Sunday, September 28, 2003
Question of Perception
Perception: something rarely thought of, but often used.
What is your perception of a man walking the streets at night, tired, depressed, ragged looking? What's your perception of a former mental health patient? Or a clean, wise, helpful man who happens to be homeless? Is there a difference between these people?
Before you say "he wanted to be homeless" or "we don't have a problem with homelessness here," read about my experience as well as some of what people who either live or have lived homeless have to say about these matters.
Hitting the Streets
Instead of living the life of students attending a small college located in a rural Vermont community, four other classmates and myself ventured into the state's Capital City to experience a night out on the street one cold Friday evening during the month of April this year (2003).
Bumping along dirt roads, the five of us headed for Montpelier: Alyssa, with long blond hair caressing her stylish, 70's era clothing. Susan, wearing black hiking boots, with medium length brown hair in a messy bun. Marie, with short blond wavy hair, who was wearing hiking boots and a knit wool sweater with a large white daisy on it. Somewhat better prepared for a long cold night was Bill in his clunky leather logger boots, wool jacket and stained green John Deere cap. Myself, wearing a free pair of sneakers just a little too small, light loose jeans from Goodwill and an ancient red and black plaid wool jacket, my brown shoulder length dreadlocks topping it off.
As a group of seniors setting out to complete the community service hours required to graduate from Sterling College, this was one of the last group activities we were going to do together.
Pushing the old wooden door open and stepping onto the well-worn crushed rug, we entered the Another Way Drop-in Center for the Friday night community meal.
The air was thick and warm; drawings and paintings covered the hidden walls and windows. Within the cramped interior, there were several couches pushed up against the walls and being shared by many people.
Just inside the entry way were heaps of scalloped potatoes -- yellow with cheese, meat loaf, overcooked noodle salad, white and brown sliced bread, and salad complete with a variety of dressings.
About twenty-five people had shown up for the free weekly dinner, ranging from families with babies, to single men and women.
Easing into the atmosphere, I helped myself to some food. The five of us huddled together within the close quarters and shared a sunken couch while we ate our meal.
Old Fashioned Learn-In
Once much of the crowd cleared out we engaged in conversations and discussions with people who have been or currently are homeless or are current or former mental health patients. This lasted an intensive five hours (*See notes from Another Way below*).
During the final two hours of our stay at the drop-in that evening, Morgan, a friendly and open man, who has lived homeless off and on in many of its different forms for nearly 30 of his 47 years, acted as our guide for the experience. He explained some of the things learned from his experiences of living homeless on the streets and shared some of his survival methods.
Lesson one, hang around someone's place and soak up the warmth as long as you can during cold nights. Lesson two, buy a cup of coffee only costing a dollar at the all night place in the city, renting a seat with in order to warm up, rest and relax for an hour or so. These were just a couple of the many survival skills we were provided.
Later into the evening, after the other remaining people had left, Morgan provoked me to bum a dollar from him. I had been penniless and could not buy that one-cup of coffee to save my toes from frostbite. In fact I only possessed a water bottle, wool jacket, vest and rain jacket.
At first refusing to bum off a homeless man, he persisted until I asked for it. "It's all a part of the experience," he said, smiling with his round clean-shaven face and clean cloths. Morgan never struck me as being either homeless or a former mental heath patient.
Night Out on the Streets
After numerous warnings from Morgan about what to be aware of as well as watchful for, we reassured him that we could take to the street without him. Closing the screen door behind us, we set out to find a place to spend the evening.
Not wanting to attract attention during the late night, we made our way down the empty streets to the middle of downtown. Contemplating rooftops, information booths, small dark corners in between buildings and porches, we hid under a bridge by the big river.
Nestling on the sandy banks, trying to avoid the aftermath left behind from the former roosting areas of pigeons, we listened to the flowing waters of the river run by. It was a bit of a relief not to find anyone under the bridge, but after a few minutes we understood why.
Feeling out in the open as we gazed across Route 2, having heard cars bump overhead and seeing three police cruisers slowly drive by, we quickly climbed back up the banks and onto the street hoping nobody saw us.
Early in the morning tired and feeling out of place, we strolled down the yellow-lit streets and past the closed shops. 'They couldn't kick us off the streets, could they?' -- I wondered. I felt as if I belonged elsewhere, someplace where I would not be intruding on other people's space. This started to create a longing within me to be hidden from view. It began to drizzle. Time began to click by faster, we had to find a place to stay, and fast.
