Chew on This.
You just want to take a moment and savor certain things. My woman made me a wonderful dinner the Saturday night before Easter Sunday consisting of pork loin smothered in a wonderful Marsala mushroom gravy, hand whipped polenta, seasoned roasted broccoli and freshly warmed bread rolls crunchy on the outside with gossamer soft warm centers. It was a meal so fulfilling that I did not want seconds, just that one more bite to savor. I reached over and grabbed an unfinished piece of meat off her plate, scooped up some gravy with a buttered heal of my bread roll, popped both in my mouth and very slowly masticated the mixture as I held it hostage in my mouth as long as possible before lubricating its descent with a final sip of a very sophisticated Pinot noir she had paired with dinner. It was a truly delicious moment. Some phrases are like that. They are so truly delicious that you just have to take a moment to savor them. That is just how I felt listening to a daily covid-19 briefing by Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti when he kept talking about the segment of Angelenos “experiencing homelessness.”
I thought “experiencing homelessness” was such a potent and juicy euphemistic phrase that I just wanted to take a moment and savor it; roll it around in my thoughts and mentally chew on it a while. The first time I encountered such a delicious term was when I went to work at Fairview Developmental Center to do research on self-injury. I quickly learned that the residents are called “clients” and no one is mentally retarded but instead they are “developmentally delayed.” At first I tripped over calling them clients but then I accepted it because indirectly their existence paid my salary, even though I could not bill them for the extra hours I spent reviewing their charts to participate in their individual development team meetings. I mostly had to take a moment to chew on the term developmentally delayed, especially the delayed part. I was still trying to swallow the term after nine months of doing weekly learning assessments with clients. Yes, I had one non-verbal client in the autistic spectrum who had learned to sort 241 items and could recall correct placement of any one of them at random, and then I had another client who after nine months had not learned item one. It was the second client who brought me to the realization: If we have a meeting scheduled for 12:00 noon and I call at 11:55 and said I was delayed, it would be implied that I am running late but still coming, but no matter how long I waited for that second client to learn the placement of the blue shoe, he was just not showing up mentally.
Retarded seemed so much more accurate for that client but with time the term had developed an undesirable stigma. Retarded was just like Negro had become for black people. For a while Negro was the correct term having replaced and sublimated the other “N-word” by taking it back to its Latin roots as in the Spanish negro which means black. The stigma of Negro was felt when one of three of my white college roommates told a story and referred to “a negro man” and the other two roommates’ eyes got wide and very embarrassed seeing I was standing there. I knew he had meant it respectfully because it was during his childhood that we transitioned to African American. (My birth certificate states I was born Negro to Negro parents and I did not become African American until around sixth grade). At one point Negro had dignity as in the “United Negro College Fund.” We had transitioned from “The N-word” to “Negro” to “Colored” (e.g. National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, NAACP) to African American and back to black just like my clients would transition in their lifetime from retarded to developmentally delayed to persons with developmental disabilities to now persons with mental challenges. Likewise “experiencing homelessness” seems to be a transitional term removing the stigma.
It makes it seem like something that just happens, an acceptable phase of life. It removes the stigma associated with it and the connotations of mental illness, moral deficiency and uncleanliness. It makes it seem like they are no different than people who took a trip to a national park to experience the great outdoors. As someone who has done some camping and backpacking as well as some “experiencing homelessness” I can tell you they are not the same. As for the stigma of mental illness it almost becomes a chicken or egg argument. Out on the street I became acutely aware of those elements within me that were NOT neurotypical, those reasons my mother told me, “You are not normal like the rest of the children.” It was unfortunate because interpreting social cues and non-verbal communication becomes very important out on the streets. On the other hand it was fortunate because I was put in a situation where I had to learn or die. I also discovered that “experiencing homelessness” can erode your mental state. The sleeplessness alone can destroy your sanity. First of all every night you must find a place to sleep and when you do you are awoken by random things like security guards guarding the property, fights and even the sounds of gunfire, police shining lights in your eyes or just the cold of winter. There is also the uncertainty of every night going to sleep worrying about being robbed or just randomly attacked by one of those young people on a bum-bashing binge. Other uncertainties included what you would eat, if you would eat, where you would find a restroom and where you would find a shower. The real uncertainty is in questions like, “When will this end?” “Will things ever get better?” “Will I die here tonight?” Also the scenery of experiencing homelessness is not as pleasant as the scenery of experiencing nature in a national park: During my experience I saw a couple of dead bodies on the street; I saw a few violent assaults and I narrowly escaped a few. I saw people caught up in addictions and crime age five years in 365 days. Perhaps the biggest difference between experiencing homelessness and experiencing nature on a backpacking trip is you know that eventually you will be back at home safe and warm and safe in your bed with pleasant memories at the end of your backpacking trip. Not all my memories of “experiencing homelessness” are pleasant.
