People Have to Live Somewhere

Every single day, I commute past tent encampments for the homeless here in Seattle. When I first came out here, I found this shocking. I came from Jacksonville, Florida, and I had never seen anything quite like this. You’d think the Florida climate would be more amenable to homelessness, but no. The West Coast experiences much more of it than the East Coast does, according to most homeless counts. It disturbs me greatly that I’m getting used to the sight of these encampments. The shock is gone. The sadness remains.

I’ve got a few theories, now, as to why there’s such a difference from one coast to the other. First, of course, is that living out here is about 3 times more expensive than it is in Jacksonville. A lot more of us, here, teeter on the brink of financial ruin. Second, there are fewer places to hide such encampments. While Seattle has a much lower population than Jacksonville, it’s much more densely packed. There are not huge swaths of woods in which one can disappear. Third, I suspect we’re a good deal more tolerant out here. I know for a fact that the Jacksonville police tend to drive people out to the county line and dump them, making them continually walk the 20 or 30 odd miles back to civilization in the oppressive heat, without food or water.

That county line solution is just cruel. People have to live somewhere. Every creature on this planet does. It’s not a homeless problem. It’s a home problem. And it isn’t new.

A friend of mine shared with me this photo of Seattle’s Hooverville from the 1930’s. After reading about it on historylink.org, the amazing free online encyclopedia of Washington state history (specifically here and here), I discovered that this photo only captures about half the shantytown that existed there at the time, and there were others scattered about as well. The conditions were appalling. People built shacks out of whatever they could find. The city burned them down twice before they recognized the futility of it all. People have to live somewhere.

Incidentally, that Hooverville is not far from where Starbucks corporate headquarters now stands. Irony, anyone? And as long as REITS (Real Estate Investment Trusts) are allowed to exist, giving the richest among us the ability to make huge profits from housing, thus artificially inflating rents, this problem will only get worse.

When I get off work at 11pm, on my way home, I often see an old man with a walker standing by the stop sign at the end of my highway exit ramp. He holds a sign that says, “Homeless veteran. Please help.” The cynical side of me thinks about all the stories one hears about people making very good money through panhandling, and the stories about how some people want to be homeless. But this guy… I’ve seen him out there at midnight, in the pouring rain, in 35 degree temperatures. No financial return or lust for a freewheeling life can explain that.

The man needs help. And I feel very inadequate to the task. I couldn’t even help one person for more than a few days. And there are just so many out there. I don’t know what to do.

Sometimes I resent this man. He doesn’t let me forget. He doesn’t give me the peace to drive home to my nice house at the end of my shift and climb into my hot tub and forget.

But then I realize that he probably would like to forget, too.

Seattle Hooverville

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Pillows

Recently I wrote that I got to go to see the storytellers of Snap Judgment Live. One of them discussed his experiences with being homeless, and how it makes you do things you wouldn’t normally do, such as apply for demoralizing jobs. Amen, buddy. Been there.

But one of the aspects of homelessness that he brought up was something I had never even considered. You never have a pillow. You can’t get comfortable. Which means you can’t rest. Ever.

Wow. Even when I lived in a tent, I always had a pillow. I can’t imagine life without one. Pillows help you sleep, yes, but they also give you something to hug when you’re all alone, and something to cry into when you’re sad. They are comfort in material form. They are also the only acceptable things to punch when you’re frustrated. Unfortunately, like humans, they need a clean, stable environment in order to thrive, so they wouldn’t handle homelessness well.

Even in your darkest times, may you always have a pillow, dear reader.

pillow

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How I Live Now

There was a time, not so very long ago, when I could have told you the exact amount of cash I had in my wallet, down to the penny. I’d wake up in a cold sweat, wondering how I’d pay my bills, or what on earth I’d do if I became seriously ill with no health insurance. For most of my life, I was about one flat tire away from utter homelessness. It was exhausting.

I learned to add rice to a can of soup to make it a meal. I was the coupon queen. I wore clothes until my meager sewing skills couldn’t keep them together anymore, and then I’d replace them at the thrift store. My shoes would all but disintegrate on my feet.

For entertainment, I’d play with my dogs, or take a walk, or watch PBS. I checked out mounds of library books. I knew when all the museums and galleries were free.

I’m not saying that all the joy in life is brought about by money, but life sure has improved now that the financial pressure has eased considerably.

