying to walk from my hotel to an art museum–I almost stepped in to help out with the human carnage before I realized it was actually a stage set.)

On my first day in L.A. I noticed these curious ‘private property’ bronze plaques all over the sidewalks. They basically say, “Move along all you tempest-tossed tired and homeless. Move along. You don’t belong here.”

 

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And these homeless- deterring benches at bus stops. Although–look closely–this one comes with its own food pantry. A man pushing a shopping cart nearby who stopped to inspect these cans told me that people drop off food for the homeless and that cans of vegetables don’t get picked up very quickly. He happens to like vegetables and took all the cans.IMG_6614 I had arranged to do a site visit at the Homeless Health Care Los AngelesCenter for Harm Reduction in the heart of Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles. The director, Mark Casanova, graciously gave me a tour of the facility and talked with me about their work. I’ve visited the Insite safe injection center in Vancouver, BC, so I thought I knew what to expect. Insite is North America’s first and only legally-sanctioned safe injection site and syringe (‘needle’) exchange, although several cities in the U.S.–including my hometown of Seattle–are considering opening one to help address the current heroin epidemic. (See Seattle Times article, “Heroin, cocaine users in Seattle may get country’s first safe-use site,’ by Daniel Beekman, April 4, 2016 for more information.)

 

IMG_6656Visiting the L.A. Center for Harm Reduction with Casanova while it was in operation was an eye-opening experience for me even though I have long been ‘sold’ on the concept and practice of harm reduction: treat people in a non-judgemental and respectful manner and work beside them to find ways to minimize harm to themselves and to other people. From a public health perspective we know that this approach works to save lives and protect everyone’s health.

The eye-opening part was mainly the sheer scale of the need for services such as those provided by the Center for Harm Reduction. They have a syringe exchange that must be one of the largest in North America in terms of quantity of ‘needles’ exchanged. They serve an average of 145 people per day. They also have an on-site wound care clinic and soon will add an on-site drug treatment program. And they have a very successful overdose prevention program where they train clients in the proper use of Naloxone (also known as ‘Narcan’), a non-addicting prescription drug that temporarily blocks and reverses the effects of opioids (prescription opioid pain medications, as well as heroin). Naloxone is available in either an injectable form or a nasal spray. So far, the Center for Harm Reduction, through their own on-site staff and through their street-based program, have prevented over 400 overdose deaths. Here is a photo of the current map showing their overdose reversals. Remember, one of these lives saved could have been your daughter, son, friend, etc.

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Notice the sign in the photo below, asking clients to report police harassment, especially in terms of confiscation of either their syringes or Naloxone/Narcan. Los Angeles has a problem with criminalizing homelessness. Not just with bizarre ‘Private Property’ bronze sidewalk signs and with arrests for and confiscation of drug paraphernalia,  but also with a limitation on the ‘size’ of homeless rough sleepers’ personal belongings. The day before I toured the Center for Harm Reduction, L.A. City Council had just passed a resolution limiting the rough sleepers to whatever personal items (including tents, blankets, sleeping bags, clothing, and food) to what can fit into a 60 gallon container. They say the rest will be confiscated and destroyed. IMG_6618

On a much happier, up with people note, I was impressed by the fact that the Center for Harm Reduction has a companion Healing, Arts and Wellness program next door where they provide space for arts and writing programs, karaoke, a lending library, yoga, acupuncture and cranio-sacral treatment, Zumba fitness classes, and life-skills training. Here are some of my photographs of this very health-promoting space and artwork by participants. Thank you Mark Casanova and all the wonderful staff of Homeless Health Care Los Angeles for all the important work you do.

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Homelessness Visible: A Photo Essay

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House not for sale. Photo credit: Josephine Ensign, 2015.

The story of homelessness, visible, in my hometown of Seattle, told through photographs and a few accompanying words.

Here, on my daily walk in my neighborhood. Derelict housing, seemingly deserted, unless you know what to look for. Scattered clothing. A tattered backpack.

And this, a most unusual lawn ornament. The 700 metric ton glacial erratic ‘Lone Rock’ now known as the ‘Wedgewood Erratic.’ According to the City of Seattle, it is illegal to climb this rock. But I don’t think it is illegal to camp near it. Hence, this recent living room armchair. And a tent (removed during the day). In the background (the boxy building to the far right), note the supremely ugly new construction ‘single family home’ on the market for a mere $1.4 million dollars. In one of Seattle’s ‘working class’ neighborhoods.

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‘Lone Rock’ and Lone Chair, Seattle. Photo credit: Josephine Ensign, 2016

Yesterday, during a fierce windstorm, there was this homeless encampment in the doorway of an empty store at a busy intersection near my home. A man and a woman were working hard to keep their belongings from blowing away. Note the new (upscale) apartment buildings and the large crane in the hole that will be the new Roosevelt Light Rail Station.

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Homeless in a Seattle Doorway. Photo credit: Josephine Ensign, 2016

And then there are the numerous unofficial ‘tent cities’ and other temporary shelters that all combine to make homelessness in Seattle very, very visible. In follow-up posts I’ll critique the current ‘state of emergency’ of homelessness declared by Seattle Mayor Ed Murray four months ago.

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Man asleep in chair by Seattle city park. Photo credit: Josephine Ensign, 2015
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Homeless encampment on Seattle sidewalk. Photo credit: Josephine Ensign, 2015