Happy 1st birthday to my medical memoir, Catching Homelessness: A Nurse’s Story of Falling Through the Safety Net. There is this upcoming sale of the e-book for all you e-bookish fans. It has been a fascinating and fun year and it has taken me places I never expected to go.
Leave things better than you found them was a lesson I was taught as a nineteen-year old college student during my study-abroad experience. That, along with celestial and non-celestial navigation, how to sail a 125′ Topsail Schooner, how to survive a Force 9 gale off the coasts of Labrador and Newfoundland, how to identify a multitude of sea creatures—including a 70′ Balaenoptera musculus (blue whale), how to take depth soundings of a Newfoundland fjord while perched in the bow of a tiny dinghy, and how to write and type a scientific report while rolling around on the high seas. Oh yes, and the poetics of sea shanties. All skills and knowledge and experiences that have served me well in life, reinforcing for me that value of experiential, immersion study-abroad programs.
But it is the seemingly trivial lesson of leaving things better than you found them that comes back to me most often, including this past week during the vicissitudes of the latest round of “let’s mess up our U.S. healthcare system even more.”
During my S.E.A Semester study-abroad program, Captain Carl Chase, our taciturn and highly capable and salty leader, sat us all down the first day of our voyage and explained that, in addition to our academic and sailing and galley work for the next six weeks, we were expected to find one thing we could do to do leave the ship in better shape than we had found it. He left it up to us to figure out what to do and then he would provide the materials and guidance necessary to complete our project. My project became the carving of a wooden knob for the battered galley teapot which had lost its knob. I liked to complain about the difficulty prying the top off the teapot and then realized I could—and should—stop complaining and do something to fix the problem.
Whenever I find myself complaining about things, like the ugly weed-filled concrete planters in the main courtyard at work, or the direction our country is going, or the direction the profession of nursing is going, or any of the myriad of issues I care about, I remember Captain Chase and the teapot knob and try to find some achievable improvement I can make.
And I know I am not alone in this effort. For instance, the Canadian nurse writer Tilda Shalof was recently highlighted in the Toronto Star article and accompanying video interview, “Medical Waste Becomes Massive Medical Art Mural.” As she prepares to retire from her decades working as an ICU nurse, Shalof turned the acres of brightly-colored plastic covers to various medical supplies into a beautiful art mural to adorn the hospital’s walls.
Access to affordable, quality, basic health care is a basic human right. Basic, as in fundamental and essential. In a civil society, in a democracy, health care should not be used as a political weapon—as it is being used by the current U.S. government administration. Using health care as a political weapon is sick. That it is being used as a weapon by powerful, affluent (mostly men) with the best health care and most comprehensive health insurance in the country—against those of our society who have the least power and resources, is despicable.
Repealing the ACA, which all health policy experts agree has had far-reaching positive effects on our health care system and on millions of people’s access to care, is senseless and mean-spirited.
For a brilliant critique of the current heartless rhetoric of the leaders of the ACA dismantling, please read Nicholas Kristof’s NYT op-ed piece, “And Jesus Said Unto Paul of Ryan…” (3-16-17).
As Phillip Lopate points out, perverse humor and contrariness can help us break through our ingrained ways of thinking, can help us view emotionally charged problems in our world through a more constructive lens. With that in mind, here’s why we need homelessness, why we shouldn’t be trying to end or reduce homelessness at all, but rather encouraging it.
Homelessness is good for individuals because it provides an education in life not available by other means. If you’re young and homeless and have a sense of adventure, you can travel around the country in a Jack Kerouac sort of way, get to see more cities and small towns and different ways of living than you’d ever be able to do if you were not homeless and if you were working full-time to try and stay not homeless. We should encourage homelessness in our young people, as it would increase their civic and geographic literacy and help us avoid the high cost of a college education.
Homelessness is good for our society. First, it is good for the environment because people who are homeless often recycle things. They find discarded aluminum cans and plastic bottles in ditches beside streets and turn them in to recycling places in exchange for money. Homelessness is good for the environment because people who are homeless often leave very small carbon footprints: they usually don’t own cars, or if they do, they can’t afford the gas to drive them so they rely on public transportation, ride bicycles or skateboards (if they are young), or simply walk to where they need to go. They eat leftover food that would otherwise go to waste and have to be carted off in garbage trucks and take up space in land fills. This especially applies to all of those excess Starbucks pastries that have to be thrown away at the end of each day. Homeless people don’t use much electricity, especially if they live outside, and even if they stay in public or church-run shelters, the cost per person of heating or cooling the shelter area is quite cost-effective.
Homelessness is good for the economy because our US market economy is based on winners and losers, the wealthy and the poor: having people who are homeless on our streets—so visibly down and out and poor—reminds us that our economy is working. It reminds us on a personal level that we had better keep working or we will end up like them: homeless. It’s a good moral lesson for our children when they are lazy at school. We can point out a homeless person and say: “See—that’s what you’ll become if you don’t study harder!” Homelessness is good for the economy because, like migrant farm workers, many homeless people do day labor, such as construction or yard work, for very low wages. This enables businesses to turn a higher profit.
