I hope you don’t mind the title. I tend to not care about terminological sensitivity. I don’t mind hobo, bum, tramp, homeless as quick terms to label my fellow street veterans.
I guess it is in style to call us ‘unhoused’ these days as if getting the terminology right is somehow helping.
I also tend to refer to people who aren’t homeless as ‘normal people,’ not because I feel inferior and need to be given a hug or told that I am normal too. These are all just writing shortcuts to me and I don’t think they reveal a deeper sense of self, society, or the time of day.
I kind of learned this lesson in a bar years ago when I met a Native American chick (chick-how-dare-you!) and I wanted to get the final word on how I was supposed to refer to the people who lived here first. I asked if I should say Native American or Person of Indigenous or First Nation.
“How about drunk injun?” she said.
My kind of chick. Too bad I didn’t get her number. At times I can be sensitive to the grammar-centric sensitivities of others, as long as they don’t push their luck and change things every other day.
So for today, hobo it is.
The number 7 is a shout out to a self-help book from years ago. If you haven’t heard of that book, don’t worry about it.
Everything you need will be in this post. So never mind the author trying to get cute.
Funny thing about self-help in this context. It isn’t the sort of subject you would associate with the homeless, much less the word ‘effective.’ We certainly don’t see ourselves in this light. The kind of self-help book you might find at your local Barnes and Nobles is for people who are already doing ok but just want more. We think of ourselves more as surviving, or making it to another day and have little time to mull over whether or not we are ‘effective’ hobos.
We just get on with it.
There are however habits that can be cultivated that will make life go more smoothly, especially in the village where many of the pressures of the street are gone, and many self protection strategies are suddenly irrelevant.
Trying again to list some of the lessons of Everyone Village, or E1V as we call it, it quickly becomes clear that all the lessons in this post are sub-lessons of lesson 4 from the week before last’s post, which, if you haven’t memorized it, is letting the street mentality go.
It is a very tough lesson because we have all these habits that helped us survive on the streets, some of us for decades, so letting them go is no easy task because even though they are no longer necessary, it feels risky and unsettling whenever we discard one of our go-to survival skills.
It is fun too to refer to these lessons as habits, making it a little more highfalutin and a little less like something from school. (I also find it hilarious that Grammarly doesn’t recognize the word highfalutin. I am officially pre-internet.)
Earlier we have said that there is a lot of potential conflict in creating community here, and when I first arrived I went for the high road every time, never rising to an argument or taking any bait. After a few weeks of that, it felt like I was carrying everyone else’s anger around in a scratchy sack, and finally I broke down and said exactly what was in my mind with a little more anger than was warranted and was surprised to find that the world didn’t end, and people actually respected it.
It is all very well to be sensitive to others and the habit to learn is that you have to be sensitive to yourself or you will end up talking to yourself on the bus all Hitler this and Hitler that.
I made a further refinement to the ‘tell the truth of how you feel and how you see things’ habit.
And it was this:
- You can say almost anything if you do it without negative emotion attached.
This one is almost like a magic trick. Whenever I am having a problem with a person, I can say exactly what I don’t like about their behavior very specifically and clearly, as long as I say it in a matter-of-fact voice. It really is crazy how you don’t have to hold your tongue as long as it is civil. And it is incredibly gratifying, from time to time to say EXACTLY what is on your mind.
Have to admit I got over-excited about this one and overdid it for a while. I was just walking around analyzing people to their faces, and I learned there are limits. Use sparingly and wisely.
(A funny thing. There is a guy who does this inadvertently all the time and it totally works on me. He is a big time stoner and says everything in a chilled out voice with a friendly laugh at the end. It is only some time later that you think, hang on, he insulted me, didn’t he?)
Another habit that has served me well is habit number 2. I am just realizing that these are all my habits, so don’t think for a minute that I think I am particularly effective. I am just learning, and whenever someone else does something out of line, the last thing on my mind is feeling better than they are. I have seen myself engage in every kind of antisocial behavior known to man, so any misbehavior aimed at me is very familiar.
