First Contact (Part 2)

Wed 26 Jan 2022 12:08:56 PM PST

So last blog post, originally, I was going to write about how I first heard about the folks at Everyone Village and how I came to live there. Instead, the writing veered on a huge detour concerning the attitudes of people in normal society towards the homeless. It became apparent that this was something I needed to write, and now it seems clear that to understand the general mentality of a homeless person, you must first understand how the world sees him.

In this post, we will look at the attitude of homeless people towards people in normal society, towards themselves, and towards each other.

I guess you could say that this is the foundation of the mentality of someone on the streets, and once it is done it will be more understandable why he, meaning me, thinks and feels the way he does.

We aren’t going to do that quite yet.

Something has been nagging at me from the last post. I want to make sure that you don’t think that, even though I described only two sorts of non-homeless people in the last post, that I think that there are only two types of people in society at large. The two types that I talked about in the last post are the extremes. You know, on the one end some people romanticize the homeless and on the other, some people scapegoat homeless people.

In general, though, everybody’s mostly in the middle somewhere.

Had to get that off my chest.

It does seem that when I am just walking around town, the people I will actually notice, are in one of these two groups, creating a general sense of being misunderstood, which leads to feeling like a solitary outsider.

It makes sense because most people can’t relate to the rumpled guy asking for change or the one with the shopping cart, it just seems outside of normal experience and creates distance between people.

I know this all too well from personal experience. I remember when I found myself all alone, with no place to sleep, just moving from place to place, for the very first time.

In some towns I would get open hostility and wonder what was happening. I would think, “But this is not a case of a normal homeless person, this is me!”

And instantly deep shame would overtake me because I realized that until then, I too had seen those on the streets as fundamentally different from myself and that all along, all those people who I saw as so different from me were ‘me’ as well, they were someone’s brother, someone’s son all along, I just hadn’t seen it.

Homeless people have their extreme types too and just like people in the normal world they are pretty few and far between. Most people are homeless for one of three reasons.

Maybe some traumatic event happened in their life and they never quite recovered. Or maybe they had a substance problem. Or a mental problem.

And that is mostly it.

The point is, there are understandable reasons why people end up on the streets. And once they get there something holds them back from climbing up and out, something they usually can’t or don’t want to examine too closely because whether it is their fault or not, they see it as a major personal flaw.

There is their old life, and there is the current reality, and many guys say things like: “Back in my old life” or “Back in the real world.” to remind themselves that at one time they were just like everyone else.

Back when they were normal.

They had college degrees, careers, raised families, they had marriages, served their country, you know, they, they simply, they had a life and somehow, they just, you know, it was like they were running next to a car that just kept getting faster and faster until they couldn’t keep up, and they fell to their knees and watched the car called normal life disappear in the distance.

So the great majority of homeless people are not on the extreme edges.

In the past, say a decade ago, a homeless person was a very different animal than he is today.

Back then a homeless person was mostly a solitary man, it was usually men, down on his luck for whatever reason, walking around with a backpack and a bedroll.

Being very bad at asking for help, he tended to take on board his failed marriage, failed career, even the failure to bounce back from tragedy. He just took it all on his shoulders as his job to fix. Not really feeling comfortable asking for help he felt shame, always shame lingering in the background.

Saying this reminds me of an interview I heard with the first person to open a domestic violence shelter, a woman named Erin Pizzey, in England in the early 70’s. Pizzey’s view of things was very different from the ‘women are always victims/men are always perpetrators’ philosophy of today.

Immediately recognizing that men were the victims of domestic violence almost as often as women, Pizzey opened a shelter for men and found that whereas the women networked with each other and helped each other, the men all just sat in their rooms by themselves feeling like failures, the shame weighing heavily on them.

So this solitary man with the bedroll you might see walking around town, is carrying inside himself a feeling that he has failed as a man, and so he stays away. He would usually find a covered place to sleep for the night, and be up and gone before anyone else woke up, leaving no trace of himself.

And this is where we get to the two extreme attitudes that homeless people seem to have.

(I just want to note here that I understand how inadequate it is to reduce entire populations down to two basic types. Not only is this a simplified view, it is merely my impression from decades of homelessness and not the result of systematic analysis. Still, I do believe that gross generalizations have their place, and it is only the simplified view that allows anyone to have a general understanding of something.)

That quiet man keeping to himself, on the outside of society is for reasons I don’t know, is not what you generally notice when you see homeless people nowadays.

From what I can see, in the past seven years or so a new kind of homeless person has become evident, someone who would seriously be in the minority in the past, and that is the aggressive, in-your-face homeless person, the guy who seems to have no shame or concern for anyone but himself. What can I even call this guy? The one who blocks the sidewalk with his body and his stuff even when there is plenty of room for everyone. The one with the tent, often multiple tents and tarps joined together to make a supertent.

You see small tent cities like this suddenly cropping up, and not on the outskirts of town, but right in the middle of everything, and often full of and surrounded by all sorts of junk and trash.

In the past, homeless guys who wanted a camp would cycle all the way out to the wetlands to set it up. Out there, off the beaten path, and not interfering with society at large.

This won’t be popular with other homeless people or the romanticizers of the world, but I am extremely offended by the new breed of homeless folks. The way they conduct themselves seems to be like a dare to the rest of the world to do something about it. I am right in the middle of your business district, your neighborhood, blocking access to the bus stop and I am going to strew trash as far as the eye can see.

Got a problem with that?

Most homeless guys don’t feel so good about themselves, knowing it’s expected to support themselves and contribute to society, and this introspection bakes in a kind of humility. We try not to bother anyone or be more of a burden on society than we already are.

