“You got social security number? They own you! You got a car? They own it! You live in a house, man?! They own you!”
In his crusty dreadlocks and filthy full body sleeping bag/overalls, the young man from Kansas was adamant that no matter who you were, where you are or what you’re doing, they own you.
“Man, this cop, man, this cop screwed me over. Took my ID. Without my ID, man, I can’t go anywhere or do anything. I’m off the radar, man, a free being. You ever life free, man? No, because they own you, man, they own you.”
His friend from Fresno, California, responded. “It’s true man, the cops just up and take people’s cars. Guy was driving, they found some weed, cop steals his car and sells it on. And they took his weed. The cops are all junkies, too, man. They put you away for years for drugs, but they’re the ones selling and takin’ and all. They jack your car, take your weed, smoke that shit and you get fucked over, man! The cops in this country, they just make laws for other people, man. That’s why I got my Glock [handgun], if a cop tries to take my car, man, I’ll just take out my Glock and I’ll just be like: ‘what’re you gonna do now?'”
“Dude, then you’ve pulled a gun on a cop and you’re really fucked.” Kansas had a point.
“Yeah, but if anyone else tries to mess with me, I got my gun, man. That’s living free.”
We were sitting in the People’s Park in Berkeley, California. I joined these guys in the early afternoon after they beckoned me over. I was having a nice nap on the grass in the sun on a warm Sunday afternoon, wary of AIDs-filled needles. I thought why the hell not, whatever could happen couldn’t be worse than a cross-country Greyhound Bus Lines trip, could it?People of all variety fascinate me. Even boring people are fascinating because I just try to figure out: “why are you so dull? What happened to make you this dull?!” Same with weird people. Same with homeless. Everyone is a story to me.
These were all young guys, maybe 19 to 23. I asked the guy if he had any family. He couldn’t get an ID because he needed his birth certificate and he couldn’t get his birth certificate because it was in Kansas. If he got arrested, he’d be in limbo.
“Nah, I got a father, but nah, I ain’t got family. He ain’t gonna help me out. My birth cert is somewhere in Kansas, but I can’t go back there, I’ve got some warrants and shit. So no, I gotta stay on the road.”
This guy was desperate; he had dead eyes. He looked in bad shape. Really skinny with bad, off-coloured crooked teeth – the tell-tale signs of poor nutrition. He was in Berkeley because it never really got cold out here. He’d spent a while in Skid Row in Los Angeles, which has the highest concentration of homeless people in the US, and had come to the Bay Area to find… something. He didn’t say what. His daily routing was pretty simple. He usually just grabbed some cardboard at night and made a fresh bed after spending the day in the park or on the street asking for cash.
He got by on less than fifteen dollars a day most of the time.
There were some forty people in the People’s Park of varied age, race, sex,health and disposition. They’d left civisilised life behind them, rejected everything they were brought up, viewed the modern world with mud-tinted glasses and hated the police and other authorities with a passion. Some of them were only “visiting”, some had been for a while. There were a lot of drugs and some laughter. Some wheezed and coughed with obvious ailments. Some were there by choice, most by necessity. Cops cycled through, but usually didn’t do anything- no sense in making the locals mad.
The scrawny white kid from Fresno was only recently made homeless. He’d left home, fled and hit the road. He’d done some time in prison for drug offences. He had his gun and a small pack of clothes and sleeping gear.
He was not alone. He was one of several million.
America’s Homeless Disease
I watched all the 2008 Presidential debates from the early primaries to the network appearances and vice-presidential debates. Almost nobody mentioned the poor except John Edwards. It’s apparently a non-issue, irrelevant to the runnings of the Federal Government. At a state level and city-level, there are plenty of people doing their bit, but the majority of American politics is not done with any serious regard for the unfortunates, impoverished, homeless or transients.
In a country as rich as this it makes no sense to me that millions of people would starve or be forced to sleep on the streets.
Patrick Roche was an accountant from Chicago staying at the hostel in Portland. He was on a major roadtrip after retirement and divorce. He was a strange fellow, but very well clued in.
