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.
The holidays are festive, fun, frantic, frolicsome, fleeting—frankly fickle affairs. The sheer number of holiday-themed, family-times-gone-wrong Hollywood movies attests to this fact. And then there is the endless loop of the still popular Christmas song, “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” first sung by Bing Crosby in 1943 as WWII raged on. Supposedly, major record company executives at first refused to record the song, due to its final line, “I’ll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams.” They felt it was a downer of an ending. But, of course, it tapped into the reality for many people—not just soldiers—who couldn’t go home and were left with only nostalgic dreams of snow and mistletoe.
It continues to tap into the reality for many people. Not just for people displaced from their homelands by wars, such as the current one in Syria. (For an excellent in-depth article on this for a Syrian refugee family in Canada, see the NYT article “Wonder and Worry, As a Syrian Child Transforms” by Catrin Einhorn and Jodi Kantor, 12-17-16. This makes me love my neighbor country to the north.) And not just for people who never had a safe, warm, protective home to begin with. Dr. Nancy Goldov of the Washington State Psychological Association talks about this, pointing out that some people “find the pressure to be merry and happy difficult,” and that a particular trigger this year is the “highly fraught political situation that’s polarized some families.” (see the Seattle Times article, “Alone for the holiday—and loving it” by Christine Clarridge, 12-16-16.)
Home, not just for the holidays but anytime, is also just a dream for so many of our community members who are home-less. I know this at a personal level, yet yesterday it took on a new level of poignancy. Working in sub-freezing, snow-flurry weather, we helped move in residents of Tent City 3 to a corner of the University of Washington (UW), Seattle campus. Community volunteers helped Tent City residents sort tarps and tents and cans of food. Others moved wood pallets into a line and hammered plywood on top to serve as partially dry and unfrozen “ground” for the tents that residents will sleep in for the next three months. Tent City 3 is part of the organization Seattle Housing and Resource Effort (SHARE), which is self-governed, democratic, grassroots, and led by homeless and formerly homeless people.
I am proud of the dedicated work of many of our UW students, faculty, and staff who have advocated for UW to host Tent City 3. I am proud of our public university for living up to its stated institutional values, including:
- “World Citizens We are compassionate and committed to the active pursuit of global engagement and connectedness. We assume leadership roles to make the world a better place through education and research. We embrace our role to foster engaged and responsible citizenship as part of the learning experience of our students, faculty and staff.
- Being Public As a public university we are deeply committed to serving all our citizens.”
What is the meaning of home to you? What is the one essential ingredient of home? These are questions I pose to people in my workshops and talks on homelessness. I’ve adapted “The Meaning of Home” values clarification exercise that I learned from the (sadly, now defunct) Bay Area Homelessness Program, which was a dynamic collaborative of Bay Area universities and homeless-serving agencies. As they put it, the goal of this exercise is “to help participants understand the connection between home and humanity. It builds empathy for homeless people, shows the range of reasons why a person can become homeless, and shows the interconnectedness of human needs.” (Source: my copy of the exercise directions, dated September 1998).
Part of my adaptation of “The Meaning of Home” exercise is to give participants strips of colored paper (the size of a large bookmark), crayons, colored markers and pencils, and I ask them to write or draw (or both) their most essential ingredient—or essence—of home. And, if participants agree, I add their responses to a growing public art project I’ve named The Blue Tarp Tapestry. This is part of my ongoing digital humanities transmedia project, Soul Stories: Voices from the Margins, funded, in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the University of Washington Simpson Center for the Humanities, Jack Straw Productions, and 4Culture. (A special thanks to all of these.)
I highlight some of the participant responses here and today because they are especially pertinent to the season, the climate of our country, and the sort of community that people in Seattle seem to desire: safe, diverse, compassionate. Their responses also highlight the fact that, unfortunately for too many people, home is not a safe and cozy place. The photo above is a weaving I made out of responses to “The Meaning of Home” exercise. The photos in the slideshow below are some of the responses from recent workshops.
A few weeks ago I was asked to participate in a University of Washington Health Sciences fall kick-off event focusing on homelessness and health. This is, of course, where I work, and I was being asked specifically because they chose my medical memoir, Catching Homelessness, as the Health Sciences Common Book for Academic Year 2016/17. That is both an honor and a responsibility that I take seriously. So when they asked me to do a reading from my book for the event, I agreed. Then, the event organizer asked me to read a section of my book specific to the lived experience of homelessness. I decided to read a few passages from the pivotal chapter titled “Catching Homelessness,” about the time I had spiraled into a deep, dark depression that almost took my life. “Okay, sure, I can do this,” I thought to myself as I prepared for the talk.
