Meanderings on the Homeless Crisis (Part 3)

Are the homeless people I encounter typical of homeless people? I have no idea. The ones I meet and interact with are not obviously insane or drug addled demons. Wait, there is that one man. No, make it two. But that’s it. No, a third comes to mind.

An elderly homeless man with flowing white hair proudly showed me a cashmere long coat he’d purchased at Goodwill for $40. He said he’s preferred long coats and cashmere was his favorite material. He also said he preferred Polo or Nordstrom dress shirts but they were getting harder to find. It was also becoming increasingly more difficult to find a good silk suit. I asked him if he often wore suits while living outdoors and he said yes.

Charles Bukowski also wrote: “There’s music in everything, even defeat.” Is there in the homeless crisis?

It seems beyond insanity to realize that Americans built an incredible amount housing space the past 40 years and now can’t house everyone but there are millions of underutilized housing spaces.

Consider this: houses used to be 950 square feet and housed five people. Now a home is 2500-3500 square feet and two people live there. Or one.

All previous models of homelessness and diasporas are useless for comparison. What unfolds now is something entirely new in American history.

The other morning I saw someone in an encampment living in a kid’s plastic, multi-colored, outdoor two-storey, playhouse. That was an arresting sight, a first, but I thought it a practical use of something a home owner set out on a sidewalk.

I heard a homeless man say he sets up a signal fire by his encampment near a river when he wants to hire a prostitute. Apparently he has arranged this system with someone who is also homeless in the area and works as a prostitute, but camps at a higher elevation and thus can see the signal fire at night.

When Americans started wearing pajamas in public, that was a sign.

Sometimes when volunteering and I meet a homeless man or woman who is an asshole, a surliness creeps up inside me and I think: we’re trying to give you a hand up and you want a rickshaw ride. It feels awful to feel that way, and it always goes away. Perhaps one day it will not.

I wonder if any elementary teachers are having their students make dioramas of homeless encampments as a starting point or culmination to the study of the homeless crisis. What would students and parents think of such an assignment? I think it’s a helluva great curricular idea. Hands on. No goddamn Internet. Construct tents and tarps. Build a freeway overpass. Find beat-up Match Box cars, trucks and RVs. Purchase plastic army men and dogs at the Dollar Store.

A friend told me she’d recently purchased a wooden train set for her son and it also contained tents, cars and RVs for some unknown reason, unless the manufacturer intended the child to set up a pretend homeless encampment along the tracks. That would seem highly unlikely, but then again. I have seen Portland kids playing “homeless” on the streets with toy wagons and empty cans, so you never know.

I observed what I believed was a baptism of a homeless man in a kiddie pool in an encampment. I will carry that image in my mind forever. A man living in his pickup camper pitches horseshoes almost every morning in a city park near a river. I saw a sign hanging from a sawhorse in a homeless encampment that read: VIP parking spot. I witnessed a homeless man pushing a five-foot tall, red, Craftsmen tool chest on wheels down the sidewalk. He was living out of the chest and I thought that an ingenious way to live as a homeless person if you wanted mobility and to neatly store and safeguard possessions.

The photographer Walker Evans wrote on his goal for his work: “Images whose meanings exceed the local circumstances that provide their occasion.”

I want this writing project to attempt that.

A reader said I was asking too many questions in my writing about the homeless and not answering them. I can’t answer any of them. I am trying. I want readers to try with me.

I sense I am getting much better at asking questions of homeless people when a question occurs to me. I know it must be asked right then! because the opportunity will never come again and by not asking means I may have blown a chance to help that person or enlarge my understanding.

Something that should sometimes be asked of entitled homeless people (there is such a thing): how do you feel about all the taxes rich and poor people pay to enable/facilitate your homelessness, money that could be funding child care, senior services, animal welfare, education and watershed restoration? Why are you worth it? What do you say to the volunteers who donate their time to help you when they could be donating their time (and money) to other causes that are not intractable (such as you) and frankly a more promising investment in humanity, watersheds or shelter animals.

The typical military ratio is: a command needs ten troops in the rear to support one in the line. We need exactly the reverse of this addressing the homeless crisis.

Homeless people care for their dogs better than they care for themselves or others, which is true of a lot of Americans.

The sight of homeless people using phones to play games such as checkers or solitaire is something that always boggles me and I think I need to let it go. If they were playing a board game or using a real deck of cards, I would think it charming, perhaps hopeful. At least in the playing of games on their phones they are still somewhat connected and using their minds. Maybe they are thinking of something else when they play—a new notion of how to live better, or survive. Or they just might be emptying their minds and trying to relax.

Many Americans are pursuing a life of liberty and sadness at the same time. The small sample of homeless people I meet and interact with do not generally seem sad.

