Friday, May 26, 2006

Moral Development

I found another "formerly homeless" blog today. It is written by a 27 year old guy in Australia who has been on the streets since the age of six:

My thoughts about human intent have been a great catalyst for personal change. I believe in the "general goodness" of the human heart. I can't zero in on when this idea occurred to me, but it has been a very strong and seemingly permanent belief of mine. I'm not alone in thinking that every human has a basic good intention at heart-- it has been called "Moral Development." Now, I'm not a philosophy scholar, so I won't give you a reading list, but I will say that faith in human intent could be argued as one of the building blocks of society. If you want an expanded description of Moral Development complete with big words and tricky sentences, try this link:

To link this idea to my personal changes, let me begin with the premise:

"Everybody is doing the best they can to help others at every single point in their life."

I know, it seems a little extreme when I put it like that. After all, when we are hanging out on the beach, thinking about sex or sunshine, how can we say that we are helping anybody but ourselves? Furthermore, there have been several historical figures who have seemingly convinced us that human evil is not only possible, but common. I offer no proof that humans are incapable of evil, and many examples that people have given me in debates about this idea have seemed daunting. Nevertheless, I believe. I see the possibility that when we are seemingly self-indulgent, we could be resting on the beach to cope with the difficulties of helping people all day long. This "coping" could be part of some cycle of tension and release: Help and back off, help and back off. I look at all the atrocities that have been carried out by cult leaders, dictators, and sociopaths, and I can honestly see how these people could create a Machiavellian excuse for their actions. I think on a very deep level that a seemingly-evil dictator who has attempted genocide believes that more lives will be saved or enhanced by his/her actions (hmmmm... female dictators... oh nevermind). Like I said, I can't prove humans are good, I just believe it.

Now, if you take this basic belief and apply it to a person facing extreme poverty, abuse, and/or homelessness, it's easy to see how having a positive view of humanity is helpful. Because I believe in general good intent, I can forgive my mother, I can understand the people who passed me by on the street corner, and I can feel positive about my future. This is not to say that I haven't had doubts, or felt disillusioned by people (we certainly do some stupid shit sometimes). I think the key is to have an overall positive outlook, and look for a benevolent reason why people cause harm to others. It seems to me that my life is more "on track" when I am enamored with humankind. At the lowest points in my life on the street, I was bitter and angry with "all the fools of the world," and even more angry with myself.

Self-doubt and doubt of humanity are intrinsically tied together. Those who are the most critical of humans have to include themselves in the mix, unfortunately. Ironically, people who espouse that humans have "evil" or "sinful" nature are making the point for the purpose of teaching others it seems, which is quite a contradiction(I see teaching as a benevolent action). I think we all move through phases of doubt and pessimism, but even at those moments, we are still trying to teach, and help others. For me it is just so much easier to admit that I love people, and accept my inner Barney.

Perhaps my positive slant is merely a coping mechanism. Perhaps all the pain I went through makes me wish that the world was better than it is, and I have deluded myself to cope with reality. As far as I can see, the origin of my belief doesn't really matter. Good gets done, and the question of why becomes less and less important.

The best counselors and helpers that I have talked to have always tried to focus on my good intentions, to help me see that I was of value. I remember one session in particular that shifted my thinking, and propelled me into action. I was ranting about how middle-class North America was so materialistic and greedy. The therapist that I was seeing asked me about my own values, and then asked "If you became rich, would you suddenly become selfish and greedy as well?" That question sat with me for a long time, and I finally came to the realization that "middle-classers" were probably not much different than me, they just had more money. By focusing on my good values, the counselor gently led me to understand that people are simply doing the best they can. They are sometimes misled, or caught up in circumstances, but they are not greedy by nature. I try to emulate this helping style when I can, because I believe that positive human intent--more importantly the awareness of it--is the key to unlocking the door of personal growth.

"Man's nature is not essentially evil. Brute nature has been known to yield to the influence of love. You must never despair of human nature."


Saturday, May 06, 2006

Systemic Homelessness

People have a natural fascination with the causes of homelessness. Nearly every pamphlet, poster, website, or policy document on homelessness takes a stab at why people become or remain homeless. Addiction, mental illness, and poverty are often blamed, along with child abuse, financial disaster, and negligent government poilicies. Every street person has their own reasons, and their own opinions about what causes homelessness, so it is not very helpful to paint the whole picture in one sweeping stroke of generalizations. While not pinning the whole thing on one donkey, I want to talk about what I will call "systemic homelessness."