“This is a cold-blooded country. If you don’t have a job, you don’t have a work ethic, you aren’t an American.”
After the military, most of the federal government spends its money on social programmes. But its nowhere near enough to provide that net that stops those in Western Europe who lose their jobs and homes from falling into a pit with lubed walls. In America, thanks to millions of people losing their jobs, Tent Cities have cropped up outside major urban centres. Transients and homeless are in every city, just sort of wandering around, begging for some change, lost in a daze. They have the slow shuffle of George Romero zombies. Sometimes you really feel for them.
Every major city I’ve been in and I’ve seen twitchers and tweakers doing the brainless shuffle through the streets, oozing desperation from every unbathed pore in their body. It’s a grim sight.
According to Patrick Roche, you get used to it and stop caring. That which is familiar becomes boring and over-familiarity just leads to contempt.
Cold-blooded is right.
Comedy Is Tragedy That Happens To Other People
I’ve spoken of the horrifying pit of horribleness that is the Greyhound Bus Line. It’s a lumbering, nasty monopolistic masstransit system known for its large supply of crack addicts, methheads, weirdos, psychos, thieves and generally mentally and physically unfit people.
I find it fascinating. It’s like being trapped on a loudly vibrating metal rectangular cuboid with a random selection of the American Underclass. For example, I was on the way from San Francisco to Portland trying to fall asleep with earplugs in my ears and a bandana over my eyes. I receive a sharp slap to the back of the head. Rage filled my vision. I turned round, removed the sleep aids and asked “what the fuck?! Why did you just hit me in the head?!”
A big, unhealthy looking African-American looks at me steadily. “Yo, that wasn’t me.”
I gave him a skewed glance. He was the only one sitting there and was still looking right at me.
“I called your name. You got a phone I could borrow?”
“Why would I give you my phone after you just hit me in the head? And no, I don’t have a phone.”
He went and asked someone else.
Then, there was Salt Lake City Greyhound Station. I arrived two hours before my bus was to leave. The queue was already pretty big, with a lot of bags in front of the door and people sitting around them. To the right of the queue, in a stained red top and flab that hung below her gargantuan knees, was a miserable looking woman of some years. She gave me a sideways glance and asked in harsh tones if I worked here. I said no, but is there something I can help you with. She brightened up. She seemed to not be all there in the mind and was restless. She’d been waiting there in that same spot for ten hours, after she’d missed her earlier bus to Sacramento. She handed me a piece of paper and explained all her medical conditions. It was a doctor’s note saying she was legally blind, schizophrenic, bipolar, morbidly obese, deaf in one ear and in horrible condition in general. I felt terrible. Nobody else was dealing with her and the Greyhound staff just sort of shrugged and said she’d be there for hours but wasn’t really bothering anyone.
She couldn’t walk properly. I knelt and prayed with her, even though I was very reluctant to do so at first for obvious reasons (one being I’m a pretty strong atheist agnostic and the other being that her hands were probably disgusting). She held my hands and prayed audibly. Most of the people in the station could hear her white, Mid-West drawl recanting a prayer she was making up as she went along. I just shut my eyes and listened to her rave. She called me Brother James and claimed that I was a reborn apostle sent here to help her. In her prayer, she wailed for my soul and hoped I would accept Jesus into my heart. I wondered why those that seem to be so obviously cursed or neglected by their supposed benevolent God are the ones who have the strongest faith. I spoke to the staff at the station on her behalf and they assured me that she was getting onto the bus first. She thanked me and kissed my hands.
Then, in deep thought after the weirdness of the experience I’d just had, I sat on my bags in the line for the bus, right next to a fellow who was sleeping with his sunglasses on the hard ground. All he had with him was an overcoat and a lot of unkempt hair. He was maybe twenty five. He told me his name was Brian (I found out shortly after that he gave a different name to a rather attractive girl I spoke to later). Brian looked pretty emaciated. He had no money on him and had been on the bus for some three days.
