This is the written version of a speech I gave to 250-300 people at the Statewide Homeless Awareness Conference in Honolulu just yesterday. The spoken version naturally added some more emphasis and I lost my place a few times. But the gist of it is here:
Some of you may know me through my writings on Civil Beat entitled, “Un-homed, But Not Un-hinged,” although more recently it shifted to “Re-homed and Off the Edge.” I’m here to share my thoughts and feelings of being un-homed for a year until just recently when I was able to get an apartment not too far from here. I have to admit, it’s a little strange to be here with almost a type of celebrity for having been in distress. In no way do I feel qualified to speak to the broad homelessness issues, nor do I see myself as some kind of champion for homeless causes. But I do hope to share various thoughts and emotions as freely as I’m comfortable to do, and I hope with as much clarity that aids you all in the ongoing, diligent work that you perform. There’s no way that I can address everything with all due nuance, so I ask that you look to the meaning if I’ve missed a detail. You all know the landscape of this issue far better than I. I hope to share three things in particular coming from my experiences: the issues of identity wrapped around the homelessness; the motivations and intentions in this issue; and the role of leadership in this activism arena. Behind any of these, there are distinct patterns to consider and understand.
I can freely admit that I am not a typical homeless person, at least as is often shaped by media portrayals and simple stereotypes. I didn’t have shopping carts. I wasn’t strung out or babbling to myself incoherently. But I can attest to the truth that what is typical is that the real homeless issues are not so removed from “normal” society, and treating them as such propagates a disservice by not keeping the human story in perspective.
I can also freely admit that I do not have any grand, sweeping insight into the solutions necessary to get us all on even footing. You will all hear me differently and take things with you as befits your unique understandings. That is entirely normal, entirely expected, and also most entirely why we have an ongoing problem like this in the first place. We simply perceive things radically differently from one another.
So in this dialogue, and I do call my presentation a dialogue as you will have an inner discussion or argument moving alongside my words, I’m inviting you to be open to what I’m saying in this moment. If I could overcome my discomfort and fear of a life out of order, then I’m asking you to be willing to possibly be uncomfortable for the next 30-40 minutes.
As mentioned I may not have been the typical homeless person, but the broad story is: some set of life circumstances don’t go well, external pressures add up in just the wrong way, and suddenly there is no cash flow to support a “normal” life. At first a lot of denial keeps you saying to yourself: “It can’t really be all that bad. It’ll turn around. I mean I still have a smart phone!” But when it doesn’t come back from an abyss, “What do I do now?” becomes the sudden and fearful question arising in the mind.
What does happen is that most immediately you start to measure your options for key things: How do I get or stay fed; how do I keep clean; of the personal items I have what do I need with me, and what can enter indefinite storage, like a cryogenic deep freeze o sorts. Or even what do I simply leave behind? I quickly realized that in this process I was simply adopting new rhythms to my life, not so dissimilar when you move into a new place and start figuring out where light switches are and what cabinets are easy to reach. It was just that the circumstance meant more of a paring down of necessities rather than establishing some kind of home base. A defensive posture arises rather than one of comfort.
You find yourself paying close attention to when you can get food for cheap. You find yourself on the lookout for “breakfast special” signs kind of like people who keep track of sales at Ala Moana. Given a lack of kitchen you get really good at just getting the food you need for a meal since leftovers aren’t really an option. For food I got very friendly with Safeway, knowing which items on the hot bar were safe and what was a waste of money.
For being clean friends suggested membership at a gym where I could shower. But given cash uncertainty I decided I’d rather spend on food and stay clean for free. That inevitably led me to the Natatorium showers, where you could watch many different rhythms play out as the timing of the day and the flux of personalities came through. At times it might seem festive, while at others everyone shared an unspoken somberness. There were the jokes about saving hot water, or the days you forced yourself not to consider what the shower mold situation really was. Or even the days when a sink at work served as your bath. Ultimately both aspects of food and cleanliness became important touch points for some sense of normalcy.
Fortunately for me I already owned an old van. It wasn’t great but it meant daily items got stored in there, such as clothes and possible paperwork that might be needed. Items such as books or a desk and chair went into a small storage locker on Waialae. All I had to do was make sure I paid that $150 a month and the promise of re-populating my future life remained intact.