As it seemed there was no other choice, we decided to go into the City Park and risk trespassing. Walking the paved road heading up the steep hill toward the park and a place to stay, it felt like the rest of the night would be a piece of cake. We all seemed to feel better as we started talking about petty things and began enjoying the night out.
Working our calves and wearing our soles on the pavement, Marie piped up to remind us to be quiet, so we would not be reported for entering the park. That put an end to all conversations. I wondered what happened to freedom and public space? There was not even a toilet for us to use.
It started to drizzle harder, so I pulled my rain jacket from my tiny pack as we passed under the light of a lamppost. Approaching the end of the road just before the park gate, almost free after seeing no one, headlights beamed across the treetops and started stretching downward, faster and faster.
Like a herd of spooked prey animals, we dove off the side of the road into a pile of dumped garbage. Slipping on wet leaves, I fell onto my back, lying still and quiet as a grouse before it flushes. Rain penetrated my clothing as I lay there.
Listening, the car pulled in and was turned off. A door opened, then slammed shut; I tried to read our predator's movements. The rain stung me and filled my ears, as my chest deeply pulled in air. Silence. Whoever it was, had gone. There were no confrontations with the protectors of the people, yet.
Hesitantly leaving our places on the garbage pile, we slipped into the park unnoticed. Walking along the dirt road in the dark, I avoided puddles and thick mud that pulled prints off the soles of my footwear.
Wet and Cold
In the park, up a little hill just above a clearing, there lay an open shelter with two dry picnic tables underneath and a cement floor. It had started to get colder as the night went on and we were wet.
Drawing the picnic tables together we laid down for the night, my bed being the combined seats from where the tables joined. Bill grabbed newspapers from his pack that he had picked up at the information center and stuffed them down his jacket for added warmth. Laughing, we settled down to sleep.
About an hour or more later though, I awoke from the cold. Picnic tables on top of cement in early April just are not warm enough. My shivering and moving around woke everyone else from their light sleep. Making a skirt from a garbage bag and stuffing my vest with newspapers, I began to warm up a little.
Second Stage Hypothermia
We settled down again, this time Marie and I used each other for warmth. A little while later Marie, who had not slept at all, woke me with her shivering. She was in the second stages of hypothermia.
Leaving the picnic table, we went out to the field to run around and warm up. Swish, swish, swish, the plastic bag and newspapers sang with my movement. Up and down the hill we ran, round and round in circles, running nowhere.
We looked like lunatics, so I carried it farther and pretended to be an airplane. The plastic bag sucked to the front of my legs as I ran forward, arms spread. We could have been locked up, right there, if we had been spotted.
Sleep became hopeless with the damp cold. The night seemed to carry on forever. Half asleep we sat and leaned on each other drowsily, waiting for the sun to come up. The church bells rang, and the sun was starting to rise.
Emptying our jackets and pants of the insulating newspapers, anxiety flew over the group and we left the outdoor shelter hoping that the morning runners would not spot us.
Renting Space, Buying Time
With the city still mostly empty and quiet, we sat down at a diner and bought coffee to warm up with for a little while. By the looks of it there was another man doing the same thing. An hour went by as we slowly sipped our coffee, lounging on cushioned seats by a big window overlooking the street.
Our hands were soiled with earth and we smelled like we had been out all night. Due to my energy reserves being drained, I was nearly falling asleep. Still feeling cold and wet, I left my jacket and vest on while we sat inside. We all looked like zombies.
Being hungry, we walked to the grocery store to buy cheap food. Wandering the isles, we picked up a bag of bagels and some cheese to go with it, paid for with what money we had either bummed or had remaining. We stood out by the front doors of the store and filled our stomachs.
Killing even more time, we went for a walk on the railroad tracks and around the city. A ceremony was taking place on the lawn of the State House, so we went over and sat on the large steps.
Early Morning Sunshine:
The sun brought life back into me, while Bill and I talked, dreaming about New Mexico for an hour or more. Scott our van driver would be back in Montpelier shortly, so we decided to find and show him the Another Way Drop-in Center. Morgan would probably like to know if we made it through the night too.
The old couches scattered throughout the building seemed very inviting that warm sunny day. I immediately helped myself to a couch and stretched out. We all crashed, but also shared our stories of the night with Morgan and Scott, things like the newspapers, picnic tables, and rain.
Sleeping in the van on the way back to school did not end the story or experience for me. Walking onto campus, students seemed very lively and active. Students wanted me to give the five-second answer to how the night went; I found it pointless as I crawled off to my room to sleep the afternoon away.
By dinnertime I still had not recuperated. In fact it took me all weekend to become a college student once again.
