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Wednesday, January 28, 2009

It's OK to Be Homeless!

Having just read one of the most tragic news reports --- a Los Angeles-area couple decided to kill themselves and their five children because of fears over job loss and homelessness --- I must tell you that homelessness, while certainly not everything a person could want, is wonderfully freeing.

One needs very little, outside of a cell phone, a vehicle, and some money to keep it rolling. A cell phone is absolutely necessary for staying safely on the road and in contact with friends and family. Family can sometimes be too far away, as in my case, so one of my best pieces of advice to anyone homeless is "Make friends." They do not need to fit the best-friend category, either. Just make a point of saying hello to others and being open to whomever approachs you. The idea here is to stay connected.

One of my dearest new friends is Bob. I was a newcomer to homelessness when Bob approached my truck. I rolled up the window and locked the door because Bob stares while he is walking toward you and appears not to blink. Ever. I was a little frightened, but Bob planted himself right next to the door and spoke through the glass like nothing was the matter.

"Well, what do you think? I shaved off my mustache."

Bob speaks in a western idiom, delivering slow, deliberate stress to key words, like John Wayne. He was obviously proud of his new look, and his question had the innocent appeal of a child. I got the impression, too, that Bob was not going to move until I responded. Having known Bob for almost a year now, I can say he would have stood there, in that same spot, talking to himself, answering his own questions, had I decided to back the truck out and leave.

"Yes, that looks nice."

"I see you out here. My name's Bob . . ."

And that is how our friendship started. I love Bob, though in a way quite unexpected. Living alone and homeless, one has countless hours to ponder life, how things happen, or don't, why things happen, or don't. I have had some very low days when all the weight of my losses in the past few years have visited and nagged me into deep sorrow. Then, somehow, Bob shows up and starts talking. Quite out of the blue. And Bob talks and talks and sometimes repeats himself in this John-Wayne voice. He can be struck funny all of a sudden and take me with him on a wave of laugher.

I have been endlessly amused by Bob, and I have come to believe he is a personal blessing upon my own little life. He has helped me make peace with God after so many losses that I was not sure who I was and suicide was always on the back of my mind as a possible option. I thought, were there Suicide Centers where one could volunteer as Malthusians propose, I would gladly turn myself in for lack of a reason to live and to make space for someone else. I am now able to see the virtue in persistence and riding out emotional and mental difficulty even when there is no end in sight, which, I believe, is otherwise known simply as faith.

However, I have not been without help from others. I sought help, and I urge anyone faced with tremendous losses to persist, do your best to find your way, and a way will open up. Please, do not take the first and most convenient idea that pops into your head. Allow yourself time to rest and sleep and eat whenever you need to do so. Dare to ask strangers for money if you need it. I give small amounts of money away all the time to people who ask. Do whatever it takes, but take it easy on yourself.

I am not going to tell you to think positively, which is, more than likely, impossible; but allow yourself to think magically for a while about this part of your life being only a part, not the whole and certainly not the sum. It is a very old, bumpy, dirt road, washed out in places, and it is still storming; but allow yourself to believe that this ancient road was taken by many people in the past throughout all human history. You are not alone, and, besides, someone has to do it. Someone has to walk this way and tell others about it.

Imagine, too, that this path is not for everybody because, truthfully, it isn't. Only those destined to deep understanding and compassion can walk this way. Perhaps you were chosen to walk here by the most benevolent force in the universe, picked as one of its very own. These are the kinds of thoughts I ask you to try out. They feel better than most of the thoughts you are going to have for a while, so let yourself go to sleep at night thinking about the Love that put you in this place, what that Love is, and how Love is possible. These are really the only thoughts worth spending any time with.

My friend, Bob, drinks and says he is never going to stop. He thinks about his three wives, unable to sleep at night, unless he drinks. Bob is a marginally-functional alcoholic: he works on his truck, listens to the radio, watches a tiny television, goes "canning" (the term used for picking up cans and bottles for recycling to get cash), and naps. He socializes and eats at a local church on Wednesday nights. The rest of the week he eats out of the garbage; and from what he has shown me, he eats rather well. Bob has no money unless he "cans," though he tells me he has applied for government money.

Bob has been homeless for a very long time and homeless in Mission Beach for five years. He has had trouble keeping his vehicle insured and registered and has been rousted out of parking spaces many times by the local police. Still, the police have also been kind to ignore Bob most of the time and not tow his truck when they legally could. As Bob says (in that voice), "You gotta sleep somewhere"; but the police have a set of rules to enforce and not everyone is so lucky. I will have more to say on this later.

So what should our attitude be toward Bob? Is Bob worthless because he does not work a regular job and has a limited ability to care for himself? Is Bob worthless, too, because he cannot take care of anyone else? He is worthless because he represents the wrong kind of statistic? I can tell you that Bob has great value to me, infinite and immense value, as a gift from the benevolent force of the universe; and there is no amount of money that can equal the value of this one soul --- or anyone else's. It is my hope that, as a nation and a culture, we can overcome our obsession with money and everything that it buys. I hope we can grow beyond the crudeness and obscenity of placing money over people because the truth is we are our brothers' keeper.

In the next installments, I will continue the discussion on the freedom provided by homelessness and what one needs to conduct a happy, homeless life.

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