No fun at all: Homeless in Berkeley and poor in Jakarta
By: Jane Stillwater
My friend Gordon Lau works for a charitable foundation in Jakarta that tries to help the poorest of the poor — and so he decided to see exactly what his clients are going through by being “Poor for a Day” himself. Learn more about that @ http://www.grameenfoundation.org/
I wanna be poor for a day too — and have just been given the perfect opportunity to do so. My housing co-op is being re-habbed and I have to be out of my apartment for three weeks while they do everything to it except install a new chimney for Santa Claus to come down.
Fifteen years ago, I started fighting like a tiger to get my co-op re-habbed because it was falling apart — but its board of directors kept balking or even actively fighting the idea, getting so sick of me that they even threatened poor sweet me with eviction and jail if I didn’t shut up.
However, some board members finally had a change of heart and others retired, and we actually finally started getting rehab plans made — but even then it took us an additional five years to get the rehab finally under way.
And now that it’s here and actually happening? I think I’ve created a monster!
Almost everything on the property must go, from shingles to roofing to flooring to kitchen sinks. The whole place has been in complete chaos for months.
Around forty units have been re-habbed already –and now it’s my turn to put up or shut up as my own unit goes through a complete wash-rise-and-dry cycle. But although the co-op is giving me a per diem to stay somewhere else for three weeks, if I can somehow scrounge by for less than the per diem, I’ll have extra money for food and/or for getting a root canal (you gotta be a member of Congress or live on Wall Street to receive federally-funded dental care these days — so most of the rest of us are either going to have to work three jobs, win the lottery or go toothless. But, I digress).
So in the interest of not going hungry and good dental hygiene, I decided to follow Gordon Lau’s Jakarta example and go “Poor for a Day” too.
Let’s see. First I can follow a rising trend here in Berkeley and camp out on the front steps of that abandoned building next door. That won’t cost me anything. However, the current policy there seems to be, “Bring your own mattress”.
Now where can I get a good meal for less than a dollar? St. Paul’s AME church does a free lunch on Tuesdays. I’m in.
The rest of the day I can spend at the public library, using its computer and reading murder mysteries in the back room. Then what about dinner? You know that Chez Panisse caught on fire recently? (http://www.berkeleyside.com/2013/03/08/fire-at-chez-panisse-damages-front-of-restaurant/ ) Maybe they would be having a fire sale? I could always swing by and see.
And then there is always dumpster-diving. Oh, and the Sweet Adeline bakery might have some leftover chocolate cream pie at the end of the day? Wistful thinking. There’s never gonna be any left over. That stuff sells fast!
The South Berkeley farmers market is held on Tuesdays too. I could see what they have for cheap at the end of the day. Or up on Telegraph, at People’s Park, don’t they still have a soup kitchen at night? Or the Berkeley Bowl is having a big sale on Brown Cow yogurt. I could do that.
Then back to the abandoned building for the night — or perhaps I could get a more scenic view by sheltering in place up in Tilden Park? And still have fifty cents left in my pocket at the end of the day. I could do this. Once. But every single day? No, no, no and no! I truly don’t see how genuinely homeless people can do it.
“But what if it rains, Jane?” you might ask. “Or what if you get mugged, raped or killed?” Oh well. Just one less poor person and one less senior citizen on Social Security for the RepubliDems to look down their noses at and/or rob. No wonder Congress is helping seniors die off so fast — less Social Security to pay out, so more money for Wall Street and War Street!
What makes us human? Capitalists say that it is our ability to produce profit — at any cost. However, Jesus, the Buddha and Mohammed all agree that it is only compassion for others who are weaker than us that gives us our humanity and raises us up above the rest of the beasts.
Still and all, I will be really really really glad when I can move back into my apartment again. And if you live in the Berkeley area and need me to house-sit between now and the end of March, please let me know. I’ll even try to walk your dog. Err, maybe not. Or there’s always http://airbnb.com. And my wonderful son Joe’s futon in his apartment in La Mission.
As always, Jane is infinitely connected to incredible people so, we are including a missive sent to her by one of her friends who lived a Hobo life by choice. It is useful, touching and educational. Enjoy:
Jane Says: Here’s some interesting and useful advice on being homeless from a friend of mine who has been there, done that:
Jane, get one of those little tents at Wal-Mart. They are very cheap and very good. (Learn how to set it up (in the dark before you leave.) Get a pepper spray and a hammer. Also, get a light sleeping bag. . Get a lot of second hand paperback books.
Hitchhike to Cheyenne, Wyoming, they respect homeless people and make them work for money. Cheyenne is quite civilized. They act like Christians there but they never talk much about it. Eat a can of beans each day. When you get a ride listen closely to what the driver is saying. Often they will try to take you home with them and keep you forever when you do this.
Offer to work for money wherever you go. Avoid the police because they will make it unpleasant for you so that you do not linger in their jurisdiction. If the police corner you act like you are mentally ill or retarded. They will avoid you then. It is a lot of paper work and expense for police to process people with mental problems. Make your camps after dark so no one knows where you are sleeping Do not spend nights in the cities because it is much safer and more pleasant to camp in the wilderness. ).