Once you have all the bases covered in some way or another, then you just settle in for the haul, not knowing whether it’s going to be short or long one. Many days just seem normal until you go to lie down in the van, or on an office floor. Then you’re reminded that not all is normal. And generally you do whatever you can to cope with the crush of reality that you are adrift. I do remember times when that reality penetrated a little deeper and the outlook seemed bleaker than I wanted to imagine, or the horizon seemed impossibly far off.
Of course my own hard times were mirrored by those of a population and world in duress. Yes it’s true that I had a business of my own and some income. But the truth was I had already fallen behind in rent and made worse by diverting funds to necessities like the storage and food, or the basic bills of the business. During this time there was more than simple uncertainty in my mind. Often it was straight-up, cold as ice fear that everything was falling apart and I could do nothing in my capacity to avert it. I went so far as to put out resumes on work I didn’t want to do and considered leaving the work I knew I was gifted at.
In hindsight, and 20/20 wisdom, I can’t really pinpoint exactly what turned things around. Naturally there would be several threads coming together in similar fashion as the ones that made a wreck of my life. But just as surely as conditions come that allow surf swells to arrive on our shores, things did come together again. At least for now.
I know one thing that came from left field and did help was writing for Civil Beat about my experiences. In an odd sort of way it allowed me to keep focused on what was happening. How that occurred was through a friend I ran into. On the surface he thought things were going great, and when I told him the realities he was astounded. All the more so because when he pitched the idea of my writing for CB to the editors there, he described me as: “The most stable and down to earth guy I know. On paper this guy shouldn’t be in this predicament.” And so when I met with the editors they decided to take a small chance on an unknown entity with a somewhat compelling story unfolding.
And so I did share as much as I could. Naturally there were many things I left unspoken out of loyalties or simple privacy. But I tried to follow and outline the patterns of stress I encountered, the low points and the humor when it was there. I talked of various people I came across, about where my mind was at while taking cold public showers, about how homeless feel about themselves.
And after the year of being un-homed, seeing again and again the attitudes people had, I can say with all frankness and certainty that perceptions trump reality all the time; Both within the homeless ranks and from the outside world; Both from within individual’s minds and from the collective society viewing these smelly, dirty, worthless bodies crowding our streets and parks. This is the great deception we perpetrate on ourselves and the people in need.
When I first started writing about my experience, I honestly felt like a fraud. I couldn’t come to grips that I had fallen so far and that my capacities could prove so ineffectual. Plus I wasn’t soooo bad off, I figured, so why should I be writing about things like I’m already digging through trash for a meal? Can you already recognize the feelings I was up against? Shame and embarrassment. I mean, I’m an Iolani grad, and I went to prestigious schools in NY and SF. I was the guy that people came to for guidance, for help and insight into their challenges. I was, and still am, a problem solver. So how could things be this way?
I felt this way for a little while until I started getting random notes from people who had been, or still were, in similar positions. Some had struggled for far longer than I had been, but they all said the same things: that what I was verbalizing was exactly what they had gone through, either by way of their external settings or their interior issues. I didn’t feel so much like a fraud any more, and I started to look more closely at how this thought came to arise in me.
That’s when I realized the depth of something that I had already known at some intellectual level: that people were treating me through lenses of their own perceptions of my circumstances and not really seeing or hearing me for what I was saying or experiencing. People who knew me couldn’t believe it was possible. Some, who knew I had a van and an office, kept saying, “well, yeah, but you’re not really homeless.” People who didn’t know me assumed the worst, and tried to save me from becoming the stinky guy with shopping carts: “Had I checked in with IHS yet? Did I need assistance?” Ironically, I did check into food stamps, but like many others I fell right on that razor thin line of not being bad off enough to qualify.
I can tell you that I trusted my sense of self enough to get through. But I can also tell you that even if I had been worse off, I wouldn’t have gone to IHS, or any other facility. It would have been too embarrassing; heart-breakingly embarrassing. It would have been an admission that I was over an edge, and that wasn’t a thought I wanted to consider. I wouldn’t have even been able to define what was meant by that edge, except that I could grasp it as some sort of danger zone. And I clearly didn’t feel, or want to admit, being in any real danger. Whether I would have been too stubborn or too proud, I can’t say, but the idea of going to an IHS was a complete abstraction in my mind. It didn’t represent any version of reality I felt identified with. Nor did it fit within any sense of where I physically wanted to be located.
I think you can well imagine that if this was my beginning point, and things still got worse for a while, and like I said you settle into a rhythm, then once I passed the point of no simple return it was easier to just keep going rather than go to a shelter.
