Thursday, September 30, 2010

Homeless Culture: Freely Sharing What One Has

Once a person is homeless, they tend to be with others who are struggling with poverty issues. They will meet at soup kitchens or other services for the poor. And as sad as their story is, there are others who have more tragic stories than they. They soon realize that the poor are a community together, and if they do not stand together, they will all fall. At this point it begins to be a habit of taking whatever you have and are not currently using to give it to others. In middle class society, we have a tendency to save items because we might need it in the future. And there are some who store items (see “pack-rat mentality”) who are homeless. But if someone needs something, it is usually given freely and easily. You see the homeless asking and receiving cigarettes all the time—but this is only the tip of the iceberg. Bike parts, food, beer, information, camp sites, even sometimes one’s tent is all shared property for those in need. If there is someone in greater need, or lacking something essential, then it is freely shared.

Homeless Culture: Respecting Ingenious Survival

Survival is a necessary preoccupation on the street. So when someone comes up with an ingenious way to survive, it is praised and spoken of highly to others. A group of the homeless were honored when they developed a Hogan to live in. Back ways into abandoned houses, shelter in blackberry bushes, camping for months in the woods are all considered praiseworthy, if not always copied.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Homeless Culture: Alternative Labor

Almost without exception, the homeless are not lazy. One cannot be lazy if it is necessary to walk miles for a plate of food. While one is homeless it is very difficult to obtain a full time job even if one was able to work such a job. So the homeless instead depend, for the most part, on alternative kinds of labor. This includes recycling cans or scrap, begging for change, dumpster diving, busking, day labor through an organization or through personal contacts, or stealing. Some would say that some of these kinds of labor isn’t really work at all, but only those who haven’t done it could say so. Just like any other job, the labor might take mental exertion—like begging— and some might take physical exertion. Some might simply be disgusting, like dumpster diving, and some might be immoral, like stealing. Some may not pay much for the effort involved, like recycling cans. And different homeless do different kinds of labor, based on their gifts and moral ideals, but it is all work. There is labor involved, not leisure. No one would be doing it if what they needed were easily available to them. And some of it is really difficult work. Just alternative work.

(I want to make a point that I am not supporting stealing, nor do most homeless people accept stealing as a way of life. I am just saying that it is one example of what some think of as alternative labor, the category is accepted by almost all homeless people.)

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Homeless Culture: Respect for Hard Work

Often being homeless throws one into such a depression that there is only enough energy to survive and not more than that. Other homeless work hard to maintain whatever kind of positive life they can. Some homeless work hard so they can have a few beers at the end of the day. But pretty much without exception, all the homeless respects those who work hard and accomplish something for their work. They do not always respect those who have jobs. But they respect labor, especially manual labor. If that manual labor just means a nice camp, it is respected, even if no money comes from it. The work is enough. And the homeless might do volunteer work just for the self-respect it brings (although they would prefer to work for money).

Monday, September 27, 2010

Homeless Culture: Lack of Fear

When one lives in a certain context, then that context lacks fear. If one hears gunshots on a regular basis, then gunfire loses all power to cause fear. Even so, those not homeless are scared of living on the street and one can’t imagine how one lives that way. The homeless are scary because they are strange. When one becomes homeless they are nervous about who they will meet and the tragedies that will follow.

Eventually, one learns that homelessness is just another way to live, with its pluses and minuses like any other way to live. But there is no fear of homelessness. For many people who had been homeless and then lived back in a middle class lifestyle, they know that homelessness is always an option, if necessary, and not a frightening one. I know of one man who was homeless and then ended up in an apartment. He couldn’t afford dentures, so he became homeless a while by his own choice so he could save up for a set of dentures. When he was ready, he moved back into an apartment. It was just an option for him. I know of others who become homeless for a month or two every year because they miss the kind of choices it afforded them.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

An Explanatory Note

I just want to explain the reason for giving a description of homeless culture.

This is not in praise or condemnation of homeless culture. I am just trying to describe it. I do this so that we can better understand the cultural changes that happens to one when they become homeless. Some might have had part or all of this culture before they became homeless, but most develop it as they lived on the street over time.