What is also deliciously intriguing to me about the term “experiencing homelessness” is that it is such a succinct third person passive voice term. I worked for the government enough to know the two rules of communication: 1) There is truth, but it must be groomed for public consumption and 2) when you want to avoid either taking responsibility or assigning blame then you revert to third person passive voice using phrases like, “Mistakes were made; errors occurred.” The term experiencing homelessness does not assign responsibility to the individual or the state, absolutely deliciously passive. Even though the State of California and the Mayor’s office has been discussing doing something about the thousands of people living on the streets for years suddenly with the new term it is no longer a problem, more like a season brought on by an act of nature; people experience homelessness just like they experience sunshine or rain. On the other hand I take responsibility for the choices I made leading up to my previous homelessness: I chose to be in a relationship with a woman; when our first child was conceived I chose to marry her; during our turbulent marriage I chose to go back after three separations; When I realized that me plus her was terminally toxic I chose to separate one last time and remove myself from the equation.; after the fourth separation I chose to make the priority my children having a consistent place to live and paid their rent first before seeking shelter for myself. Out on the street I had to make the daily choice to avoid falling into the addictions and vice that I saw around me. On Friday nights I chose to hang out in the prayer chapel at the VA playing hymns badly on the piano and having my own private worship service. One night a priest came in and threw me out because he thought I was destroying the sanctification of that otherwise empty space, but I was desperately trying to establish and maintain some sanctification of my inner space.
Thus I have certain empathy for those experiencing homelessness like the woman who approached me last Saturday in the parking lot. She was clearly trying to get my attention calling out to me. Usually I would be led by the Bible verse that says give to those who would ask of you and do not turn away from people who want to borrow from you. However in this instance I did not have a cent in my pocket to give her. (I was practicing social distancing by putting all my purchases on my card and avoiding exchanging potentially contaminated currency). In that moment I had forgotten the story in the New Testament about when the disciple Peter encountered a crippled man, “lame from birth”, begging. Realizing he had no currency Peter said to him, ““Silver or gold I do not have, but what I do have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.” With that the man was healed. Even still, Saturday morning I had forgotten that the Spirit of God resided in me and that I had something to give this woman. However, this woman was persistent like the woman in the Bible story who pressed through a crowd of people just to touch the edge of Christ’s cloak. Actually in my case there was no crowd of people, and all she had to do was traverse the parking lot and catch me as I waited outside the fishing tackle shop. She approached and asked, “Can you help me? I am sick. Do you know about healing? Could you just touch me so that I would be healed?” The Bible instructs us not to swear either by heaven because it is God’s thrown nor by earth because it is God’s footstool. Nonetheless, I must testify there are times when I think God speaks in irony through the Holy Spirit. This woman had put me in the place of Jesus in that moment when I felt empty and not very Christ-like. Very awkwardly standing on the sidewalk in front of the tackle shop I put my hand on her shoulder and bowed my head to pray for her.
There is the expression, “there but for the grace of God go I” that is used as a point of view regarding the homeless. (There I said it outright, just plain homeless). I realize in retrospect there with the grace of God I went. The Bible actually says that all things work for good to those who love God and are called according to his purposes. I grew spiritually experiencing homelessness. I developed empathy and compassion while experiencing homelessness. I lived my worst nightmares and realized that God had the power to bring me through even my worst nightmare of experiencing homelessness. Even still homelessness is NOT an “experience” I recommend or would desire to repeat. I pray for myself as well as all those who are worried about how they are going to make the rent during this pandemic shutdown or even its financial aftermath, because I don’t really want anyone to have that opportunity of “experiencing homelessness.”
For those playing along with the Bible home game some references:
- The temple of God is the body of the believer (I Corinthians 6:19-20)
- Give to those who ask of you (Matthew 5:42)
- All things work together for good (Romans 8:28)
- Peter heals a lame beggar (Acts 3:1-10)
- Do not swear but just let your words be true (Matthew 5:34-37)
For more stories about how God's grace was present with me even when I was "experiencing homelessness" read Days of Elijah