Now, I am not a policy specialist; perhaps somebody has already used the term "systemic homelessness" in some other context. If so, just substitute it with something like "System-Induced Homelessness."(It's VERY important to invent your own jargon whenever you can). What I am talking about are the various social, cultural, and financial systems that we have slowly built over the centuries, and how they create "cracks" that vulnerable people can fall into. For example, a currency system prevents homeless people from aquiring food without money-- if you have no money, the system says "no soup for you." If you choose to ignore this system, you will find yourself facing the criminal justice system. We have "fashion systems" that dictate what clothes you should wear to a job interview, and cultural systems that tell us what things we should say to a prospective employer. In the movie "Trading Places," Dan Aykroyd finds himself systematically locked out of his life step by step. At the end of his journey to absolute poverty, he can't even get his hands on a razor. Every step of the way, he encounters a different system which denies him of his basic needs.

Now, I've defined a few systems above, but the systematic approach is so natural to modern society that we forget how pervasive it is. Let me give you an example: Let's say a tradesman named Fredrick lives in say, Kelowna BC, and he wants to move to Vancouver. He gets a construction contract in Vancouver, and proceeds to pack up his belongings, shipping them to a storage facility in Vancouver. He is waiting for payment from a previous contract, so he is short on cash. Fredrick expects that his bank will clear a cheque he deposited by next Monday, so he catches a greyhound bus, figuring he will stay at a youth hostel for a day or two. When he arrives, he finds every hotel, motel, and hostel that he can afford is booked. In desperation, he calls a homeless shelter, and is told that he can come over and register for the night at 8pm. When he arrives at the shelter, he is told that registration actually happens at 5pm-- the fellow who told him to come at 8pm was a new employee, and was misinformed. Fredrick is now completely homeless, at least temporarily. Ironically, the system utilized by the homeless shelter (e.g. the training system for new employees, the registration system) has been the final blow. I'm not going to analyze this story and list all the systems involved, but you can see that there are a lot of hoops for Fredrick to jump through.

Now imagine Fredrick has a mental illness, or substance addiction. Perhaps he has an issue with anger. If he breaks the window at the registration booth out of frustration, he will be carted away by the poilce and assigned a criminal record, which will make him less employable. You can easily see how systemic problems can accumulate for anybody with personal challenges. I have always had a low tolerance for application forms and clumsy systems, but when I was on the street, this dislike for systems left me paralyzed and unable to function at times. In fact, I would say I was afraid of systems, maybe because of my gypsy-like childhood. I will generalize here and say that many on the street feel the same way-- they can't deal with "the system." They are angry, frustrated, and often unable or unwilling to keep up with the complexity of modern society. Here in British Columbia, the simple process of applying for emergency social assistance has become a month long process of "pre-application screening," with plenty of application forms and paperwork to fill in. I imagine more than a few street folks just throw their hands up and do without rather than go through this crazy paperwork dance.

Hence, the really helpful street resources in my opinion are offered unconditionally, with "no questions asked." I realize that it is getting harder to offer things this way. Most community resources like soup kitchens and shelters need funding, and therefore they need to keep tallies, and provide accountability data. Liability and legal issues cause a lot of complexity as well. I guess what I am saying is that social help needs to strive for the goal of simplicity for the client. If a shelter can't be flexible enough to deal with the chaotic and non-systematic lifestyles of the street community, then the shelter needs to re-evaluate its mandate, and recommit to the goal of meeting clients where they are at. At one time, I was on the street in Calgary, and I slept at this shelter that was essentially a big room with a bunch of thin mats on the floor. You didn't have to be sober, on time, or registered to sleep there. You came in, the staff showed you your mat, and you slept--That was it. While that may seem pretty basic, it was incredibly effective, both as harm reduction, and as a launching pad for life changes. You could actually hold a basic job while staying in this shelter, because you didn't have to worry about where you were going to sleep once you got off work. I can't remember, but I think they gave you a bag lunch in the morning too. A simple plan with a simple outcome. I think these kinds of simple resources are essential as part of a community plan for dealing with homelessness. I'm not sure that every community would be willing to have places like this, however. For those who sleep on memory foam or a nice Serta every night, the idea of a mat on the floor is perhaps too brutal, but I'll tell you, it beats sleeping in a parkade because the only local shelter has only 20 or so beds. I say we should diversify our efforts to acknowledge the diversity of needs on the street. Flexibility is the key to dismantling systemic homelessness.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Homelessness and Religion

Most street people have an interesting relationship with the world's religions, because they are constantly being offered help and counsel from the local chapters of every temple imaginable. Furthermore, the homeless have a lot of issues that most religions try to answer:

"Who are we?"
"Why am I suffering so much?"
"Doesn't anybody care?"

