Homelessness is not a problem.
Written Sept 16, 2014. Spoken to a formerly homeless man riding the BART train with me, on his way to a homeless shelter where he was going to talk about his story out of homelessness with other currently homeless people. I had met him then, and then by chance, had written this post, myself. I read this post to him and it had moved him to tears, as well as those of fellow passengers on the BART train with me.
This is what my post reads.
Homelessness is not a problem. There are many reasons I know this. Here are just a few.
Once upon a time not too long ago, I was what some people would technically consider homeless. Once upon a time, I lost my job. Or rather in a sense, I left it before it left me, but that’s another story. As soon as I lost my job, I felt on the brink emotionally and financially. Something hadn’t quite sit well with me, and I snapped. I thought to myself, how can I become more proactive? How can I have this paradigm shift?
I was working a job I had clearly hated while expecting different results. If I want different results, I need to do something completely, completely different as well. I took a good hard look at my apartment in Chicago and decided that starting today, I will not need these things. These things have to go.
I went to work that week packing up my things into boxes, put it in a storage unit for later, and shipped myself to California.
Those were the beginnings of my vagabonding days, where I would then proceed to travel from the West to the East, to the South, to the North and back again.
A vagabond is someone who doesn’t quite have a home, but he or she is traveling for some indefinitely long period of time. A vagabond is never quite sure when he or she is done vagabonding; they’re simply content with the idea that it can end anytime soon. Or not.
I can’t possibly remember all the beautiful moments I had during those 5–6 months, but trust me, there were many.
Having been to many cities, I learned something new about the homelessness in San Francisco, that were very unlike the homelessness I had encountered elsewhere: which is that many of the homelessness in San Francisco, even if suffering from other ailments, appear to be incredibly savvy and resourceful. They’re fucking smart, maybe as smart as being homeless can get.
I don’t otherwise know where or how others from elsewhere manage to build castle cardboard and plastic homes out of junk to unabashedly sleep quite comfortably against a lamp post corner. I don’t know where else they carry shopping carts and bicycles to better get around a city while effectively carrying their things around for later use. I don’t otherwise know where else an entire community of vagabonds learned to crowd and to stick together in the Tenderloin, because they know that it is a close place to many public services.
So I want you to please put away any conceptions of home you may have as a place with a roof, couches, rugs, utensils and toilets — well, more than anything, as a place that requires a roof, given that I have actually seen vagabonds in San Francisco who otherwise have all of the above — and to hear me out when I say that this is not the problem. Not having a home is not a problem, because treating the streets as your home is in fact not a problem.
Let me further explain.
There is a human condition where it can be so painstakingly sufferable, where your life can feel almost like nothing exists but pain, that you cannot help but lose focus or place your attention on anything else but survival. I learned this most precisely from a vagabonding man I heard talking to another intently listening gentlemen in the street:
“You can just feel so much pain, that you basically cannot focus on anything else but survival.”
This is true. I know it to be true. I have been there before, too.
Here I am moving to San Francisco for the first time to declare this place as my home to work as a Software Engineer for a promising startup. I am about to make way more money than I have ever made before, and I will only be making even more after this at some point in the future. Somewhere between here and there, I will not only live in San Francisco but many other cities. I will be a trans-cosmopolitan individual who can be where she pleases and to some extent, even work wherever she pleases. This is my life now.
Some people around here call me a techie. I like to call myself a person.
So what, then, what is the issue here? Why can’t people bear to look at one another when one person asks for help — or, under many levels of meaning, when they ask for change — while the other tries to ignore what just happened as a nonexistent part of his or her reality? And why does that pain then linger immediately afterwards, until we forget that this person ever existed to us? It does not feel natural. It almost does not feel right. There is a problem here, of course. We do not want to relate to the people on the street. We want to ignore them. We want to say that this condition they have, where some of us can call it “homelessness”, is a condition that I, or the unrelating observer, does not have.
While I can relate to many of the people I see around the street today in San Francisco, and I can almost always find a way to start an engaging conversation with them, I cannot relate to issues of extreme drug abuse or mental illness. These are not only things I have never personally experienced myself, but they are things which I refuse to subject myself to as well. Addiction is a huge problem. Mental illness and the way in which mental illness is both addressed and serviced today is also a huge problem. There are many real problems in this world. Homelessness is not one of them. The idea that one is without a feeling or presence of home in their lives is a complete myth. Home is where the heart is and the heart finds itself a way to make wherever you are a home for you over time. Do you see that man who stands on that corner? He always stands on that exact same corner, doesn’t he? Isn’t that corner a home for him? Can you allow that possibility in yourself?
I want you to picture this kind man that you fathom a techie and juxtapose him against another man who has once asked you for change, a man who asked you for change genuinely and kindly. Then I want you to imagine that they are both the same person, just at different periods in time, who have made different choices.
Perhaps this is why many people that others deem homeless hate staying in shelters. Shelters can be a dangerous place where people are robbed, killed, stabbed, and generally used and neglected, despite having roofs and structures by which people can stay in. Out of sight is not out of mind.
If we can stop treating homelessness as a problem, we can start facing real problems, such as drug abuse, mental illness, neglect, and so forth. We can say that more than just the folks living on streets experience these issues, too, and that these issues can sometimes plunge them into living without roofs, migrating to declare new homes in unwalled, less safe, more chaotic environments for them to be in. We can start to assess whether or not their chaotic current is actually more peaceful than their chaotic past, be it rough former roommate situations or bad family situations, which can cause street living to be the preferred option. We can determine whether their dangerously unwalled current is actually more safe than their dangerous past, or if it was never a matter of having options between street or home, in the first place.
Our solutions can ultimately start to become much more customized to the issues at hand. We can start to liberate ourselves from our chains of oversimplified misunderstanding and learn to accept the entirety of the human experience as one complete with both stories of enlightenment and suffering.
I had always found it ironic and amusing that the class warfare in San Francisco was so strongly and vehemently vocal about the complete lack of understanding which occurs across both sides of the debate. Everybody just wants to have their story be understood.
So if for once we can start calling people people, and if we can stop treating ourselves as homeless versus non-homeless, I think we can do a much better job of addressing problems that are actually problems.
It is a problem to think of homelessness as a problem. Please ponder that. If somebody told you they had a one-way ticket to a destination that was much better than this one, but you have to give up what you are doing right now and board this bus to somewhere you’ve never been, would you do it? Would you really have the balls?