So it is with all humility, some of it real, that I say that drama is one of the main specialties of homeless people. Someone is always mad about something and wants to talk about it and it can all be a bit much. A lot of high emotion, often about dumb stuff, and this led me to a really useful habit:
- Be the Steady Guy
I think I have mentioned in other posts that part of the penchant for strife comes from the fact that we have all the time in the world, and it is very easy to sit there and ruminate on all the injustice that has come our way. It is also a very convenient hobby that distracts us from the mess of our lives, much of it self inflicted.
The problem is THAT guy. I HATE his mustache. What is HIS problem?
And make no mistake, I used to be that guy, thinking my life was all bad and the shelter I was staying at was the same. It is almost as if you feel the problems that face you are so huge, you find solace in a little displacement. Except that the general good will and safety of Everyone Village turns that into a lie. And you realize that you actually have things to be, if not thankful for, at least happy about.
And if you can, you will really set yourself apart, as well as have a better life, if you can keep your composure. Be the low drama guy. But this isn’t easy, because often a component of homelessness is repeated failure at a lot of things, and in your mind, you are setting out to do something and you have a good plan and good will and it all goes South anyway, and this gets repeated many times over the years.
Until you are so frustrated, you anticipate frustration, and you tend to focus very narrowly on whatever task you are doing, as if the whole world depends on it, and your very worth hangs from whether or not you get it done. It becomes the symbol of all that counts, and if you succeed, you move on partially gratified, and if you fail, it is the end of the world and you think, “If I can’t even do that, there is no hope.”
So a big part of being the steady guy is mitigating frustration and disappointment, and that is a tough habit to break.
You have to ignore the people you don’t like instead of focusing your attention on them.
Come on hobo, you can do this!
Here is an example that I am dealing with in real time as I type this.
An example of the big push of will that it takes to take something that is bothering you in stride.
Which is the recent fact that I thought I had a list of all the things I learned at E1V and it turns out I didn’t and it was almost impossible just to move on and not curse the loss of the best thing I have ever written.
Anyway, on to the next:
- Pay Attention to What You Say and Who You Say it To.
When you are mostly solitary your mind is free to wander wherever it may, and you have conversations with yourself all day long, and since you are talking to yourself, you don’t have to worry about the listener using what you say against you, and you don’t have to be relevant to anyone or anything or any conversation. You can wander down any path you like when you are talking to your best audience.
Living among others quickly wises you up. You might mention buying a bag of tobacco only to find a constant stream of people asking you for cigarettes that day, or you may give your opinion about someone only to find that the person you told it to, twisted it horribly, relayed it to the person you were talking about and now they are mad at you. So at first it seems like you are having to be unreasonably vigilant on your free speaking ways.
It really takes getting used to. Not speaking freely. Thinking before you talk. Especially for me because I am naturally curious and analytical, and often am working out what I think as I am talking, which, I now know, can get you in trouble.
At the moment I mostly catch myself just after I have said something I shouldn’t. But it is a start.
- Stop Being the Expert on Everything.
Normal people tend to feel sorry for the homeless, and see them as sad or pathetic.
I will tell you a secret.
Many homeless people don’t see themselves that way at all. Many of us are incredibly pleased with ourselves, and a big part of the reason is that there is no natural check on the homeless ego. You literally can think whatever you want, and if someone objects, you swear at him and leave. There is no real community for you to answer to. So a lot of us are pleased as punch with ourselves and think we got it figured out.
Normal people are circumspect. Worried about embarrassing themselves by overstepping and displaying their ignorance. Being laughed at or looked down on at work or in the home or at a party is a real concern, and homeless people, having none of that, can be really loose cannons.
(You can’t see it, but the author is raising his hand now.)
Normal people get checked all the time. If they claim to know something and mess it up, other people doubt their competence and don’t trust them with stuff anymore.