While everybody asks these questions, the crisis of homelessness perhaps cranks up the heat a little. It's interesting how being in basic survival mode every day can still leave you enough room to be philosophical and spiritual. A lot of social workers and street outreach people would say that basic needs should be a priority; funds should go primarily to blankets, food, shelter, etc. While I agree that raw resources are important, I think the philosophical/spiritual needs are also significant, and the functional approach ignores them. Plain old secular pragmaticism is not enough, it seems.

I have shifted my opinion on religion quite a few times. At one point, I was a born-again Christian, living on the street, and trying to get all my friends to join the church. At another point, I was practicing Buddhist meditation. At other times, I was spewing atheist rhetoric about churches exploiting homeless people, and taking a Marxist "Opiate of the masses" stance on things.

At this point, I don't care where it comes from, I want people to help in whatever capacity they can. They can pick their own reasons for helping. The problem is so massive and threatening, that I find little space for my judgments about why a particular person is involved. I like the compassionate attitude that religious people try to demonstrate, and I know from my own religious experiences that they are doing what they think is right. I also believe that though each belief system has components that I may or may not agree with, they all have universal themes of compassion, humility, and courage that directly address the spiritual needs of the street person in crisis. Religion also makes a great substitute for client-centered counseling, which sadly doesn't get funded very often.

Similarly, I couldn't care less if a politician funds a new housing project because of a looming election. Most who work on the ground in homelessness solutions would be happy to take the funds. To me, it doesn't matter why you do it, and it doesn't even matter what need you are addressing, spiritual or functional. I just want you to get out there and show them you are thinking about them in some small way. The most important message that you could have sent me when I was homeless was that you noticed me. The other details are not as important as you think they are.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

My Story 1

I was looking over my previous posts, and I realized that I haven't said much about my past. I want to take some time to tell you part of my story now:

I was born into a single parent family, consisting of my Mother, my older half-sister, and me. My sister's father was a deadbeat alcoholic, and my father was a deadbeat alcoholic, so my mother took care of us with the assistance of what was then called "welfare." She was a hardcore biker lady, who frequented the worst pubs and bars. I'm talking about those places that always have grand names like "The King Edward," or the "Royal York," but smell like a bathroom, inside and out. These places always had the two doors: one for "gentlemen," and one for "ladies and escorts," a product of a long-gone era. My sister and I were the two stringy-haired kids sitting on the curb outside these holes, waiting for our mother inside. Though the image of kids waiting for their parents outside a bar would shock the modern world, back in the seventies it was somehow more acceptable. Besides, we kids knew how to make up good stories for anybody who asked us what we were doing.

My mother was "cool," in fact, she was beyond cool. She had curly black hair down to her waist, leather "bitch boots," and the finest quality leather biker jacket. She could walk into a bar she had never been in before, sit down with the a bunch of bikers, and say "What the fuck are you looking at? Buy me a beer!" She always brought home the most interesting characters: guitar players, warlocks, psychics, and poets-- all of them wearing black leather jackets. I'll talk about her life a bit more later, but it will suffice to say she was not ready to be a parent.

My sister Sherri, being nearly 3 years older, filled the gap my mother left by looking after me a lot. She was a gorgeous girl. Every school we went to immediately placed her in the number one popularity spot. Not only was she one of the best-looking girls, she was always taller, more developed, and stronger than her peers. I've read some literature about girls in poverty hitting puberty faster, and I believe it-- Sherri looked like a woman at 13. She bailed me out of more conflicts with bullies than I can count, and at certain points, I could terrorize bullies by merely mentioning her name. Sherri always knew what to do. We went hungry a lot, and she would borrow money from her richer school friends, or sneak food out of their houses. She was like any typical kid raising a kid, though: I didn't have a set bedtime, or chores. I didn't even have to brush my teeth. Sherri was my best friend, and we spent hours being just plain silly and talking about what we were going to do when we got out of this mess.

