24 October, 2018

Letters from Trumplandia: Invisible City, Part 3

Letters from Trumplandia
Part of outreach means we end up seeing some the same people over and over. Sometimes we don't see certain folks for a span of time because they went inside, or got sober, or started getting treatment for their mental or addiction issues.  And that's always a good thing. I'm always happy to see our folks, but there's a few that I would be happier to never see again, if only because they need to get off the street for their own safety or health.

But sometimes we don't see people and we feel the dread in the pits of our stomachs.

The area around Wayside Mission is a heavy population area, not just because of the homeless shelter, but because of the large homeless population that lives adjacent to the shelter. Some of them won't go in -- concerns over safety, petty street feuds that spill over or are exacerbated by the shelter's policy of giving some residents the job of policing the others, regardless of their capacity to be able to do so, and the shelter's policy of splitting families --  and some of them can't because of legitimate bans due to violence or drug use that endangers other people.

Amanda and I hadn't served down there in a while because of shifts in the population and changes in the routes over the last year that we hope does a more effective job of serving as many of the community as possible. Historically, people have been run off from the downtown underpasses and around the shelter at three watershed moments here in Louisville: before Derby, before the State Fair, and when cold weather sets in. The motivations for these are different, but not really. The city likes to "clean up" it's image for big money events like Derby and the Fair, and whitewashing the city's homeless community is one way, besides planting more rose bushes and cutting the grass along the highway, that the city does that.

LMPD annually engages in a more focused harassment of the city's homeless at the onset of cold weather, apparently for the benefit of the homeless. By all accounts, the thought is that by putting pressure on the community to move on, the city is helping push them to the shelters or other services.

Mick Parsons, blog, TrumplandiaThis sort of thinking is an example of the staggering disconnect between the bean counters in Metro Council Chambers and reality.

But as the official and unofficial sweeps continue, it never ceases to amaze me who is able to fall through the cracks. This past week, Amanda and I went with the route that currently serves the underpasses as extra support and to make it easier to pass out meals and supplies.

We were also tasked with finding a family that had been in the area the last few weeks -- a couple with two small children. Usually, we serve them in their vehicle, but they have insisted to outreach workers in the past that they go into Wayside at night. This isn't the first time we've heard this, or seen it in practice. The city has very limited resources for homeless families. So when they do go to shelters, families are split up.

This is one of those cavernous niches that the homeless fall into; because even when there aren't any children involved, and even if they can prove they're married, couples are separated -- effectively isolating them from the one person they count on for mutual aid and survival. And while this can sometimes help vulnerable people escape dangerous situations, the families are collateral damage.

We didn't find the family. Their vehicle was not even parked out front, in spite of the fact that it was spotted earlier that afternoon when the kids were riding their bikes on the street. If we had seen their vehicle, that would have meant they were at least in the shelter waiting room before the staff at Wayside split them up for the night. Because it wasn't there, there is no telling where they were on a night when the overnight temperatures were going to reach freezing.

Sometimes it's who you don't see that gets to you.

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16 October, 2018

Rubber Tramp Stories 1: Big Rock Candy Mountain is Hollow

I met a hobo once, through a mutual friend. He came in on a southbound CSX and hopped off about seven blocks from my house, near a McDonalds. 

The only number he had was my friend JP's number. Naturally, JP called and invited me to hang out at his place in Middletown. He was always wanting to show me his world -- the world of trains and hobos. I've never met a man so in tune with his world vision, so able to bridge the connection between belief and action. Nearly everyone has ideas. Very few people actually live them. And while I think I'm not shabby in that particular area, I always embrace -- even if I am sometimes amused and/or frustrated -- by his attempts to educate me. 

Although I can't prove it, I think sometimes he thinks because I've spent a good deal of my time in school that I haven't lived.  This point of view isn't a new one, and in his case it isn't rooted in the usual good ol' American anti-intellectualism; no, for JP, the fact is that formal education abandoned him and he's managed to be a pretty well-read and self-educated guy anyway. But when he called and told me I needed to come meet his friend, I knew what he really meant. 

He meant "You're never going to believe THIS motherfucker."