So we really don’t like the new aggressive breed who make life harder for all of us on the streets.

I think I will call them the predators.

They like it when they or their dogs scare people, and they seem to be perfectly fine living as they do. They make all of us look bad.

Once I was being threatened by an unleashed dog in a park that belonged to a young guy living in the park. “Come get your dog,” I said to him, and he looked miffed, as if some old guy was telling him what to do for no reason.

“I’m not gonna do that,” he said, as the dog approached me, snarling, “he is his own person, and it is not for me to tell him what to do.”

That is the new logic. Expecting him to make sure his dog didn’t bite me was actually just some old guy trying to impose outdated rules.

Out of frustration I said, “But if that is your attitude, it’s like you just don’t care about anyone else!”

He looked reflective for a moment and said, “I guess I don’t.”

This kind of exchange gives me a hopeless feeling. So many problems to solve right now, big ones. How will we tackle those if people can’t even take responsibility for their dogs?

I have asked many of my acquaintances on the streets, and they have noticed it too, and no one seems to know why the recent change, although most agree drugs have something to do with it.

I hope you don’t think I am being too judgemental. A charitable view would be that aggressive homeless people are so deep in their own misery that they are self medicating and have drifted so far from society that normal concerns are now foreign to them. Their own unhappiness takes up all their energy and anything outside that feels like an attack from people who should be minding their own business.

It is just a lot harder to be sympathetic to predators because you live your life with a low grade buzz of fear wondering what they will do.

All right, enough of that. Everyone knows what I am talking about.

I know this blog is heavy going right now so let me remind you that all of my experience at Everyone Village has been overwhelmingly positive, and it has given me new hope in life.

In the coming posts we will be focusing on the good stuff.

There is another kind of homeless person at the opposite extreme of the predator, and these are people who are simply in a financial bind.

Lost their job, lost their home. Found themselves on the streets.

These folk quickly find a job, save some money, and get back on their feet right away. These aren’t chronically homeless people. I won’t even come up with a label for them. They aren’t homeless in the way the rest of us are.

I guess these are to two extremes. The hostile predators and the short term folks.

So let’s get back to the most prevalent attitude among homeless people. The big middle, the place where most of us on the streets reside.

TWe have an attitude that keeps us from finding a job or a place, or believing that life will actually get better at a community like Everyone village.

We, the chronically homeless are just kind of in a holding pattern. For whatever reason we can’t get back into society and we are living day to day. It’s almost like it’s not even real life, like life has been put on hold and what we are doing right now doesn’t even count.

Lost are calendars, appointments, there are no weekly, monthly or yearly milestones.

It is kind of like an eternal now., a suspended life for people who have run out of energy and solutions.

It isn’t that we haven’t tried, over the years, to get a job or look for a place to live.

You know, I know myself I worked my way up off the streets twice with no help really from anyone else.

It was very difficult, very tiring thing to do. In a city where I didn’t know anyone, finding someone who would let me work in exchange for a place to stay, and then finding some casual labor to get interview clothes and money for the bus, and then, finding a job, essentially working two jobs while I saved for a place. Finally, having money, convincing someone to rent a room to me when I had no rental history or references.

It was hard twenty years ago. Probably impossible now.

That was when I was in my thirties, close to thirty years ago. I stopped trying on my own, remember, men can’t ask for help, because I just knew that I didn’t have that same energy. I knew I couldn’t do that again.

So I guess you could say people have given up but it is an uncomfortable phrase to use because, you know, a lot of the people that you would say have given up have simply been pushed further than most people have and now their own failure is staring them in the face.

Compounding the inner paralysis is the unfortunate fact that many many many of the government and private programs that say they will help you don’t end up doing much at all.

I have signed up for resume and cover letter classes, for vocational rehab, for many many case managers at this agency or that and for the most part, nothing ever comes of it. Promises evaporate into thin air, and the memories of false hope pile up.

Each time that you fill out forms for a case manager or put yourself out there on lists to get yourself to an ID or get on a housing list, you think things are gonna change and when the whole thing falls apart and the person who got your hopes up doesn’t even bother to follow up. It hurts more to be let down than to accept where you are.

You lose a little more hope each time. It is not that you are a quitter by nature. It is that you have many experiences of organizations promising big and delivering nothing.

Is it cynical to start believing that non profits and people in government are simply making money off the homeless? That they get paid whether or not they do anything for you?

Is it cynicism or simple experience? Would you call a ten year old who stopped trying to dunk a basketball a quitter?

You know, you can’t get an apartment because of your credit or your rental history. You know, you have huge gaps in your resume.

There is a constant feeling that you’re just taking up space. It’s hard. It’s hard to ask for help. You know, so when you do build up the courage to ask for help and to have somebody promise you to deliver nothing, it just makes you feel like everybody lies and it is all hopeless.

You just don’t believe things will change. You can’t do it yourself and the people trying to help you aren’t helping you. And that’s why you may see the same guy walking around, day after day.

You don’t want to get your hopes up. So even if something is valid, you really end up protecting from disappointment.

So that is it. We have covered the admittedly reasonable way that people in the real world misunderstand the homeless, leading homeless people to believe that they are invisible and on the margins, misunderstood when anyone tries to understand them at all.

And we have covered the extreme examples of homeless on both the negative and the postive end, leaving the vast majority of us feeling they have learned the hard way that things are hopeless.

And this! This is the background that gives rise to everything. And it had to be expressed before moving forward to the good stuff. And most of the rest of the blog entries will be the good stuff.

The good stuff happening at Everyone Village.

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