In the state I was in, there was no way I could have thought about schoolwork or being productive. I was trapped in my body, while everyone else seemed to be living a joyful and meaningful life.
How could people be so happy and lively while I lay ragged and weak? It made me feel angry and hurt. I had spent plenty of nights sleeping in the woods, in snow shelters, at high altitude. None of which made me feel like trash, or something to sweep under the rug, like sleeping out in the city had.
It was obvious to me that I needed help and support. Yet people just did not appear to understand, nor care. Their perceptions and opinions put a divider between us.
So this is what it feels like for someone in need when they are ignored and their attempts in seeking assistance and support go unheeded and unmet. Disgusting.
*Notes from Another Way*:
Another Way is all about having a place to seek and share hope, support and mutual respect.
Another Way, a drop-in center located within walking distance of downtown Montpelier, provides support, peer counseling, a weekly Friday evening community meal, arts and crafts, and crisis intervention for people who have or have had psychiatric labels and/or emotional problems.
In addition, Another Way also functions as a daytime shelter for those who are homeless and whom also have or have had psychiatric labels and/or emotional problems.
The drop-in center is staffed, run and operated by current and former psychiatric patients as well as others who are either currently using or have formerly used our drop-in center, becoming part of the support group.
Ways homelessness starts: people running away from something; low incomes, disabilities, losing their job, kids kicked out of their home, alienated from their families, battered women.
When you are homeless: you are helpless and in constant stress, you have no stability, no place to hang out or any private space. You are judged, observed, not treated equality, and are framed as being crazy and dangerous. You have low self-value, feel vulnerable, used, abused, as if you were a game animal with no protection, which then can create adverse mental or emotional conditions.
At shelters you must share space with junkies, drunks, anti-social and emotionally deprived people. Shelters are dangerous, and violent. Rather than staying in a shelter and in order to preserve one's sense of self, people stay in cars, crash with friends ("couch surfing") or otherwise stay in the woods or on the streets somewhere. Without assistance from the government, housing can cost up to 3/4, or even all, of your income.
To help end involuntary homelessness, people's needs include: training, jobs, livable income, affordable housing and natural relationships (social connections, grandparents, children, and adults ... community) to (re)gain and maintain a sense of self-worth.
More notes and quotes from conversations with people who either are living or have lived homeless or are current or former mental health patients:
"All evil comes from weakness. The government acts like the Christian church, which encourages fear. Leaders get people attracted to power; the message is then lost ... similar to the church. Leaders, or people at the top of the mountain can see clearer than people lower down the mountain with less of a view. Rich people with money that can buy TV time, advertisements that gain credibility with the public. We are becoming what we once were, a plutocracy, we need to be a democracy. In our society we focus on negativity with makes a reinforcing feedback loop. Plutocracy comes from a lot of people (who feel powerless) and a world economy."
"To stop an abusive father don't tell him he is hurting his family, tell him that he is hurting himself. Because his family will leave him and he will loose the power he was getting from being abusive. Bullies need to be confronted."
"We are not obligated to listen to free speech."
"You or I cannot change the world, because we don't understand or know the circumstances or people of every part of the world. We cannot speak for others. We can only change local things where we have contact with the problem. We need to talk to the people!! What is their point of view? Only the people of Iraq know if they are being liberated."
"Mental health agencies practice power by pushing drugs. Drugs only help people for a short time and do not solve the problem only a symptom. The drugs are used to calm people, make them docile, dismantle them and make them an inanimate object, which does not cause any trouble. People have received shock treatment (which is still being used today) until they were normal, for example: no longer Jewish, or vegetarian."
"People that have been accused of being dangerous, crazy and need to be locked up loose all their rights. It's similar to being accused of being a witch. Even people that buy from the Salvation Army have been accused of being abnormal."
Horizontal cliques: people all the same age create a weak society, much like ours today.
Horizontal and vertical social relationships i.e. Grandparents, children, adults, working together create a strong fabric/society, which is what we do need.
We have a horizontal society were children are put in schools with the same age group and elderly people are hidden in elderly homes.
"If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time ... But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together." -- Lilla Watson, A Brisbane, Australian based Aboriginal educator and activist
Author's Note: *Please share this entire essay and the accompanying notes, as is, with other people. Help build a sustainable society and system. The time to act is now.*
VHJ Editor's Note: Updated several items within this particular post involving minor edits and corrections for the purposes of clarification only: Last updated on Friday, October 3, 2003 at 1:45 PM [ET]. -- MWB