I have heard many people either condemn the homeless because they are "different" from them, or other say "we are all the same." Frankly, the homeless ARE culturally different from the middle class, and if the middle class wishes to help them or condemn them, they should do it with understanding, not ignorance.

Homeless culture is simply a culture. It has good aspects and bad aspects just like every other culture. Just like middle class American white culture has good aspects and bad aspects. And we need to understand that a homeless person isn't "fixed" if they become middle class. And we also have to realize that in certain aspects they won't accept all of middle class society. And that is okay, because homeless culture has some good aspects that we should all accept as normative. And it has some aspects that traps one into homelessness.

I'm just writing this to open our eyes, a little.

Homeless Culture: Fatalism

Culturally, the homeless learn that for people who are free, they have very little control over their lives. They don’t know whether they will be woken from a sound sleep, whether their possessions will be stolen during the day, or what resources they will gain that day.

Because of this, there are two cultural consequences of living on the street. First is a certain kind of angry fatalism. That they have little control over their own lives and they feel that they should. At times this lack of control leads one to feel furious at others who one feels should provide them what they need. Thus, a homeless person might become angry at service workers or fellow homeless or God because they think that someone is ultimately in control and thus responsible for their lack.

Secondly, there is a dependence on Fate or God. Each day brings its own stresses and joys, its own lack and supply—yet somehow the homeless survive. Ultimately, there is a gratitude to life and what little is given.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Homeless Culture: Dependence

The homeless also have an equal amount of dependence on the kindness of others. One’s kind heart provides food, another provides funds, another provides clothing. The homeless soon learn that while they are free from the tyranny of middle class life, they are enslaved to the good intentions of strangers.

Homelessness is a certain kind of slavery. Because when one is unable to control the resources they need to live on—food, clothing, etc—then one must do whatever is required in order to obtain these resources. This may mean walking miles, or it may mean holding a sign indicating one’s pathetic state. It may mean humiliation or it may mean standing in a line. Or it may be listening to a sermon. Whatever is required, some will do it. Every “gift” has a price and this price eats at the “freedom” of the homeless.

Just like all life, it is a balance between freedom and tyranny. The homeless have chosen, for the most part, the tyranny of the good hearted.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Homeless Culture: Independence

There is a sense of freedom that the homeless have that no one else has. No need to pay bills, to clean up house, to deal with neighbors, to mow the lawn, to get up for work at a certain time, to deal with all the stresses that accompany daily middle class life. A few mistakenly assume that homelessness is pure freedom from responsibility—that it most certainly is not. One’s camp still must be cleaned and there are still people to deal with (in some ways more difficult people), but there is certainly less responsibility being homeless than being housed. And this freedom is frustrating at first. Freedom is, of course, a two-edged sword, for less responsibility means less control, less opportunity for self change. But it can mean a reduction of a certain kind of stress, which, over time, the homeless appreciate and cherish.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Homeless Culture: B-Type Personalities

Our society rewards those who thrive on stress. They are the ambitious, the driven, the go-getters. They are called “A” type personalities. “B” type personalities, however, tend to not be as success-driven. They are content hanging with their family and friends. But they also tend to be not as successful, and so we find that people who are chronically homeless are almost always “B” type personalities.

The same holds true with the Meyer-Briggs personality dual “J” and “P”. The “J” personality is task-oriented, not wanting to finish work on a project until it is completed. They also tend to be on time or early for appointments and scheduled events. The “P” personality is more event oriented. They tend to be late to appointments and they will end a task when their attention is drawn elsewhere, whether the task is done or not. “P”s are not as time-focused as “J”s and are more flexible about… everything.

The homeless tend to be Ps as well as B-type personalities, if only because Js and A-types have a better success rate and if they fail, they tend to get back on their feet easier and quicker. B-types and Ps are more willing to go with the flow, and though they certainly wouldn’t want to be homeless, they find themselves less motivated to do the extra effort involved in no longer being homeless.