I saw one of our villagers doing peer support and he was trying to resolve a domestic issue. The only problem was the peanut gallery, three people in the vicinity who weren’t involved, each one with a different opinion about what was to be done, each one sure they were correct, and the poor dude, who was doing okay with the couple, suddenly found all his efforts at resolution as the kibitzers stepped in, told everyone what to do, all at once, got angry they weren’t obeyed, and left, leaving the person doing peer support back with his original problem.
Neither of the commentators actually helped or did anything, both railing loudly, one with a feminist flavor, acting like she was a domestic violence counselor, uncredentialled, asking a bunch of questions, offering no help, and leaving.
And the other was more of the street justice persuasion, both of them assuming the woman was the victim and needed rescuing immediately. It was real cluster-you-know-what and you could see in the eyes of the peer support guy that the real problem was the peanut gallery.
Domestic issues are a breeze next to a homeless person who thinks he knows what he is talking about and has built up a head of steam.
In fact at one shelter I was living, I actually saw this homeless dude–it’s hero time– try to push aside an EMT to work on a person having a seizure.
This might be the most important habit of all these, and yes I know I slipped into calling it a rule, but I am back now.
And it necessiates a subrule:
4a. Don’t make snap judgments, but if you have to, don’t talk about it.
There is something about being unsure that stresses people out so much that they would rather believe something false just so it is settled then live in honest uncertainty. (I am well aware that all people have this problem, not just the homeless.) We experienced that first hand here at the village because for a while, gossip was killing us. Random thoughts would gain the weight of speculation, the speculation gaining the gravity of fact, and accusations would be made, often behind another’s back.
And it just got to be too much. People were scared and worried, believing what they were told even though no one had much evidence at all, and eventually it had to be addressed at a village-wide meeting.
Know what you are talking about.
And don’t spread he unsubstantiated, because this will kill community.
The whole topic is creepy. Let’s move on to the next one, a little more positive:
- Trust Your Friends!
This one is actually related to number 4. When things seem to be going wrong, it is so easy to think that a friend of yours did something wrong, maybe because it is safe, I don’t know, or maybe because you are familiar with them.
The point is not to do it.
You should give your friends the benefit of the doubt and judge, if anyone, strangers. Be more skeptical of a stranger’s claim than a friend’s claim. Don’t take a stranger’s word over actions of someone you know. I don’t even know if this is a lesson people in general need to learn or just me.
Like imagine if someone you know casually told you something embarrassing your brother did at a party. How easy would it be to take it at face value, how easy to say to yourself, there he goes again, or what is he doing now?
Maybe it is because your friends are a part of you, of who you are, and just as you don’t want to do anything that would bring shame on yourself or your family, you don’t want your friends and family to do so either, so it is out of fear really that you think, oh no, what has happened now?
As we work things out here at the village, building things up from scratch, there are always miscommunications, a lot of strangers showing up wanting things or claiming to know someone and wanting access to this or that, and, knowing as we do, that people are already primed to judge a homeless community, many of us are pretty aware that we need to present a responsible and considerate face to the community around us, and so, when we hear an outsider voice concern about someone in the village, because it is what we are afraid of, we are quick to believe it is true.
Or at least I am, and the only reason that I made this rule, excuse me, learned this habit, is that on one particular occasion at least, I found myself doing the opposite.
Example: A group of students showed up one day for a meeting with Pastor Gabe, only Gabe wasn’t there, so there I was with a group of about 15 fresh faced students, looking at me, wondering why someone wasn’t there to meet them. Frantically, in my mind, I thought, oh great, Gabe forgot about this meeting and now I am stuck with dealing with it, and I immediately texted Gabe assuming my fear was true, telling him they were there, and then showing them where they could wait, and trying to be a good host to one of the student leaders by engaging her about her project.
Now Gabe is not in the habit of letting people down. And he has never let me down. So why did my mind jump immediately to the idea that he had forgotten about his meeting?