This brings me to two inextricably intertwined and vastly complex ideas to try and convey to you: the identity of being homeless, and the heart-broken spirit that accompanies it. If we are all really honest, I believe we can all admit that the word “homelessness” comes off many people’s tongues like an invective, a poison, even a hiss. Mayor Carlisle conveyed it pretty succinctly saying after one encounter, “…you had to wash for two days before you felt that you'd gotten all the stuff that you'd gotten all over you.” Again, I say a perception will dictate a broad view of things, and heard often enough this kind of sharpened speech creates ripples of perception. So imagine the weight of those kinds of words on minds that haven’t brushed up against homelessness, and it’s not hard to imagine the cringing that occurs when they do. But also imagine how those kinds of words affect people who are already being lumped into that category; people whose lives have taken ugly turns, quite possibly of their own poor choices, and are in a tailspin of some kind. Do those words bring any healing to someone who already feels marginalized?
There is an identity that emerges from homelessness, a self view, and I’d be willing to venture that it’s rarely a healthy one. It’s one that says: “I am homeless. This is who I am.” And unfortunately that view is reinforced by so many external sources that it becomes a semi-permanent label. In fact the label no longer bears witness to a set of circumstances but one of identification and community, not so dissimilar from blood lines and cultural affiliations. There is no pride underlying this identification. They might as well be lepers since that is the level of stigma attached to the identity.
But identity is vastly important to everyone, regardless of the level of unhealthy view it brings with it. We wear clothes according to notions of identity. Jewelry and shoes are chosen for their resonance with who we think we are. So what would we assume the choices will be by people with identity of “homeless?” An identity born of interrupted circumstances and failure? How splintered does the mind become when the chosen identity of clothes, status, and community becomes an enforced identity of marginalization?
And this is a really important point I would make: someone who has been severely marginalized and has a poor external structure of support, will inevitably turn inwards. And in that inner world they will find family that still smile in their memories, or lovers who haven’t yet left them and continue to whisper kind thoughts, or any number of successes that make them feel good. For some this fantasy world will be induced by various substances. For others it will simply be enforced by their own fractured minds. But in all cases, it is a rich and known world, one that has its own integrity of safety built into it since it is entirely from within one’s own mind. In the face of this, consider that you are asking them to leave that world and take stock in the one that has spit them out, whether literally or figuratively. Do you really think they’ll be persuaded?
Here is an important question and a big leap: Just what is it that you want them to be persuaded to do? What is it that you really want them to buy into? Is it the American Dream where anyone can make it if they just try? Or is it just that you want them to stop being smelly and ugly, and to be productive members of society? Because they have to be shown some compelling reason to want to care. And that will be a very tall order because I will also say, with strong conviction, that the common root that keeps homeless people in dire states is that they are completely heart-broken. It may be masked in layers and layers of drugs and mental illness, but its there.
Consider your own lives. I’m betting that every one of us here today, and those you know outside this room, have been touched by heartache at some point in our lives. Whether a spouse or boyfriend/girlfriend left us behind, or the sudden death of a dear one, even a pet, whatever the circumstance, you all know what it’s like to have that crushing feeling in your chest, a car-sized boulder of pain on top of you. It’s a vice grip on your throat, or the clamp on your head, that we can all remember. And when you recall these feelings of despair and confusion do you remember the magnification of things that came with the depression? The smallest of things seemed horribly too large to manage; we’re convinced that the pain will go on forever because we forget what normal even felt like. If you can honestly remember, you also remember how there was very little help you wanted, very little love you felt you could receive, or even deserved.
Or consider those friends and loved ones who you watched grieve uncontrollably. Did they pull themselves up by their bootstraps just because you wanted them to? Just because it was the “right” thing to do? You watched them go through it and though you may have pained alongside them you knew it would simply be time to heal. But you probably kept waiting and caring, loving and being supportive at some unconditional level. Even in moments of your own frustration, you probably came back to a central core of loving care. If we can go through that for those we love, understand that their pain isn’t fake, isn’t capricious and self-indulgent, why do we have a difficulty seeing the same painful depths in those in need on the streets?
But here you all are. You did survive those periods. You did have someone, or something, that kept you connected to the light at the end of the tunnel. Or maybe it was simple stubborn optimism, which is what keeps me limping along through heart break. But this isn’t about us. We’re here looking at those in need. So again I put it to you to consider it this way: why do we expect superhuman amounts of understanding and willingness to pull themselves together, from a population given over to total disconnect from whatever social reality we’d hope to see?