There are an estimated 4500 homeless people in Dallas, 32,000 in Florida and 1100 in Des Moines.

I have been shocked and impressed with my fellow Oregonians that more vigilantes haven’t taken matters into their hands when it comes to dealing with the homeless and cleaning up or clearing out their encampments. I have read of it happening a few times around Oregon, in big cities and small towns alike, and realize more incidents have gone unreported (even on social media). But one can tell that more vigilantism might be close at hand and could easily be unleashed by a certain kind of demagogue.

Howard Zinn wrote on moments of national crisis, “Everyone is involved. There are no experts.”

As I wade into the homeless advocates purported area of expertise with my comments and observations, if they take one second of paid time to rebut anything I’ve written here, then they’ve wasted time and money and confirmed every suspicion about their abilities and agendas.

I’ll get involved to help raise awareness any way I see fit and will not adhere to anyone’s agenda. I don’t have an agenda with this project.

I started compiling a list of the songs that best illustrate my mood as it relates it to the homeless crisis:

“Gimme Shelter” and “Shattered” by the Rolling Stones

“Everything is Broken” by Bob Dylan

“Life During Wartime” by the Talking Heads

“What’s Going On?” by Marvin Gaye

“Rockin’ in the Free World” by Neil Young

“Sign ‘o’ the Times” by Prince

“Let’s Clean Up the Ghetto” Lou Rawls and the Philadelphia International All Stars

At the moment, the number one such song is “Takin’ it to the Streets” by the Doobie Brothers. That song is certainly worth listening to again. That opening line: You don’t know me but I’m your brother…that really gets to me.

A friend of mine recently told me of her year-long experience on the Oregon Coast of living in a van in the parking lot of a small, independently-owned grocery store where she worked. Her preference was residence in an affordable apartment, but there was none to rent. She established the arrangement with the owner of the parking lot in a most usual manner: while singing a karaoke duet with him in a dive bar. I’ll let her tell the story: The song was “Close My Eyes Forever,” a duet with Ozzy Osborne and Lita Ford. I sang things like, ‘Can I live in my van in your parking lot forever?’ and he sang back something like ‘You can live there for the rest of your life!’ in very dramatic Ozzy fashion. We both just ran with it from there and it was terrific because it solved the whole asking for permission or not dilemma!

Help is where the heart is. That sentence just came to me as I wrote the previous paragraph. I’m not sure if someone said it before me and I’m not going to google to find out.

In an introduction to his collection of essays, Nobody Knows My Name, James Baldwin wrote: “I still believe that the unexamined life is not worth living: and I know that self-delusion, in the service of no matter what small or lofty cause, is a price no writer can afford. His subject is himself and the world and it requires every ounce of stamina he can summon to attempt to look on himself and the world as they are.”

I am not the subject of this project. I want to believe I am not deluding myself as I write about the homeless men and women I encounter. It is requiring every ounce of stamina I can summon not to descend into disillusion.

In this introduction, Baldwin also goes on to say: the American writer must explode the mythology of American life and discover what is happening here, on the ground, face to face. He said it was up to the American writer to do this. He didn’t mention another profession.

What are the myths of the current American crisis of homelessness? That is something I must consider from every ideological position. One myth that I held was that there wasn’t any humor in this story. Oh, there is, I assure you.

In Columbus and Other Cannibals, the author Jack D. Forbes introduces the Cree word wetiko and defines it as “a disease of aggression against other living things, and more precisely, the disease of the consuming of other creatures’ lives and possessions … for one’s own private purpose or profit.”

In other words—in Forbes’ words—“cannibalism.” He called it the “greatest epidemic sickness known to man.” He called it “insanity.” It began with the genocide of indigenous peoples and the destruction of nature, and expanded to slavery, imperialism, colonialism, endless wars of greed, religion, racism and conquest, legal and illegal pharmacopoeia, and—unique in American society—mass incarceration and probation.

Are the homeless people being cannibalized by a disease of aggression built from a savage economic machine that has led to such vast and obscene inequality in American life? Are they merely the raw material of rapacious consumer capitalism? Are their bodies and souls feeding the blast furnace to power our lives? Are they being threshed by a huge industrial machine, the Combine, as Ken Kesey so memorably put it?

It make perfect sense. It is so obvious. Forbes presents wetiko and cannibalism as a thesis. It is no thesis if you spend any significant time around the homeless, as I have in rural and urban Oregon the past six years, with a new experience every single day that activates all five senses.

So what do you do about it? Jack Forbes wrote the only way to kill wetiko is to perform “acts of beauty.”

What is an “act of beauty” in connection to the homeless crisis?

Define one yourself. Go forth and enact it. Don’t stop.