Homelessness creates jobs for people, especially jobs in public health and social work, as well as jobs for journalists and researchers who focus on homelessness. Homelessness and poverty support health care providers, teachers, social workers, and other professionals who are incompetent or impaired, and who wouldn’t be tolerated in care settings for affluent persons. People who are homeless—along with other poor people—help support medical innovation, since many of them serve as patients and research subjects in academic medical centers. Of course, these medical innovations mainly benefit affluent people who can afford health insurance to cover the cost of such innovations.
Please support homelessness. Our country needs more of it.
From my medical memoir, Catching Homelessness: A Nurse’s Story of Falling Through the Safety Net (Berkeley: She Writes Press, August 2016).
Note: For this piece I was influenced by Herbert Gans’s article “The Positive Functions of Poverty” in The American Journal of Sociology (Vol. 78, No. 2, September 1972) and by Joel John Robert’s article “Ten Things We Can Do to Perpetuate Homelessness,” published in the Los Angeles Times (July 19, 2003).
“In languages all over the world, the word for ‘home’ encompasses not just shelter but warmth, safety, family—the womb.” ~Matthew Desmond
Part of my Summer Social Justice Reading Challenge included reading Matthew Desmond’s powerful nonfiction book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City (New York: Crown Publishers, 2016). Although I finished reading the book a month or so ago, I’ve been letting my thoughts about it percolate before writing a review.
First, it is a formidable book, with the hardcover edition being 341 pages with an additional 62 pages for a detailed “Notes” section. Since the author is a Harvard University professor and Evicted is based on his PhD dissertation research, the scholarly weightiness of the book is not surprising. As Desmond points out, there has been a dearth of research on the practice, policies, and consequences of eviction on individuals, families, and groups in the United States. Through his research and policy work, he seeks to address this issue. He has established the Just Shelter website to highlight additional stories of evictions around the country and to direct people to ways of helping at the local and national levels. For that I admire him.
In an effort to tell the stories of people he studied and lived amongst (in order to study them), Desmond uses a third-person detached narrative approach similar to the one used by Katherine Boo in Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity (New York: Random House, 2012). In the “Notes” section he acknowledges that he declined to write in the more current first-person ethnographic narration, a “…postmodern turn in anthropology, which focused attention on the politics and biases of the author.” He goes on to invoke “classic” policy-relevant ethnographic books, such as Elliott Liebow’s Tally’s Corner: A Study of Negro Streetcorner Men (New York: Little, Brown &Company, 1967), in which he claims the authors “are hardly on the page.” (p. 405) This is a strange statement, since Tally’s Corner is written in first-person, despite it also being written from Liebow’s dissertation.
Evicted reads more like a novel (Sinclair’s The Jungle comes to mind) than a heavy-duty social policy book. But as a reader, I was distracted by the frequent use of derogatory descriptors of people (moon-faced, redneck, etc.) and the fact that I could easily tell the places in the story where the not so behind the scenes author would play the role of the Great White (male) hope and bail people out of difficult spots. In the “Epilogue,” Desmond acknowledges both of these issues, but not in particularly convincing or reassuring ways. For instance, he mentions that people sometimes call him on the fact that he includes not so savory details about “poor people” and he replies that it doesn’t help anyone to try to gloss over realities—and that the tendency of kind-hearted liberals to portray poor people as saints is belittling and disrespectful. I agree, but there’s no need to describe people in a pejorative way.
The strongest part of Evicted comes in the “Epilogue: Home and Hope.” It is here that Desmond does an excellent job of highlighting the negative health effects of eviction on people, including the higher rates of depression and suicide among recently evicted people. And he has these things to say about the role of home for all of us: “The home is the center of life. It is a refuge from the grind of work, the pressure of school, and the menace of the streets.(…) The home is the wellspring of personhood. It is where our identity takes root and blossoms (…) When we try to understand ourselves, we often begin by considering the kind of home in which we were raised. (…) America is supposed to be a place where you can better yourself, your family, and your community. But this is only possible if you have a stable home. ” (pp. 293-4) Yes, housing is health care and yes, everyone deserves a safe and stable home.
“I write about what most fascinates me right now,” said John McPhee, by way of Robert Michael Pyle, both amazing trail-blazers, or perhaps trackers, of that strange beast that is creative nonfiction. McPhee has written books on subjects such as oranges, the island of his Scottish ancestors, family doctors, college basketball players, the shad as Founding Father fish, and the history of the birch-bark canoe (my personal favorite). Pyle, who is also a biologist, a lepidopterist (butterfly expert), and founder of the Xerces Society for invertebrate ecology (saving our butterflies and bees), has written about butterflies and trees and Big Foot and life. My favorite contemporary female trackers of, or perhaps more fittingly, expanders of the boundaries of creative nonfiction are Terry Tempest Williams and Rebecca Solnit. When Women Were Birds: Fifty-Four Variations on Voice (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2012) by Williams and A Book of Migrations (London: Verso, 211) by Solnit remain two of my all-time favorite books.