This brings me to another aspect I’ve long pondered, and that is the role of leadership. To generalize a great deal for a moment, there are leaders and there are followers out there. And followers do like to have leadership take them along, inspire them, and give them a sense of placement within the grand scheme. I do not say this maliciously, but for most of the homeless problems we encounter there is a lack of leadership that is keeping success out of reach. And by this lack I don’t point to you specifically, as there is no doubt about your efforts and diligence. But by this I’m talking of what happens within the ranks of the homeless themselves. I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that within those ranks are far more follower than any leaders, and even far less inspiration.
Think on this a moment, we choose leaders that we identify with, that we feel comfortable with, that come from within our own experience range or community, and thus someone we can trust. We very reluctantly will view outside leadership as having benevolent intent, or with a favorable eye. Regrettably, the history of the world has been one of conquest rather than benevolent guidance. And so when you think about this mass of people who are stubborn and maybe unruly, and you take a close look at your structures do you see any reason that they should have a meeting of the minds just because you want it to happen?
In my honest and humble opinion, to get homeless people to change, they have to want to change. And generally we won’t be able to coerce them into this. This is where I see the need for some kind of leadership that isn’t yet wrapped into the complete approach. Just because you have the most perfectly fabulous wrench doesn’t mean that I or other homeless have just the perfect nut or bolt that needs tightening, or that the person wielding it is the most appropriate one. So you need to look for other tools, and in some cases new ways of engaging the people who are the stakeholders in these communities.
One thing you need to understand is that generally homeless people are far more resilient and adaptable than we would like to give credit. The average person couldn’t sustain the stress of movement and uncertainty on a daily basis that homeless people can. They can make do with less out of necessity and choice, regardless of whether it’s a good or bad choice. We can bounce them around all we like and they won’t really care. Many have already taken a petulant stance that it’s them against the world, and we just reinforce that view. Others are simply resigned to a strange sort of patience that comes from getting by. And of course there are those that are completely lost and absorbed in their own fantasy world, mostly disconnected from this external one.
And don’t get me wrong, I’m not so naïve as to disavow being stringent and establishing healthy boundaries. But I do believe those boundaries need to be understood carefully. Too often I hear rhetoric and see action that has left out the human element of just what people in need are up against. And though tough love seems like a great answer, intentions need to be very clearly delineated in our minds and our hearts.
I’m sure many of you have kids, so I’m sure you can remember a moment when you brought home a treat for them, unprompted by a holiday or birthday. And I’m sure you can remember the look of delight in their eyes, that pure expression of joy and love. There’s a homeless man in my neighborhood, and we’ve connected on some basic level of smile and recognition. I know he doesn’t know who I am, or my circumstances, but just the regular smile as I pass means something. And one night several weeks ago I went down the road to get some dinner and passed him. He said hello, and I back. At the restaurant I saw that they had cookies for sale so I bought him one. When I passed him again and offered the cookie he smiled but was inclining to say no thanks. Until I said I bought it for him. Then that look of delight appeared and he took the cookie.
I commend the work you’ve all continued to do and appreciate the efforts to coordinate yourselves better. It can only help in the long run. But never lose sight of that look while you measure your statistics of success, or struggle for funding. Care and services offered from a heart of frustration and resentment carries no rewards for either side of the equation. Activism that is only driven by anger and contempt isn’t sustainable. But I do believe that motives coming from a place of unconditional care that says “I want you to be happy, healthy, and safe,” without pre-attached strings of what that means, then this will prove sustainable and inspiring.
To achieve any of this in any deep and meaningful way, we have to put our biases aside, put our stereotypical responses up for inspection, and find something else more meaningful: we need to see ourselves in these people who are suffering. We need to connect with their heartbreak, and see that they grieve just as we do. We need to understand that we have to be careful and can’t just strip away someone’s identity because it doesn’t fit some social model. We need to start from a place of acceptance that this is what we have to work with, whether we like it or not, and from this acceptance build patient minds, and hearts that can abide in calm care. We need to engage these people, and one another, at human levels, not as statistics, and help them process through the complex maze of their own emotions and fears. Ultimately, as the concerned care-givers willing to put yourselves on the front lines, you can’t be afraid of a world in pain.
Mahalo for your time.