Do not ever use fire or flashlights or the police and the bandits will know exactly where you are camping. Do not go to homeless shelters unless you really need a shower. Leave as soon as you get your shower. Do not try to hitchhike out of the cities, walk or take a bus to the edge of the city and then resume hitchhiking. Do not hitchhike on the freeways. Instead hitchhike near the entrance ramps.
Only go into the cities to use the internet and buy more paperbacks. Paperbacks are lighter to carry than hardcovers. Don’t ever lug a hardcover around unless it is Kurt Vonnegut. Don’t forget to trade in your old and rejected Paperbacks. Try to make friends with a dog and partner up with him or her if you do not mind sharing your beans. Sell plasma when you can.
Before I moved to Thailand, around 2005, I was electively homeless for a year because I was curious about what was out there and I needed to get my blood pressure down. It was dangerously high. My two sons had become independent and I had fond memories of hitchhiking around North America when I was a young man.
I was the kind of homeless person that kept moving and I did not have a partner. This is an advantage. It allows you to interface with the population much more.
For me the hardest part was the indignities thrust on you buy the people who were suppose to be providing services. The people you interfaced with were usually homeless people that got promoted to homeless workers. They were almost always assholes pulling a real power trip on the homeless which were now down the food chain from them. For this reason I most always slept outside on the ground or under highway bridges.
When you travel alone you are an easy target for human predators. Fortunately they are usually unskilled, weak and stupid. It must be terrible for non warriors though. That is why typical homeless people tend to stay in one spot. They are hiding on the crooks and the police. When you stay in one spot with a herd of other homeless you come across very few opportunities to better yourself.
The police will always come and terrorize and roughly search your meager possessions when they see you in their territory. (Mostly when hitchhiking) They do a very poor search because they never noticed my medicine bag. I do not know what their official mission is, where homeless people are concerned, but it boils down to them herding you out of their territory, getting you out of sight or herding you into the homeless corrals. I ascertained that the important thing was for the homeless to be invisible. That is the way they unofficially deal with homeless people.
The state of Wyoming was very wonderful to their homeless especially in Cheyenne. Oregon was very nice and Northern California was not bad.
I quickly learned to pretend I was mentally handicapped when approached by police. When the police would come swaggering up to me I would grin foolishly and show them a childish picture of a tree I scrawled before hand in one of my note books. Sometimes they would beat a hasty retreat without saying a word. I suspect helping the mentally handicapped involves a lot of tricky paper work.
To avoid the predators I would wait until after dark to make my camp after ensuring that I was not being followed. I had a rule of never using a light or having a fire. It pays to be invisible.
Back then people were likely to hire you for small jobs to help you out. Many times they beg you not to leave if you are a good worker and a good ear. I was tempted to settle down in several places, most especially Tangent, Oregon, Cheyenne, WY and Austin, TX. It was my goal to travel for at least a year so I kept moving.
It was possible to spend the day reading in the library all day long which was very nice. Many homeless would go in the library just to be warm and they would try to sleep in there. Many of us were stinky and scary. This would drive away the local citizens. It was a problem. Someone with a library science degree does not want to walk around waking up homeless people.
The one nice thing about it was that there are no bills. When you got money you could just spend on primary needs and wants. All I needed was tobacco, caffeine and at least a couple cans of beans every day. I like to drink beer too but it was one of my rules not to imbibe on this quest because you really need to be alert. Also, after six weeks of travel from Appleton, WI to Dallas, TX my blood pressure was back to normal and I lost 20 pounds. I learned that at the clinic where I was selling my plasma.
I could live on about three dollars a day. I could make that playing my guitar for tips in about an hour. Many times the police would call this panhandling and herd me away.
I took short term jobs such as catering services, sheet metal factories, furniture moving and an assortment of other things. This even allowed me to send money home because I had no bills. With the present unemployment problem this is no longer possible. I am sure.
I was not a real homeless person because I could stop anytime I wanted to stop. But you are not really a homeless person if you have this safety net in place. It is being homeless without stress about the future… Also, I have good social skills and self defense skills.
Just the same I believe I gained an understanding of what it must be like for non- electively homeless. I am enough of an expert to say that it would suck terribly especially at present.
Back then a lot of the homeless people did not want homes. Many of them had disability pensions and they would take 600 to 1000 dollars out of their ATM and they would have no money in about 48 to 72 hours.
Back then the homeless people usually had a mental or AODA problems. Today I am sure there are perfectly healthy people out there getting herded around and abused by the system. That is very sad. They are in no way equipped for that kind of life. I will not even ponder what it must be like for the ones that have children. Those are the ones that should be helped first.
I suspect that if I tried it today it would be a very different story. I suspect the police are even more vicious than ever. Also, there are more criminals preying on the weak.
I wanna be poor for a day too — and have just been given the perfect opportunity to do so