We moved a LOT. I remember going to more than 25 different elementary schools. I'm sure there were more than 25, but my memories are just a big, fuzzy mess of teachers and bits of curriculum. Of course I never finished a grade legitimately, and the schools that we attended just placed Sherri and I in the grades that we were supposed to be in, according to our ages. I don't remember my teachers from elementary at all... not a one. I can't even put a rough sketch of a face to any of them. They passed through my life like the river of social workers and cops that surrounded my family.

I'll bet you're wondering how my mother kept the courts and the system at bay, since our migration patterns were obviously damaging and one would think that my sister and I would have been placed in care after the 10th move. My mother was a master of deception, flying beneath the radar by changing welfare workers, and making up stories to every new one. She was terrified at the prospect of us kids being taken away, and she made damn sure we knew how to lie to the cops and the social workers as soon as we learned how to speak. Mostly, she hid us from the system by moving every few months, which I guess stumped the Canadian government agencies. She probably couldn't have done the same today, but I'm sure that there are a few kids that slipping through the cracks for different reasons.

So my early childhood was a blur of nomadic slum living, dotted with some really damaging neglectful behaviour on the part of my mother, and held together by my strong older sister. There is so much more, but right now I feel I have said enough...


Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Involving Healthy People

I have a problem with the gurus of the world, that is, the folks who reach a level of understanding that drives them to climb the nearest mountain and stay up there meditating for the rest of their lives. I am talking about the people who live healthy and enlightened lives, and remove themselves from those who are unhealthy. We live in a society that stresses the importance of "choosing the right people" to associate with. While I agree that we have to remove ourselves from negativity at times, I am frustrated and saddened when I see the lost souls who have exhausted all resources, and can't even get another human to talk with them for 5 minutes. All the gurus on all the mountains could be leaders, but they choose to quietly smile at the suffering world. While I admire this quality of non-attachment, and I have even strived to attain it at times, part of me still thinks we have to keep our feet in the world. Buddhists have, for example, the concept of the "bodhisattva," the person who can attain enlightenment, but will not enter nirvana by choice; he/she longs to teach others and help those who do not understand. The bodhisattva stays in the world to help others. To me, this is the ultimate in compassion. Christians also have a similar concept in "spreading the gospel." I'm sure all spiritual movements have some mention of the enlightened soul who is devoted to helping others after enlightenment. It makes sense, doesn't it? Who will teach if all the learners leave upon completion of their lessons?

Statistically speaking, if you take a random sample of 100 people in Canada, maybe 10 or 20 people will need a great deal of emotional support and resources (I'm really just guesssing here). Some of these people may have never been taught basic life skills. Maybe 10 or 20 of these people will be gifted, happy, blessed souls, and the rest are somewhere in between. It simply makes sense for the healthier folks to be supportive to the less fortunate. I think for the most part, really well-developed people help out the community... a lot of them volunteer, donate, and teach where they can. Yet there is an idea out there that nothing can be done about the suffering of humans, and that the wisest choice is an a-political, passive, and removed position on the more controversial parts of our society. Furthermore, many of the people who are "half-healthy" (if I can use this silly term) are either trying to "remove themselves from negativity," or do not believe that they are "ready" enough to help.

So you have a hundred people who are all separated from each other, when they could be digging in and connecting. On the street, people have learned to find counsellors and teachers within their own communities: one street person will emotionally support another. When I lived on the street, I saw all the roles of society carried out on a miniature level; there were "counsellors," and "preachers," "political activists," and "educators." Because the rest of society has exiled the street community, it makes do in whatever way it can. Unfortunately, the advice you receive is a little warped. "Counselling sessions" can be done over a bottle wine, and political activism might involve smashing the window of a government office(not incredibly effective). In many cases, it was just the blind leading the blind. There were a few genuine helpers who were not in crisis themselves, but they were so overwhelmed with the great need around them that they couldn't spend much time with their street clients.

We need the gurus to get off their yoga mats and befriend some struggling people, really. To me, it's part of the spiritual journey. We also need some of those average folks to admit that they are ready enough to help in some small way. Forget donating, go out and spend five minutes with somebody you would normal filter out of your life. We're all connected, so in a way, that's YOU sitting on the sidewalk needing help, and you are about to walk by and pretend you didn't see yourself.