It is one thing to write about some of one’s rawest, excruciating, and stigmatizing life events. It’s another thing to share that writing in a book that is published and read by people, including by many of my students and colleagues. But—as I discovered—it is altogether a thing in a different league to read passages about those events out loud in a crowded university auditorium.
I managed to make it through my reading without falling apart, but the next morning I wrote in my journal: “It went okay, but was a bit odd. Almost like I was some sort of display of homelessness trotted out for the students like a case study patient in medical Grand Rounds. It was really strange to just dive headfirst into the book—rip my chest open—read a few passages from when I was hitting bottom, lying on an old cot in a storage shed.”
It felt unkind to myself and unethical when I reflected on it later. Even though I tried to give my reading some semblance of a context, it ended up just feeling as if I had done a flashing freak show. Lesson learned: trust my instincts and my professional training as a writer and not be persuaded to read anything that emotionally raw.
But it also made me reflect on why as a society we seem to demand that sort of voyeuristic display. And it drew me back to a review of some of my favorite ethical guidelines on storytelling, such as these for digital storytelling on the Story Center website under “Ethical Practice in Digital Storytelling.” And here is an excellent overview by Kelsen Caldwell (formerly in the University of Washington School of Medicine, Health Sciences Service Learning and Advocacy group) of ethical considerations of storytelling in health advocacy work with communities: “The Ethics of Storytelling.”
I thought through some of these complex ethical and personal issues about the process of sharing my personal story of homelessness this past summer when I made my “Homeless Professor” digital storytelling video. It utilizes an excerpt/adaptation from Catching Homelessness and is linked here. And here is one of my favorite DS videos about homelessness by Wayne Richard: “Sofas.”
In addition to the DS videos linked above, here is a list of what I consider to be positive uses of narrative advocacy on health and homelessness—and yes, I am certainly biased in favor of the positive attributes of the first three:
- Catching Homelessness: A Nurse’s Story of Falling Through the Safety Net
- Soul Stories: Voices from the Margins
- Skid Road: The Intersection of Health and Homelessness
- Facing Homelessness
- National Health Care for the Homeless Council’s “Health Care for the Homeless Stories” series
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.
When people discover that I have not only worked with homeless people for the past thirty years but have also experienced homelessness as a young adult, the number one question they ask me is, “So what should I do when I see a homeless person on the streets—what can I possibly do to help?” In fact, while working today at the University of Washington, a longtime and well-known health journalist asked me this question. So, for her, and for all the other well-intentioned people out there with the same or similar questions, here is my list of “Simple things you can do to help the homeless” followed by a list of my favorite resources for finding out more about homelessness:
- Respond with a smile and a kind word—even if it is “No—sorry” when you are asked for a handout for coffee, a meal, or spare change. There’s nothing worse than for a person to be ignored.
- Carry fast-food restaurant certificates and flyers with local resources to give to the homeless when they ask for food or money.
- Buy Real Change or whatever your local homelessness/poverty issues newspaper is—if there is one in your area.
- Support an agency that provides services to the homeless, especially agencies that also work on upstream solutions to preventing homelessness, such as low-income housing or job-training programs. An example is Habitat for Humanity, whose vision is of a world where everyone has a decent place to live.
- Be informed and become an advocate for local community solutions to homelessness and poverty, as well as state, national, and international ones.
- Consider joining advocacy organizations, such as the National Low Income Housing Coalition.
The following organizations are all well-respected sources of up-to-date information and resources for individuals, groups, and communities to learn more about homelessness and what to do about it.
- National Alliance to End Homelessness
- National Center on Family Homelessness
- National Coalition for the Homeless
- National Low Income Housing Coalition
- National Health Care for the Homeless Council
- Homeless Resource Center/US Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration
I personally do not give money to anyone asking for spare change. That is a choice I make, not because I am concerned people will use the money for drugs, alcohol, tobacco or anything else I may consider unhealthy choices, but because I have decided to use my money to support agencies I know and work with and which provide direct services as well as advocacy. I do make sure that I try to make eye contact and say a polite, “No, I’m sorry, I can’t” whenever anyone asks me for money. And I do intervene nicely but firmly whenever I witness someone belittling a homeless person with derogatory comments like “Just get a job!” Such aggressive, judgmental comments should not be tolerated in a civil society.
Note: the list of resources and “Simple things you can do to help the homeless” is adapted from my forthcoming medical memoir, Catching Homelessness: A Nurse’s Story of Falling Through the Safety Net (Berkeley: She Writes Press, August 9, 2016).