Culturally Homeless

When someone becomes homeless, it is a tragedy, both for themselves and for society. When that person remains homeless for a long period of time, for the sake of survival, they become acculturated to their situation. At this point, homelessness is not simply a situation—tragic or otherwise—it becomes a lifestyle, and that lifestyle eventually becomes a way of looking at life. This would happen to any of us, as human beings, for we are adaptable to various environments. Even the most socially awkward and mentally ill, as long as they aren’t severely developmentally disabled, is able to handle a difficult survival situation. I have seen people who have severe schizophrenia be unable to distinguish the difference between the people in front of them and the ones in their heads, but still be able to survive in the third world context on the street.

Following this, I am going to be posting a number of characteristics of those who are chronically homeless-- homeless for at least a year. These characteristics become a part of their cultural landscape, not just a temporary response to one's circumstances, but a way of looking at life. For this reason, if one becomes homeless long term, they don't just leave it once they are off the street. Homelessness stamps them, changes their outlook permanently.

This needs to be remembered as we offer services to the homeless, especially if we are working on "ending homelessness." In the end, there is no such thing as ending homelessness. Because even if you find a chronically homeless person a home, they still have the culture of a homeless person. Some of this we may want to help change, but much of it we do not.

There should be approximately 20 characteristics of the chronically homeless. If you can't find them all, check the tag: Homeless Culture.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Poverty In the United States

From Religion News Summary at

The number of people in poverty in America increased to its highest recorded point last year, and the poverty rate rose to its highest level since 1994, according to Religion News Service. The Census Bureau released data Sept. 16 that showed the rate of poverty increasing 1.1 percentage points to 14.3 percent in 2009. A total of 43.6 million live in poverty -- the highest since recording began in 1959 -- and up from 39.8 million in 2008. Social service programs such as Catholic Charities USA are faced with the challenge of increased needs from individuals and working families, budget cuts and a decrease in individual donations. The Rev. Larry Snyder, president and CEO of Catholics Charities, said that while the statistics were staggering, they did not come as a surprise to those who work with people in poverty on a daily basis, especially after two years of recession.

The United States is not a third world country. But there is a third world country within the U.S., and it is growing.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

A Home In Gresham

Today, the East County Day Shelter Network expands. Anawim has been able to open up two more days of the day shelter, Wednesdays and Fridays. This means that the day shelter is open now five days a week!

This means showers for homeless folks in Gresham three days a week, instead of just one.

It means that the outcast in Gresham have a safe place to be five days a week.

It means that more folks from different churches have an opportunity to serve the poor.

Praise God for His provision! And we thank the Pacific Northwest Mennonite Conference for giving this opportunity!

Creating Justice

I just read an interesting discussion between Mark Dever and Jim Wallis about their differing views on justice. You can read it, here: Leadership Interview About Justice

Their perspectives are interesting. Dever, a pastor of an important congregation in D.C. says that though his faith isn't private, yet it doesn't extend to creating justice in society at large. Our responsibility, he says, is to be just in the church. Wallis, long time leader of Sojourners, disagrees. His whole life has been a reflection of Martin Luther King Jr.'s form of spirituality, which is to create justice in the church and society simultaneously by changing the whole political outlook on what justice is.

I would take a third way. I think that we should begin, as Dever says, with creating justice in the church. I don't think that the church can tell society not to be racist as long as we are not firmly confronting the racists in our own church. We cannot tell society to accept the homeless and the mentally ill as long as they are marginalized in our group.

But in confronting racism among our own, and in accepting the outcast, we will find ourselves acting. Creating justice is not a matter of speeches or opinions, but a matter of action. This is what Scripture teaches-- that justice is feeding, welcoming, healing and empowering, not just having the right ethical position. As we work for justice, we will find that justice is not found in individual action, but in community. Thus, to create justice, we will have to create just communities that include the outcast. And it is in this arena that we will find ourselves intersecting with politics.

The governmental arena and the religious arena are not and cannot be completely divided. The interests of government and religion intersect in the area of poverty and how to approach it. And, of course, the government is full of religious people whose religion informs them, although doesn't decide for them, in areas of ethics and justice. And democratic government is made up of communities. Thus, as the church creates communities of justice, they will have to interact with the government, if only to survive.