The Homeless Mentality: A Need For Love and Empowerment
Last year I received a call from Pam Fessler of NPR (National Public Radio). She'd interviewed me twice in the past. But this time she wasn't asking for an interview. she just wanted to ask me a question. It would turn out to be the toughest question to date that I've ever had to answer as a homeless advocate.
She said, "Eric, I used to be the White House correspondent for NPR. Now I cover poverty. And it seems that, ever since I started covering poverty, everybody wants to hug me. Why is that?"
I was completely dumbfounded by the question, but have never been in the habit of denying a person an answer to a question -- especially a question about homelessness. If I don't know the answer, I try to point the person toward someone who does. But that didn't seem like a feasible option in this case. So, I had to say something -- right, wrong or indifferent.
I said, "Well, a lot of homeless men don't have wives, but wish they did" to which Pam replied, "Uh oh!" I then told her that's all I could think of and that's pretty much how I left it.
Since then, I've paid closer attention to this issue. I've also recalled things which I've known for a long time but failed to relate to our conversation last year.
For instance, I've known for quite some time about the relationships that the homeless develop with groups that feed them in the parks. There are groups that feed the homeless once per month -- usually on a Saturday or Sunday. Some of them are sure to budget 2 or 3 hours of their time for the occasion, so that they can hang out with the homeless and build relationships. Such gatherings often begin and/or end with the homeless hugging those who are there to serve them. I've even seen the group leader instruct the group to exchange hugs with the homeless and explain the importance of doing so.
As a matter of fact, on January 29th, 2012 I saw a group of 50 people (only about 5 were men) from the George Washington University Muslim Student Association giving out food to the homeless in DC's Franklin Park. Someone gave me a bag and walked away. I immediately walked after him and said, "You can't just feed the homeless and walk away. That's how you do pigeons. You just throw some bread at them and leave. The homeless have lots to talk about -- lots of stories to tell. When you feed us, you have to budget enough time to hang out with us." He indicated that it was the intention of the group to do just that. A few people in their group immediately began to gather around and hear what I had to say about the homeless issue. As I spoke, the others trickled in until I had 3 rows of people standing in semi-circles in front of me. Noticing from the women's attire that they were Muslims, I was sure to tell them about my conversation with Pam Fessler and that, if their religion doesn't allow for the women to be hugged by men, they need to be very up-front about this when interacting with the homeless.
Then there are the non-profits that feed the homeless 5-7 days per week. S.O.M.E. (So Others Might Eat) is notorious for rushing homeless people through the dining room, allowing them minimal time to eat much less socialize with those serving them -- almost requiring the homeless to inhale their meals. Other feeding programs afford people the opportunity to sit and socialize. As a matter of fact, Thrive DC (where I eat) opens its doors at 8:30 AM, M-F and feeds at 9:30 AM. There the homeless are able to converse and connect with staff and volunteers until 11 AM.
There are many mornings when I enter Thrive DC, walk a few feet to the sign-in desk and meet 2 young female volunteers who've been tasked with greeting folk as they enter. I start right in on them by asking very bluntly, "Who are you?" My blunt manner often leaves them aghast for a moment before they are able to catch their breath and state their names. I then follow with, "Where are you from?" By this time, they've realized that I like to get right to the point and I don't beat around the bush. They'll smile (usually) and answer. Within 2 minutes of entering the building, I will have gotten into deep conversation with 2 women whom I've never met before in my life. I don't waste any time getting to know strangers who've come to serve the homeless.
But, so much for me. There are other homeless men who are not a far cry from myself when it comes to engaging in conversation with the female volunteers who serve at feeding programs. Most homeless men will sit and talk with their friends and only converse with volunteers if the volunteers initiate the conversation (which most don't). On occasion the volunteers will approach the homeless, introduce themselves and make known their desire to converse. This usually only happens if there is an overabundance of volunteers -- which I wish were always the case -- as they are also tasked with cleaning up after the meal.
Homeless feeding programs often have other activities and resources for their clients, such as a computer lab, phones for important calls, resume building workshops, access to mental health and legal services. Some even have fun activities like art sessions where the homeless can do art with someone who is studying to be an art therapist. I've noticed that, when the only young lady at the table is the art therapy student whom people see from week to week, participation is rather low; whereas, when 4 or 5 female university students attend the art session, the homeless men flock to the table. We end up needing to put additional tables up. Homeless men (many in their 40's and 50's) tend to take a liking to the young, energetic women (usually 16 to 25 years old). It is often a patriarchal relationship, though I can't speak for every man. One such volunteer recently told me that another homeless man told her that, if he had to, he would do some art so that he could talk to the young ladies. This only reinforces my point.