When Brian woke up, he engaged me in conversation. His words made no sense; it was madness. Verbal nonsense. I asked bad questions to keep him going because his nonsense was bizarre and fantastic. It was a Swiss-cheese argument from a Swiss-cheese brain: full of holes and circles without any real substance other than a bit of animal fat. For some reason, he kept on reverting to tantric sex and womanhood whenever he could. He spoke quickly and was probably articulate in his earlier life, but now he just spoke incoherent babbles. I think he was on meth – his pupils were dilated like a child-imminent cervix.
The obese lady warned me about his “weasel words” and called me over with a bit of stressed panic in her voice. She needed to go to the bathroom. So I went to the staff and they lent me a chair with wheels on it. No, not a wheelchair, an actual rotating office chair. She struggled and heaved into with the grace of a beached whale, groaning and moaning in pain and discomfort. I wheeled her down the hall and told Brian to watch my bags. She tumbled like a boulder in Indian Jones into the bathroom and emerged ten minutes later smelling like a baby’s nappy. she was so fat that even if she had the stretch and reach to give a proper wipe, she’d still trap a pretty large amount of crap down there. I wheeled her back and promptly disinfected my hands with the hand wash I always carry around with me (I should note that I did this about 15 times during my experience with her). We prayed again and she let out a little tear for sweet Brother James and his kindness.
It would have been harder for me to step back and let these people suffer. I don’t normally have an opportunity to help people like that. I don’t normally accept responsibility for the well-being of strangers, but if someone is in need, I will help in anyway I can. It’s not often I get the chance to do so and I took the opportunity to help the needy purely out of my own selfish desire to feel noble and loving. If put in the same situation again, by all means I would do the exact same as I did.
I returned to Brian and tried to read. The rest of those waiting had been watching me during all my interactions. One guy later said he didn’t know why I did it. I didn’t respond because I wasn’t too sure myself.
About an hour through, Brian got up. He came back five minutes later. Something had gone wrong. He was shaking really badly. He lay down on his coat. I offered my pillow and he took it with a very shaky hand. I asked what’s up. He removed his sunglasses to reveal a massive black eye leaking fluid. Fuck. I went to work, reaching to the top of my bag and taking out my trusty first aid kit and some painkillers. I gave him my bottle of water and told him to take a seat. He was reluctant to accept help, but I convinced him I knew what I was doing and told him exactly what I was doing while I was doing and making sure he was okay with it.
He was pretty concussed. The eye was swelling up. I cleaned it with a bit of cotton and wiped it down. We used the cool end of the water bottle as ice. Then I placed some sterile gauze over the top of his eye and a wrapped a bandage over that. Then I gave him a bandana to wrap around his head to keep it all in place. It was the best I could offer. He lay down some more before getting up and walking like a zombie up and down the main corridor. I asked him if the guy who did it was still here and he said yes. I walked with him.
I returned to the beached whale of a lady. She was getting aggressive with the other passengers and loudly demanding to be let on first. She repeated herself often. I calmed her down by telling her the time and reassuring her that she was going to get back on there. Meanwhile, Brian continued to shuffle. The old lady beckoned me over and asked me to call a number for her. She said it was to some special service in Sacramento that was waiting for her. I said I couldn’t call the number, that it was too late and her story didn’t make any sense. She started to cry a bit and then tried to guilt trip me into it. I said I couldn’t and that she was being manipulative. She didn’t like that. So she asked me to pray with her again, which I did.
When the bus arrived, I had to get into my pushiest mode to make sure the staff honoured their promise to let her on first. I wheeled her out on the chair with wheels and she made her way onto the bus in considerable pain and thanked me, grateful that someone had helped her.