I still keep a tiny bit of cash on hand for emergencies, but I couldn’t tell you how much. Mostly, I sleep through the night, and while I still avoid extravagant, unnecessary bills, I don’t worry about my ability to pay the ones I do incur. My health insurance is probably better than what most people have here in America. (Which isn’t saying much.) And recently I replaced all four of my tires at once without batting an eye. (Okay, maybe I swallowed hard for a second, but there was absolutely no eye batting.)

I still don’t eat at five-star restaurants, but I actually buy organic fruits and vegetables without considering them a splurge. And if I really want something in particular to eat, I figure out a way to get it. I can’t remember the last time I even opened a can of soup. I still use coupons, but I’m not ruled by them. I still shop at thrift stores mostly, but every once in a while I’ll get myself something really nice to wear. And my shoes are in good shape.

I have a lot more fun than I used to. I can afford to get out there and engage with the world. I eat out. I see the odd movie. I pay admission fees without perspiring, and occasionally donate a little extra to museums. I still love library books, though.

Sometimes I’ll look around and wonder how I got to this place. It was a long, hard struggle. It doesn’t seem real to me. I doubt it ever will. I keep expecting to wake up to another can of soup. And I doubt I’ll ever be able to retire. Because of that, I’ll always appreciate how I live now. I’ll never take anything for granted. I’ll always feel as though I’ve taken off a pair of shoes that were two sizes too small. For now, it really feels good to wiggle my toes!

Life. It’s so fragile, so precarious. Enjoy it as much as you can, while you can.

Financial Stress.jpg

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Salvator Mundi Indeed

So, yeah, this happened: Some anonymous person paid 450 million for Salvator Mundi, a painting by Leonardo da Vinci. A painting of Jesus, Savior of the World. How outraged he would have been.

To put it in context, that’s more than the annual gross domestic product of Tonga, Micronesia, Palau and Kiribati. If it were francs, that would be more than the value of all the Jewish property confiscated in France during World War II. Just one of the World Trade Center towers, if it were still standing, would weigh 450 million kilograms. The average American will earn less than 0.25 percent of that in his or her lifetime. That many years ago, the earth was seeing the first transition from vegetable to animal life.

But here’s the statistic that upsets me the most. For 1/5th of that price, we could entirely eliminate homelessness in America. Which means we could eliminate it here, and in probably a dozen third world countries as well.

Instead, some anonymous person bought a painting. 468 square inches of canvas. That’s $961,538.46 per square inch, on a planet where 795 million people are starving, 21.3 million are refugees and half of Puerto Rico is still in the dark. If there is a hell, this person should go there.

Any civilization that allows this level of income inequality is circling the drain. There is absolutely no justification for this, and I’m saying this as a person who thinks the arts should be supported. There are limits. Or there should be. When the world deteriorates to this level, we certainly could use a savior.

The only thing that would make this situation more outrageous and insane would be if it had been a painting of Jesus expelling the money changers from the temple.

Salvator Mundi

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Your Stool is Worth HOW Much?

My doctor was running late. (Aren’t they always?) So I found myself sitting in a waiting room with nothing good to read. Out of pure desperation, I began flipping through a fashion and style magazine. I figured that would be good for a laugh, and I was right.

It never ceases to amaze me how much people are willing to spend (read: waste) to be on the cutting edge of fashion. I’m sorry, but there are really only so many ways to make pants and shirts and shoes. It’s all been done before. A famous label added to a time-honored tradition of clothing doesn’t render it superior. You can pay a fortune for clothes, unless, like me, your priorities lie elsewhere.

To a certain extent, I feel sorry for people who think “stuff” is important. I inwardly chuckle at people who say, “He who has the most toys wins.” Actually, no. He who has the most toys has less money to spend on life experiences.

Life experience. That’s what’s really valuable. Making memories with people that you love. Seeing new places. Doing new things. Learning. Helping others. Making the world a better place. These things may not take up space in your closet, but they are priceless.

Stuff, on the other hand, wears out, gets outgrown, falls out of favor, takes up space, and will become one more thing to add to the Goodwill bag when the people who survive you are left with the unpleasant task of sorting through your mounds of crap.

While skimming that magazine, I was thinking that I pity those people with their priorities skewed toward accumulation. But then I flipped the page and saw an advertisement for a 3 footed stool. Granted, it was a beautiful stool, but it costs $1,900.00.