Each of these great writers of creative nonfiction sweep us along on explorations of their own current fascinations, obsessions, questions–the pebbles in their shoes, as one of my writing mentors, Stephanie Kallos puts it so aptly. What is it that you carry with you, that at each step insistently reminds you of its existence? The pebble of obsession doesn’t have to be a large rock-sized, inscribed with the muse-whisperer one as shown in the photo here (my historian son made that for me a few years ago–coolest present ever!). But is should be of sufficient significance to be likely to matter to other people besides yourself.
My pebble, my obsession, is and has been for many decades now, the wicked problem of homelessness. I call it a wicked problem, not so much because it is evil or immoral (which I happen to think it is), but because it is so vastly complex a problem that it defies easy solution. Hence, all the well-meaning but expensive and time-consuming ’10 Year Plans to End Homelessness’ implemented (much more than 10 years ago now) in so many U.S. cities, and that largely failed. The term ‘wicked problem’ was coined by two UC Berkeley professors of urban planning, Horst W.J. Rittel and Melvin M. Webber, to describe difficult social policy issues such as poverty, crime, and homelessness. (Read their still surprisingly relevant journal article “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning” Policy Sciences (4), 1973, pp. 155-169.)
Rittel and Webber write, “As distinguished from problems in the natural sciences, which are definable and separable and may have solutions that are findable, the problems of governmental planning–and especially those of social or policy planning–are ill-defined; and they rely upon elusive political judgment for resolution. (Not ‘solution.’ Social problems are never solved. At best they are only re-solved–over and over again.)” (p. 160)
But who would we be, as individuals, as a society, if we didn’t even try? That is the core question, the obsession, the pebble in my shoe.
Good sleep supports good health, including mental health. We’ve all experienced sleep disruption and sleep deprivation at some point in our lives. Pulling ‘all-nighters’ while cramming for exams in school. Being a new parent. Being a caregiver for someone ill or injured. Being a night-shift nurse or other worker. Times of insomnia. We know from experience that not getting enough sleep can make us cranky at best and dangerous to ourselves and others at worst (as with driving-while-fatigued). So why, as a society, do we insist on making it a crime for homeless people to sleep, or even to simply rest?
This morning, while walking my dog in my Seattle neighborhood, I passed a small public park where a man dressed in ragged clothes lay sleeping in the shade of one of our lovely Pacific Northwest conifers. It is a hot day, and it gladdened my heart that when I passed him again several hours later on my way home, someone had placed bottled water near him–and he was stirring, reaching for the water. And no police officer was shooing him away. An increasing number of cities are criminalizing homelessness, including passing tough anti-loitering laws for public parks and sidewalks.
For anyone who has ever been homeless, or who takes the time to talk with and understand more of the lives of people experiencing homelessness, finding a safe place to sleep is one of the biggest difficulties. People who are homeless and are rough-sleeping are at great risk of being victims of crime, including of targeted hate crime (although homelessness is not a ‘protected’ category under federal hate crime laws). Whatever meager belongings they have are at risk of being stolen. Women are especially vulnerable to sexual assaults while they are sleeping or resting.
That is why I was heartened on my recent stay in Portland, Oregon to be able to visit the consumer-run nonprofit group Right to Dream Too. This is how they describe what they do and why they do it :”Right2DreamToo (R2DToo) was established on World Homeless Action Day, Oct. 10th, 2011. We are a nonprofit organization operating a space that provides refuge and a safe space to rest or sleep undisturbed for Portland’s unhoused community who cannot access affordable housing or shelter. We exist to awaken social and political groups to the importance of safe undisturbed sleep.”
The city corner lot where Right to Dream Too is located is a noisy one, what with being on a busy street (Burnside) and with wrecking balls whacking down buildings all around them. Yet it is an amazingly welcoming and peaceful oasis inside. A check-in desk, people doing shifts of self-policing the area for security, a small eating area next to a couch and bookshelves filled with books. Covered, airy gym-type thick mats raised on pallets where people can sleep. Neatly stacked piles of sleeping bags and pillows. (They told me that most of their budget goes towards laundry for the bedding). Tents in the back for staff members who stay there longer term. Well-maintained port-a-potties. Flower boxes. Brightly painted cast-off doors around the perimeter. Donated bicycles and clothing. A special tent filled with computers and information on job-hunting and health, social, education, and legal services. A palpable sense of peace and community. And even a small community garden!
The five-year-old program is, of course, at continual odds with the various powers that be in Portland and are soon to be moved to another site out of the downtown core–less convenient for the ‘houseless’ consumers of their services, more convenient to the downtown developers, condo and business owners. Here are some photographs I took of my visit (with their permission).