After a while Gabe shows up and I tell him, I hope not too judgementally, that they have been waiting a while, and he says, “Oh, they showed up early.”
And that was when I had my humbling epiphany.
Why was I so quick to assume that the fault was on our side? I know Gabe, and have worked side by side with him for months, and I didn’t know any of the students. And who do you think would be more likely to get a meeting time wrong, a busy pastor or a bunch of students?
It was with that I realized there was something wrong with my knee jerk response to uncomfortable situations and came to resolve, as far as possible, to trust the people I ACTUALLY KNOW more than I trust those I don’t.
And so far it has been a good habit.
Just giving people you know the benefit of the doubt, and take what they say at face value unless consistently over a long period of time they give you reason not to.
My new outlook has improved my relationships with people I know, and I have been slower to find fault or look for offense. It has made me a more loyal person.
How can that be bad?
A big lesson.
Habit Six is a pretty abstract one, and again, these habits usually arise when I see myself or others doing something or acting in a certain way that just doesn’t feel right in the situation we are in. There are no hard and fast definitions, merely a feeling that something could have been handled better.
So if this next one sounds a bit vague, please accept that some of these are more works in progress than others.
- Don’t Approach Spiritual Problems in an Earthly Way.
As we create community on the fly and over time, a lot of what we are developing is a moral system. We are deciding what is and what is not ok, and when to hold people accountable, and when to give them a break. Just like me, others are having their own impressions and epiphanies, and attempting, in an imperfect way, to pull together a moral code for themselves and the village to help us move forward in a way that allows all to flourish.
So here is the concept:
(By the way, when I speak of spiritual things, it isn’t attached to any particular belief, it is more of a way to refer to trying to find higher and more enduring truths, going all big picture.)
You see this all the time, where somebody latches on to a truly spiritual concept, only they’re not spiritually developed enough to put it into practice, so they put it into practice in an authoritarian, judgmental, worldly way.
Here is a possible way of looking at it.
Let’s say you’re taking a math class. A person dealing with the spiritual in a worldly way is not like somebody who got the answer by working out all the problems.
They are like somebody who’s got the answers by looking in the teacher’s edition of the book.
Yeah, okay. You have the answer, but you didn’t earn the answer. You didn’t do the work to get there. So you actually cause more harm than you would not even having the answer.
We touched on this in the last post about the kitchen. Yes a clean kitchen is positive, but berating people all day isn’t, it is counterproductive. I mean, you aren’t inspiring people to a higher understanding, you know, you’re still mired in the worldly. We’ve got to get it all done right now. You know, you’re not leading by example. You’re leading by Fiat, you you’re leading by authoritarianism.
People like this demand perfection of others. perfect knowledge, perfect justice.
Early on we had a food storage issue, where one person’s way of storing food had a negative effect on another person’s way of storing food. And what a beautiful lesson could have been learned, and how we could have altered our food storage policy to fix it, and even getting everyone on the same page could have been a beautiful thing.
And the only problem was the injured party who demanded instant justice, instant redress, and was unwilling to let staff look into it and come up with a solution. This person got angrier and angrier, louder and louder, talking about it all day to anyone who would listen, confronting the careless person, and generally making life harder for everyone.
Building community is a spiritual undertaking on its own, and approaching it in this way is as worldly as it gets.
It feels like I am describing the human condition in general.
Actually as I write this I am seeing that this new habit isn’t that abstract after all. It is simple:
if you want to correct someone else’s behavior, try to do it in a way that doesn’t make you worse than them.
Well, that is only six. I had a couple of others but looking at them now, they just didn’t make the cut, so we will end it here. Maybe next post will be “7 More Habits” and I will include 8.
(Wait a minute. Proofreading this I just remembered I had a subrule in there. So I did have 7 after all. )
Anyway, with all the challenges, and all the unforeseen problems of building community, I wouldn’t trade it for the world. No other way to say it.
There is so much life here!
It is way more fun than being on the internet.
Till next time.