Monday, May 15, 2017

My Job as a person with Lived Experience

May 14, 2017
The homeless community is diverse and I do not represent every person who is homeless. Many don't know who I am, or ignore me. Some seem hostile towards me. And I do not impose my curiosity on anyone. I listen to those who seem to need a listener. I help those who reveal their need to me. I try to be the friend of anyone who needs a friend. But that is how they help me. I learn from and am educated by the homeless and the near homeless. They strain my credulity and challenge my sense of humanity. They explain vulnerability, pain, misanthropy, anger, cynicism, love, generosity, and sociopathy, to me. I have learned about the special vulnerability of being a woman.
What I do for the homeless and the impoverished – as the boundary is barely visible – is speak truth to power. Being homeless can be a trap. Being poor and being uneducated are traps. Being without work is a trap. Being disabled can be a death sentence. Having a mental illness is made 10 or 100 times worse by homelessness. Being an ex-con is a trap. Living in a camp makes alcoholics drink more, invites addicts to shoot more, opportunes socio-paths to use others and take what is not theirs. Living in a shelter may be little safer, and then much more constrained, and therefore an assault on the dignity of the person for whom the rules are not intended. For some, bad luck brought them down, and good luck helps them to rise again. For most – the tenure of the unlucky homeless is usually short – homelessness is just one of their traps. My job is to understand these traps and argue for ways to unlock them. My job is to learn how to escape these traps, and try to help as many people, as I can, to escape them.
I have a life-long history as an activist. Not to say I have moved any mountains, but I have stood beside Nuclear Freeze protesters, circled with objectors to the nuclear submarines in Groton Connecticut, made plans and friends among Occupiers, taught English to Migrant workers, and now I bring the lived experience of homelessness to the Continuum of Care in the Chittenden County Homeless Alliance. But working for the homeless is different – I am not on the outside trying to make plain the wrongness of public policy to those whose choices are already forged in steel. I am invited to work from the inside, I am asked to share personal knowledge of homelessness, and to remind the gathered of the humanity of those whose lives we discuss.
There is among those who embrace the goal of ending homelessness the idea that if we have enough housing the problem will be solved. But enough housing does not remedy childhood trauma or aging out of foster care, and the mental illness that follows, it does not give a job to an ex-con who wants to do the right thing, it doesn't end violence against women, it doesn't get health care for everyone who needs it, and it doesn't provide recovery for those who need it! And even if providing enough housing ought to improve the lives of those who are precariously housed, or un-housed, housing doesn't correct the structural flaws in our economy which makes having and keeping a home, and a job, staying healthy and whole, and staying out of trouble, so difficult.
So really we are not talking about homelessness. We are discussing poverty, wealth inequality, privilege, and the opportunity gap. We are mulling racism, misogyny and bigotry, the internalized hatreds that forms as people try to explain their misery to themselves. We are alluding to the broken promise of wealth as a source of meaning. If we think we can shut down our operations on the day that the last camp is cleaned up for good, that the shelter has no tenants, and there is no one sleeping in a doorway, we are victims of our own privilege.
Homelessness is just the convenient label of the moment for the most obvious sign that life is dukkah, that we all fall and all are made of flesh and feel pain, that every one of us needs the infrastructure of community to survive, and that homelessness is eternal. Homelessness is a metaphor for the mortal terror which we keep at bay only with the help of loving friends, family and community. There will always be “homeless” people, because there will always be bad luck, trauma, and economic hardship. Homelessness is just the label of the moment to remind us that the best remedy to life's chaos is a a healthy community, a coherent vision of community, and a choice by the community to guarantee to everyone the opportunity to practice self care, and to share, socially, in the community which makes those choices possible.
This is my job. To remind you, the institutional actors, that our jobs are the ephemeral expressions of work that is profound, eternal, and necessary, that we are the healers of the communities in which we live, the humanizers of those whose humanity has been damaged, taken, or destroyed, the nurturers and the shamans in suits, who will, over and over again, for the remainder of all time of which humanity is conscious, work to make human society a healthy and nurturing nexus for community, family, and personal expression, for all of us.

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