Saturday, June 9, 2012

The indignities and precarity of being rendered homeless in Sacramento

This is the second in a series of "Big Picture" blogposts that deal with the basics of being homeless; what it's like; and how it feels. The first post in the series is here: "The Big Picture, Part I"
“We must talk about poverty, because people
insulated by their own comfort lose sight of it.”
Dorothy Day

One thing that becomes clear after you first lose your roof in our fair metropolis of Sacramento (and after three months into the experience, say) is that the general public doesn’t have a clue what the condition of being homeless is like. You recognize this in different ways. One is that it is so wildly different from your own expectations. And most peculiarly, by finding yourself suddenly being treated as a member of a despised and deprecated group of humans, while you know yourself to be essentially the same person who not that long ago used to be treated rather well. Basically, you find yourself abraded by an unceasing rain of indignities in response to nothing that you’ve done wrong that directly explains treatment as someone outside the normal spin.

From the blog and blogger Cre8tiv Glory:  A painting of "a man I saw standing on a corner holding this sign."  The blogpost is titled "Homeless in Sacramento."
All too often as a homeless person you just don’t have a spot to place your physical self. You get kicked out of businesses for staying too long, or booted from the train station for using it as a place to keep warm or rest. Sometimes you aren’t able to get an exchange of clothes that fits well, or you have to continue to wear clothes that have gotten rank or soiled -- such that you are very identifiably homeless and that garners daggers looks from people and lessened tolerance of you being in their presence. And, indeed, you, yourself, are saddened or disgusted with your condition (and your fall into your current circumstance).

Getting a haircut or a shave or keeping your teeth clean can often be absurdly difficult to accomplish. The most mundane things for a conventional citizen to address can be a mountain to climb for that subset of us homeless who scape by, near always penniless (as I was until about a year ago). In the summer you get a too-bronze, identifiably homeless tan. In rainy periods, you’re absurdly wet or muddied up. Your nails and nose hairs get too long without you realizing it. Your sleep is disturbed by unpleasant dreams.

There are many homeless people who are not at the bottom of their tank. They have income, a place to store a lot of stuff, friends and family to help, and connections to casual labor. I say hooray for their resources, but such people often shove aside those in desperate need. There is no means testing in Homeless World: The healthier, fleet of foot, better connected can make off with what “loot” becomes available (e.g, a warm winter coat) or a shelter space, leaving their bedraggled brethren with just the wallow of misery they began with and colder days ahead.

There are three fellows that I know who could easily fund a regular life, but they prefer instead to blow most of their disability money gambling while using homeless-services resources for survival needs. Others cobble together a way to maintain an addiction by using homeless resources to save money for the mind-altering substance they maniacally crave.

The crowd seeking entry to Friendship Park and its services on weekday mornings drops off by half at the beginning of each month. Why? First-of-the-month checks, known as "happy checks" [usually for a disability claim] have posted to the bank accounts of many and the addicts will spend a week or so off somewhere being high and capriciously indulging in other pleasures.

As our community grows larger, the people become more disparate — nameless — we forget faces, names and events — we drift around without recognizing those around us as neighbors, as people sharing the same space, as kindred spirits — victims to the same forces of nature.
— from a G+ post.
A year into homelessness, I had lost forty pounds; I was 6’3” weighing 147. I wasn’t intentionally under-eating, and I don’t do drugs or alcohol. And food “out here” is abundant, though seldom configured such that a person gets a proper array of vitamins and other nutrients during a day. At Loaves & Fishes, notoriously, there is [or was; I got booted from the place for blogging about its horrors] a mountain of carbs and sugars and salt and a history of ill-trained cooks serving up shriveled-up midnight-black bananas, frozen-meat sandwiches and a-year-past-expiration gummy bears as edible and delicious as pencil erasers. The Union Gospel Mission, for one, will serve more-wholesome meals than Loaves & Fishes, but since there is no coordination between homeless-services charities, it lessens chances that a homeless person dependent on charities can get proper nutrition for the many, many miles he will be wheeling [bikes are popular] or traipsing around the city, often carrying a load of belongings.

A lot of people fatten up in Homeless World and homeless haters will point to this as stark evidence of the languor and laze of the undercaste. But the counterintuitive truth is that poverty can be the very thing that produces obesity. According to the Institute of Medicine:
Obesity is a major public health problem in the U.S. While all segments of the population are affected, low-income and food insecure people are especially vulnerable due to the additional risk factors associated with poverty, including limited resources, limited access to healthy and affordable foods, and limited opportunities for physical activity. Even individuals who are highly motivated can have difficulty eating healthy and being active if their environments do not support or allow such behaviors.
All this aside, I am fond of and grateful to the homeless people I know in Sacramento. My best friends are now all folks on the streets, struggling. Overall, the lot of homeless folk are magnificent, amazing, resourceful and spirited. I am grateful for my years’-long homeless experiences, including the miserable cold, wet nights outside and withstanding days of food poisoning without benefit of medicine or a place to set my weary, sad, sick-as-a-dog self. Homelessness is not fun, but it is a fount of knowledge on human behavior (my own, in that setting, and others’) and a source of wisdom. Before I was homeless, I was an ignorant putz. I’m better for being “out there.” It’s an ongoing pleasant surprise; I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. If I fully leave it all, I’ll be sorry and reluctant and stay in touch.

For whatever reason, homelessness is near-totally, bizarrely misunderstood by the general public. Based on online comments (NOT a perfect source, but it’s something) to homeless-topic articles in the Bee, SNR and SacPress, the public is polarized between vicious hatred of the homeless and worshipfulness of the leftist wing of the homeless-help industry. Neither sensibility is sane. It’s like a face-off between the Nazis and the Communists. [Indeed, it IS a face-off between the Nazis and the Communists.] "I’ll take neither, please."

If I may pontificate: What homeless people need is to find a meaningful life, to be authors of their own lives. There is too little help for that “out here.” Praise for the conservative mission which is successful at helping many find a life’s meaning with its chapel services and rehab program. [Note, I write this while I am myself a committed, liberal Buddhist who can’t get his head around the Christian viewpoint.] What the leftist homeless-help charities push is to get homeless people a disability income and housing – with the income being very often undeserved and the housing being crowded, over-supervised places like the ‘project’ being build across H Street from the downtown jail will be once it's operating. ‘The Projects,’ institutionalized ghettoes, were a disaster in the 70s and 80s; they were torn down nationwide. There is no hope that more of the same won’t produce more of the same failed result.

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