Brian was in a bad way. He was struggling to get up and out. He asked me to sit next to him on the bus because he was still scared. I said of course. He had my pillow around his neck and my bandana around his bandaged, nasty black eye. We got our bags in order and tried to get on the bus. The Greyhound people wouldn’t let him on. I demanded to know why, I pointed out this this guy was concussed, had no money and keeping him here would be a very bad thing indeed. I lied and said I had medical experience and that the best thing would be to get him on the bus right away and let him sleep. They threatened to kick me off, too, if I kept it up. It looked like they were going to call the police on him, apparently he’d had some complaints put to him (my opinion is that whoever punched him had also complained) and that he was not getting on that bus.
I left him there in Salt Lake City with my pillow and bandana. I wished him luck and told him he could keep them. He needed it more than I did (my neck disagreed after the 17 hour trip – pillows are very useful things for someone tall). Brian was escorted back inside, unable to properly argue his case. It probably wouldn’t have helped either – he was never going to get on that bus. I hope he made it out of there alive.
The fat woman got off in Sacramento. I have no idea what her plan was from there. She looked lost in the station. I re-boarded for San Francisco and wished her luck. She didn’t respond.
Neither of them know who I am. Neither of them will ever see me again. I treated them with dignity, but I didn’t get my back scratched in return (in fact, my back was sore as hell without my pillow on that damned bus from hell), but my karmic stock with the universe has been paying out ever since.
That Nasty Feeling of Nihilistic Social Policies
I asked myself why this would be so bad in a country that is, by many accounts, one of the most developed and progressive nations on the planet. Why would they have such a large population of starving degenerates? Why they allow something like this to go on, if not for the sake of the homeless themselves, then for the sake of those who have to deal with them or put up with them on the streets?
Some quick thoughts on the homeless problems:
1) Lack of affordable housing. I have a solution for this one. Ireland, in its waxy building phase, built too many homes – about 20% of houses are unoccupied. We have way, way too many houses and not enough people. Back before the famine, the island had 8.5 million or so. Now, there are just over 5.5 million. I say bring some homeless people over and put them up in the houses – economics be damned. The island can support more people. What we really need to do is replace the entire corrupt political class (which is most of them), borrow the Dutch government, give them five years to train and teach a whole new generation of sensible politicians, then we really shouldn’t have a problem with supporting an extra two million people – especially if they’re English speaking Americans, right?
2) Mental illness. This one angers me. If someone is mentally ill or needs care, the best solution is rarely to shove them out on the streets, punish them, starve them, give them a cynical persecution complex and prevent them from ever returning to civilised society. That’s just plain full-on dickishness. Put them in a home. Tell churches to stop building extensions and start doing some real care. Sacrifice a pool and give someone a respectable existence. The mentally ill are victims of the natural random disorder of things. Help them out. It feels good. Nations have karma, too, you know. The universe will reward!
3) Substance abuse. Tricky one, I agree, as its based on free choice to a certain extent. But look at it this way: most of the harm done by drugs is caused by the fact that they’re illegal. Hard drugs cause harm, that’s true, but then you do little other than increase the harm to the individual and to the society by treating those who want a quick rush as criminals rather than victims. Many homeless are on the streets not because they lost everything to drugs (though this is often the case, too), but rather that they were caught by the authorities and lost everything due to the illegality of the drugs. Reforming substance laws is vital to the progress of a society. End the war on drugs, end the war on personal freedom, start the amnesty with the victims of both.
4) Prisoners and military veterans. This one is harsh. Really harsh. When the government spends hundreds of thousands of dollars on you as a soldier, it teaches you how to kill but not how to live. Autonomy is not really respected by the military. Combine this with post-traumatic stress and flashbacks and the sort of soul-ripping that many soldiers go through, it’s only natural that many of them don’t have a clue how to live in the real world and just sort of wander off into the misty streets of despair. About 20% of the 30,000 suicides annually in the US are committed by veterans. With all that patriotic flag-waving and pride in the good ol’ boys protecting the narrow patch of real estate they also happened to be born in, I find it ridiculous that the militaristic pricks pushing war don’t bother with the follow up and support the troops after they get home.
According to one metric, about 1% (~3.5 million) people in the US experience homelessness in a given year. Most of it is temporary.
All of it is shameful.