A New Way of Seeing

Homelessness is about discovering that your lifelong friends and family, the very people you thought were truly supportive, are suddenly very leery of you.

“Scavengers.” A futile search for vitally important lost belongings is just one of the many unexpected hardships of homelessness. Painting by Christine Hanlon.

 

by Andy Pope

The first time in my life that I had ever lost a pair of glasses was on May 20, 2004, when I awoke in Golden Gate Park and realized that I had casually tossed my glasses down in the foliage when I was about to go to sleep the previous night. I and another person spent about a half hour trying to find them, then concluded they were lost.

Since I had only been homeless for a few weeks since April 1, 2004, I had not yet come to terms with the many subtle nuances that would distinguish my homeless life from my previous life. Losing a pair of glasses is one of them.

When I lived in a house, I might have casually tossed my glasses onto the rug of my bedroom floor. I might have spent a few minutes looking for them, possibly even more than a few minutes, depending on the nature of the toss and the location of the landing. But once I had found them, I could not truthfully claim to have lost them. I had only misplaced them.

Yet, the $300 pair of corrective reading glasses that I lost on that morning in the park could never be replaced.

This is telling. Homelessness is not about misplacement. It’s about loss. In some cases — in my case, for example — deep loss. Loss that a person doesn’t get over very easily. In some cases, they might not get over it in an entire lifetime. In my case? Well, the jury is still out.

As I walked toward a certain cafe that morning where another homeless person was going to buy me a cup of coffee, I told myself: “Now I really *have* to do something about my situation! I’ve got to stop being homeless before this gets any worse. All kinds of things have been happening since I’ve been homeless that I could never have predicted would happen. Problems that used to take me five or ten minutes to solve have been setting me back for days.”

But then I thought: “How do I stop being homeless?”

I did not know the answer then, and I do not know it now. That was twelve years ago. Now is now. You cannot imagine the number of “subtle nuances” that have accumulated in those twelve years.

If I became cold when I lived in a house, I turned on the heater. It took me less than one minute. If I become cold now, I go about town looking for extra layers of clothing outside the good will stores, in the drop boxes and on the ground.

And remember, there are thousands of other homeless people living in the Bay Area. Many of them are very much like me, and so many of them are doing the exact same thing. We fight each other over a pair of pants.

It can literally take me days to turn coldness into warmth. Sometimes you don’t even bother. You’re starting to become hardened. You’re tired of fighting another homeless person for the only sweatshirt in your size.

This, too, is telling. Homelessness is not about warmth — it’s about coldness. It’s about discovering that your lifelong friends and family members, the very people whom you thought were truly supportive of you, are suddenly very leery of you.

They won’t take your truthful statements at face value anymore. They keep looking for the “reason” why you’re homeless, and in so doing completely ignore the obvious fact that you are homeless because you don’t have a home.

So you turn to them for support, just the way you always used to, in the hope that they might help you to find a home, just the way they always used to help you deal with a difficult co-worker or help you after the break-up of a relationship. They cannot seem to imagine that all these problems you are having are the result of the conditions of homelessness, and not the cause.

 

A homeless man ignored in the midst of a city. Art by Maynard Dixon

 

They find that while you always used to be noted for your punctuality, you suddenly are showing up late. They correlate this with your increasing instances of absent-mindedness, and conclude that you need a psychiatrist. You know in your heart that as soon as you are no longer homeless, you won’t have these problems anymore, so you start to feel a bit brushed off.

They brush off your need for a place to live by providing answers for all the other problems, while ignoring the fact that these other problems are related to all the “subtle nuances” that distinguish your homeless life from your previous life. You suddenly realize that half of these people you thought were so supportive never really did a damn thing for you at all.

Anybody can give advice. It takes somebody who really loves you to let you in much farther than that. But they’re not letting you in. You thought they loved you. But where is the warmth? Why is your own brother, even having a spare room in his house, abandoning you to sleep out in the cold?

Finally, you yourself become cold. You thought you were warm, but all these cold blasts are turning down your temperature. The cold blasts accumulate. You used to be able to handle cold weather, but you’re getting older, and it’s getting harder.

You used to think you could endure homelessness till the end of your days. Now you know that if you don’t get inside soon, those days will be drastically shortened. The many unanswered pleas for dignified shelter accumulate. The failed attempts at getting a stint in a homeless shelter that leads anywhere but to another homeless shelter accumulate.

The subtle nuances themselves accumulate. When I lived indoors, how many times did I lose my cell phone? If I recall correctly, none at all. Since I’ve been homeless, how many different cell phones have I had? It pains me to count.

“Why is Andy losing his cell phone so often?” I seem to hear them ask. It’s not just because there’s a drastic increase in Andy’s absent-mindedness. It’s because homeless people steal from homeless people. If there is a cell phone in my backpack, I can guarantee you it will be gone within a month or so. Usually, within a week.

As far as the $300 pair of protective reading glasses is concerned, talk about your “luxury” problem! I’ve been buying non-corrective readers for $1.10 at the dollar store for as long as I can remember. And the rate at which I am losing them is steadily increasing. I cannot solve this problem of losing my glasses three to five times a week without help. Real help. From someone who cares.

Somebody help me. Let me keep a pair of reading glasses everywhere I try to use this computer. Somebody help me. Give me a place to live. Somebody, somebody, somebody…

“Why isn’t Andy helping himself?”

Because homelessness is not about love. It’s about hate. Jesus could have had a place to live, you know. He could have lived anywhere he wanted to. So why did he choose to live outdoors, a wanderer without a fixed home? Well, look at it this way.

If Jesus had been living in some nice, plush, three-story house and living the good life, how would that have prepared him for the event that He knew was coming, when He would have to endure the mockeries of those who tortured Him to death out of pure hatred for anything so good as Him? How would He have been tough enough to produce enough love to compensate for all the hate in all the history of the world?

The thing is, I’m not Jesus. I’m not headed toward that kind of event, but I am headed toward an event that will be sufficient for who I am. Let me in, please. Before it’s too late.

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