That’s when I nearly lost it, right there in the waiting room. In what world must you be living that you think a foot stool is worth throwing away 1,900 US dollars to obtain? It’s. A. Stool. A stool! Come on, people!

How can you be that selfish? How can you buy a stool like that when people are sleeping in the streets? How can you say to yourself, “I know that many children only avoid total starvation because they participate in a school lunch program, but hey, I need a stool.”

And when all is said and done, that stool will wind up in the same place your other stool does: in a landfill somewhere. Let’s face it: you can’t take it with you. That’s all stuff is, really: garbage that just hasn’t reached its final destination yet.

Wake up, people. Please. I’m begging you.

stool

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What Makes You So Special?

One night at the end of December, I went with a neighbor and her son to a tent city to feed the homeless. It is within walking distance of my house, but it’s hidden so well that I never noticed it before. And it’s an amazing place.

First of all, it’s not some conglomeration of drug addicts and the mentally ill. This is a family place. Children were running everywhere. It’s a community with a security tent, a communal storage area and kitchen, and even a place to gather to watch movies and have meetings. It’s not the ideal place to live, by any means, but if you’re down on your luck and have limited options, it’s much better than many of the available alternatives.

Aside from my neighbor, I didn’t know any of the other volunteers who had gathered to bring food on this bitterly cold night. And that made the experience all the more interesting, because in most cases, I could not distinguish the residents from the volunteers. What a concept.

These were good people, just like you or me. Most of them have jobs. They have the love of family. They are doing the best they can with whatever unfortunate cards they have been dealt. Having spent part of my childhood living in a tent, I know what that’s like. And I know how frustrating it is to have people make assumptions about you based on that tent.

And yet, through it all, they remain grateful. One charming gentleman said to me, “You know, they say that if you do good things at the beginning of the year, it sets the tone for the rest of the year. So if you are being this kind at the very end of the year, I would have loved to be around at the beginning of the year to see what you were doing then.”

That brought tears to my eyes.

At the end of the evening I went back to my warm house with my fully stocked refrigerator and my empty guest room, and I felt really, really guilty. What makes me so special that I get to spend this cold night with a solid roof over my head? What sets me apart from those people, shivering in their tents?

The answer is: nothing. Not a thing.

And that’s something we should all think about.

tent

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Empathy vs. Boundaries

The other day, in advance of what was expected to be a catastrophic storm, I saw a woman standing on the sidewalk on the south end of my bridge. She was moaning quietly to herself, and rocking back and forth. I was coming back from doing some maintenance nearby, and was due to walk right past her.

This put me on the horns of a moral dilemma. Everyone should have been taking shelter at this point. And clearly this woman was in distress. But we have a history, this woman and I.

Due to the tragic underfunding of mental health services in this country in general, and in this state and city in particular, more and more mentally ill people roam our streets. And for some reason they often are attracted to our drawbridges. This woman is one of our regulars.

We call her the suitcase lady, because usually she has two large, unwieldy suitcases in tow. Oddly, this day they were not in evidence. But she was. And she scares me. She has cursed me like a sailor in the past, and lunged at me. I had strong reason to believe she wouldn’t welcome any offer of assistance from me.

So I walked on by, giving her the widest possible berth. And then I went into my warm, dry tower. And I watched her from the window as the rain continued to fall on her ragged raincoat.

What to do. Should I call 911? I’ve done it before. Several times. They have made it abundantly clear that such calls are not appreciated. She was not breaking any laws. And while she may pose a danger to herself, she is just one of the thousands who wander around Seattle, posing a danger “only” to themselves every day. Usually by the time the police get around to responding, the person in question has moved on. I suspect that’s intentional.

While I was contemplating my next move, a jogger came by and stopped to talk to the lady. They talked for quite some time. Then the jogger put her arm around the woman and they walked together off the bridge. I’ll probably never know what happened next. I hope it ended well for all concerned.

So which of us did the right thing? Me, or the jogger? I struggle with this on a daily basis. I can’t shake the feeling that perhaps both of us got it wrong. Surely there must be a point where compassion and self-protection can intersect in a healthy way. But how does one find that point?

I would love to be able to save the world, but it’s also important to set boundaries. I’m pretty much all I have these days. It would be foolish to put my life at risk. But I ache for the human condition. I feel helpless to hold back the tide. I want to make a difference. I just don’t want to die trying.

boundaries

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