All of this might leave you saying, "Well, the homeless in DC tend to get a lot of attention". However, that's not entirely true, as some of the situations that I've described thus far are few and far between. As a matter of fact, I've run across several blogs, websites and articles about homeless which have the word "invisible" in their title. The homeless often DO feel invisible. People often pass by the homeless without so much as an acknowledging glance -- whether the homeless person is begging in a store front, pushing a cart down the street, sitting on the sidewalk or standing/sitting at a bus stop. When making speeches, my fellow advocates and I often tell people, "It doesn't cost you anything to say 'Hello'. You don't necessarily have to give the person anything. Just say 'Hello'. It would make them feel human, not invisible." This is advice which all who read this should take to heart, bear in mind and use.
People often wonder why it is that some homeless people choose to sleep outdoors. While there are more answers to that question than I plan to address in this blog post, one of them is definitely the fact that the homeless are often treated disrespectfully by shelter staff. By comparison, sleeping outdoors seeming invisible is a much better option. Howbeit, sleeping outdoors due to disrespect shown by shelter staff amounts to running from the problem rather than facing it head-on.
That's not to speak of the fact that some homeless people are attacked by gremlins who have nothing better to do than attack a sleeping homeless person. Some such attacks end in death. The choice is now between being disrespected, seeming invisible and being attacked (possibly dying from it). This only begins to explain some of the tough choices the homeless have to make. Let's not forget that the homeless also have to choose between eating at programs that feed when most people would be at work and getting a shelter bed, on the one hand; or, going to work hungry and returning when all shelter beds are full, on the other hand.
As if mistreatment by shelter staff is not a big enough problem, the homeless are regularly rejected by employers. A homeless person (who obviously didn't "look homeless") might apply for a job. If he or she doesn't have a cell phone or community voicemail, they might give the shelter number as their contact number. When the employer calls that number, the shelter employee answers by saying, "Hello, such and such shelter...". Then the boss rescinds the job offer. This happens all too often. They are homeless because they don't have a job; and, they can't get a job because they're homeless. After so many times of being denied employment, many of the homeless give up and relegate themselves to lives of homelessness.
The disillusionment and disenfranchisement of the homeless community were of the first obstacles I encountered as a homeless advocate in June 2006. When the news broke concerning the impending closure of the Franklin School Shelter, I was one of about a dozen men out of the 240 who resided there at the time to join the fight to stop the closure. The other 95% of them were naysayers who didn't think the city would listen to us or that our opinions mattered. That said, we managed to stop the closure under Mayor Anthony Williams in 2006, only to have it closed by Mayor Adrian Fenty in 2008. So, we were able to get a two-year reprieve.
"The most common way that people give up their power is by thinking they don't have any."
Between the passers-by who fail to acknowledge the existence of those who are not in their socio-economic class, the disrespectful shelter employees, the employers who refuse to hire the homeless, those who attack the homeless and the many other groups of people who -- in some way, shape form or fashion deride the homeless community -- the homeless are forced to resign themselves to lives of despair. They haven't become "comfortable with being homeless" and neither do they "want" to be homeless (regardless of what ill-informed statements Pres. Reagan may have made to that effect). They just don't see any way out of their plight.
I recall my thoughts when I first became homeless. I went through a period of pouting and asking myself why bad things happen to good people. Then I set out to find employment. I didn't find it quickly enough and my money ran out. I had done a little bit of day labor to earn extra cash when I was working full-time at Shands Hospital on the night shift. So, I decided to resume doing day labor. This began a cycle that would last for many years -- working at low-wage jobs and staying at shelters. At some point, I just resigned myself to a life...err strife of poverty and homelessness -- not to be confused with actually "liking it". (Don't be Reagan-esque.)
It seems that the one holdover from my previous life is my love of women -- something for which I've become notable, if not notorious. (Though I don't share the story often, I became homeless as a result of trying to help a woman who I knew was the victim of a sex crime.) That said, my deepest sorrow rests not in the fact that I am homeless, but rather in the fact that I am single. After all, while 4 walls may be nice to have, they're not very engaging or loving. Life is about LOVING PEOPLE, not things. The hardest thing about being homeless (for me anyway) is the difficulty involved in maintaining heterosexual relationships.
All this leaves one to wonder what, if anything, can be done to reverse the plight of the homeless. Though this post is chock full of expressions of the homeless community's need for loving relationships (with an emphasis on men's desires), I would suspect that most people would choose to start elsewhere when it comes to helping the homeless end their plight. But, regardless of where you choose to start, I can assure you that blaming the homeless individual for their suspected personal vices is not the right place. Let's start by addressing systemic problems, as it makes no sense to nurse an oil-soaked bird back to health and then send it back into the same oil-slicked waters that made it ill in the first place. I would lift up the idea of abolishing our capitalist system as a good starting place. If that goal seems too ambitious, maybe you choose to vie for the creation of affordable housing. But, as you aim to mobilize the homeless to fight for affordable housing, you'll be confronted with their epic disenfranchisement and disillusionment. So, you'll need to make them feel like they ARE human, relevant and important.