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Observations on Homelessness

by Sheri L. Long

When you have lived on the streets long enough you lose the desire to return to the “land of the living,” so to speak. The adaptations you had to make whenever and however you left were hard won. You have disconnected from the concerns of the larger culture and been born anew into a whole other one…the culture of homelessness. What is valued is different. What is acceptable is different. The hierarchy and politics are different, as are the coping mechanisms and experiences in general. You are bound by a different set of expectations and your view comes from a perspective shared only by those who have been there. What seems to be a dream offer, an invitation to return to civilized society –a seeming no brainer to someone on the grid –is really no more desirable than the process of your previous descent. It’s just the same effort, different direction. It looks like surfing to the civilized. It looks like climbing Mount Everest to the people of the street. That doesn’t mean people really want to live on the street as their first choice. It means they have no confidence in their ability to do otherwise, to have more. Because, to many, it is a mystery how it all fell apart and came to this in the first place. I didn’t know it could happen to me. My worldview never included this scenario or anything close to it. But, no, it will take more, much more than a simple offer, no matter how shiny and sparkly, to reclaim the lost citizens of our culture. They have lost faith in the social compact and in their ability to participate in such a ruthless system. And rightly so. This itself is a deep and singular wound. Being homeless is an isolating and unique experience in the way that going to war or going to prison is an isolating and unique experience. It is not the same experience, but it is an analogous one. Think of the isolation of the masterfully inspired, those who throughout history felt like misfits relative to societal standards. Our great artists and geniuses were often vexed with some form of mental illness, the cause and/or result of being misunderstood. Those who fit perfectly into society by all appearances feel misunderstood. Magnify that feeling several times over and you will know the feeling of those who were not successful in the cultural norm, the paradigm of the many, and their sense of separation becomes palpable. No, the trinkets and trappings hold no appeal. When you lose your stuff it isn’t the stuff you miss so much…except of course the roof and the sense of sanctuary it provides. In my own experience the greatest loss is the loss of a support system, support by inclusion, that you never knew you had until it was gone. Even then it is a hard loss to articulate. And like war it is a loss that will cause you to question everything you ever thought you knew about anything – the nature of humanity, the role of the individual in society and the role of society itself. After all, what is society if it is an every-man-for-himself mentality that pervades it? It will test your faith like little else. Everything in your head that you have woken up with and walked around with - in your head – for years - will be glossed over with a coat of surreal. This is indeed a dark night of the soul because such an experience dismantles your identity and your ideas about all that surrounds you, one fiber at a time. Such weighty issues cannot be suppressed because you genuinely have more pressing matters – like survival – at hand, because every interface with culture is an event that begs these questions. This is where the relatively modern luxury of philosophy collides with the primal need for survival. Cavemen did not likely know of or pursue self actualization. But to the homeless these questions scream for contemplation at a minimum. Who, however, wants to ruminate on philosophy when they are cold, hungry or in pain? I suppose this is where many seek escape, if they hadn’t before, through drinking and drugging. Addiction and homelessness on close inspection are the age-old conundrum of the chicken and the egg. Maybe not at the level of any specific individual, but certainly at the topical level. For those resilient souls who make it to “the other side,” back to civilized society, they have answered these questions at least to their satisfaction. This comes easier to some than others....

by Sheri L. Long
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