JP and I haven't traded You-won't-believe-this-crazy-motherfucker stories, although we've traded here.
plenty of others.  And no, I haven't hopped trains -- mostly because a part-time hobo with a house out in Oakland named Dirty Face told me, without skipping a beat, that I was too old to start at 42. But I have done my fair share of traveling... as what the old timers would call a Rubber Tramp. When you travel off the beaten path for any length of time, you end up meeting some really interesting people... ones that I wrote about

So made it over to meet JP's hobo friend. I'll call him D. D is neither his given name nor his hobo name -- yes, that's a thing. He was still a little jumpy by the time I got there, but he'd had a shower and JP fixed him a plate and some coffee.

D talked primarily about two things -- a friend who died and his graduate work in Para-psychology. His friend died when he got trapped under an unstable load on a train he'd hopped. He was usually pretty smart, D said of his friend. But sometimes it just happens.

He was more animated talking about his graduate work. He was writing a book, he said. The whole basis of his thesis was that happiness is infectious, and if he just tried to get people to smile, that it would make the world a better place. I pointed out there was something very sociological about that and D shook his head. It was about the spirit, he said. And people, he said, almost always get that shit wrong.

People act like the big spirit is in the sky, he said. But really, it's under our feet. He told us about his epiphany, about how the Earth is hollow and how there's not a molten core at the center, but a city where a beings of a higher plane live.  People keep looking up for inspiration, he said. But all a long it's under their feet. Like tree roots.

I hung out for a little while. We talked and listened to Sun Ra records and drank coffee. But then it was time to go. And while I can't quite get behind the idea that the Earth is hollow, I found myself paying a bit more attention to the terra firma.

[Check out my friend JP's work here. It's good for your soul. I promise.]

Thanks for reading.

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10 October, 2018

Letters from Trumplandia: Invisible City, Part 2

[This is Part 2 of a series that I'll add to intermittently. It may come in waves of two or three posts in a row, or it may be weeks or even months in between. The focus of 'Invisible City' is my experience working with and around the homeless community. The first part is here. Thanks for reading.]

In addition to the usual route paperwork, I carried a list of 100 or so names. 

These are the names of people whose camps were scheduled to be cleared as of Monday October 8th. As of this writing, the three camps in question are cleared. Although there's a certain inevitability to this, it's hard for me to ignore the timing. Not only is it running up to an important mid-term election, with the mayor up for re-election, but -- more importantly -- cold weather is coming. And although not everyone had moved as of last Sunday, I wanted to carry the names of the people we will need to look for -- our organization and every other outreach organization that serves the Louisville's homeless community. 

With cold weather coming, the main thing at the front of my mind is that once again, there will not be enough beds, even for those willing to enter the shelters. The city will say there's enough, because they always do... or actually, they say nothing and point to the various shelters with an inferred, collective shrug that allows them to pass the buck. After all, the homeless don't vote.

But we didn't find anyone on that list this past week. We may when we go back out to serve. While there are some factors that make how camps disperse somewhat predictable, the truth is it's hard to predict what any one individual will do. We did find a guy in the middle of a seizure. We saw him on the sidewalk on a side street, and when we checked on him, my wife realized she knew him from her job at a local men's shelter. He was prone to seizures, and because the homeless in Louisville no longer have someplace to store their things.

While we were there with him -- he was in the process of trying to stand up and get his bearings back
-- one woman yelled down to us that he was on spice... which he clearly wasn't. Another drove by and asked if we needed him to "dial 5-0" and we assured him we did not. The only reason we hesitated in dialing 911 was because the man was in the process of getting back up on his feet and would have turned down transport to the hospital, anyway. As if being out on the street in Louisville isn't scary enough, he's got to deal with frequent seizures that leave him incapacitated for short periods, increasing his vulnerability. He's in the process of trying to get disability, but there is no streamlined process. And, because he's homeless and has no where to store his stuff, he has to carry his entire medical history with him ALL THE TIME.

Then, adding insult to injury, the default position anyone might take in seeing him is that when he's in the midst of a seizure -- a condition that is not his fault -- he will be mistaken for a drug addict. Because that's where people's minds go, almost every single time.



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