Will Write for Food–Monday Meanderings

evidence of things not seen
©Brian Miller, 2014
Used with Permission

the world is a watch with dead batteries
or unwound @ 2:30 am

except a dumpster cat
pawing an empty glass bottle
in tinkling circles

loading dock concrete chaps the back
of my legs /// a car occasionally hums by

its engine giving it up well in advance,
enough to shut
my eyes

so i don’t lose the 6000 stars
shivering in the dark

each breath solidifies slow enough
not to fall but settle to the asphalt

(capital-T)They are close enough
all the hairs on my body reach
as far as they can
in un/mouthed

until the second hand
begins to move again,
somewhere in the shadows
to my right.

Image: Filip Spagnoli

Image: Filip Spagnoli

I’m aware that Brian had another image in mind when he posted this poem, but, for me, it spoke of the homeless—as did the first poem he wrote for the dVerse Poetics theme of The Invisible Man. It seems that homelessness has been screaming at me lately for a couple of reasons: it plays a significant role in my 2nd novel. A homeless man, a homeless shelter are right at the center of the storyline.

And then, couple of days ago, when I went to pick up my laptop from the computer hospital there was a homeless man seated at the door of Staples™. Dressed in camouflage, shielded by an olive-green baseball cap and his bedroll in a shopping basket, I expected his request for money, but it didn’t come. I went in, retrieved my “baby” from the tech-doctor and exited the store, still waiting for him to speak. When he didn’t, I did.

I asked if he could use some cash. He stood, and said he would be so grateful. I handed him what I could and he extended his calloused hand. I found myself looking into eyes that met mine with clarity and grace. We chatted a while. I was tempted to, but didn’t ask him the source of his troubles. Being a fiction writer, I invented the backstory, assuming Jim was a Vet, dealing with PTSD, the tragic outcome of seeing too much ugliness in the line of duty. Before I left him, he invited me to a church service on Sunday, in a small storefront behind a nearby McDonalds.

I felt guilt (that comes easy to me given my background) cradling my nice laptop to my chest, knowing that I have (not everything I’d like to have, but) a lot. I felt humbled…that happens sometimes when I meet someone who emanates a certain something I’m unable to name. I felt called to learn more about, to do more for these men and women who have such struggles in life.

Too often, you hear that homelessness is the fault of the person involved. Is it their fault that they were downsized from their jobs, that they offered to put their lives on the line—to be sent into conflict? Even if drugs or alcohol or other unfortunate choices contributed to their situation, wouldn’t it be better to help instead of blame?

True. It could be that the cash I give won’t be used for food—but that’s not up to me. It’s their choice. (I once heard the poor defined as someone who is unable to make a choice.)

I think of Mother Theresa. I don’t remember the exact quote, but someone asked her how she really expected to make a difference in tackling the issue of poverty. Her answer was something along the line of “One person at a time.”

From now on, when I meet someone who is homeless, if possible, I would like to stop and talk, to really look into their eyes, to speak to and, no doubt, learn from them. In the meantime, I want to use the pen (or keyboard) as a sword and, if nothing else, remind myself and others of the problem, realizing it could someday be me.

By the way, Brian’s poem refers to a break he took during an elementary school read-a-thon. We never know where our poetry may take another. Thanks, Brian.

The Evolution of Homelessness–Monday Meanderings

In my lifetime the issue of homelessness has evolved. When I was a student nurse, back in the early 60’s, I spent 3 months doing a psychiatric nursing rotation at Patton State Hospital in San Bernadino, California. In a sense, the noun “hospital” is a misnomer. It was a small, self-sustaining city, populated by over 5000 patients in need of mental health care.

Photo: Alex Wellerstein

Photo: Alex Wellerstein

There were locked wards that cared for severely psychotic patients and another populated by California’s sex criminals. But many of the units cared for people who simply could not function in society. The diagnosis “simple schizophrenia” gave the State justification for their care.

Not long after, the government budget cuts(in the USA) prompted the decentralization of mental health care in all but those most significantly impaired. Nationwide, masses of these persons were released to the care of families and outpatient care centers or geriatric facilities. In the years to come, multitudes of these persons became the homeless.

Add to this demographic, veterans of the Vietnam war and all those from subsequent, mostly unpopular conflicts, the growing prevalence of drug and alcohol abuse, often as a result of undiagnosed and/or untreated PTSD, coupled with a succession of economic downturns and here we are: face-to-face with thousands of persons who live on the streets and in an inadequate number of homeless shelters.

Though I am not prone to political activism and tend toward conservatism in many areas, I do believe in the power of the pen and our ability as poets to heighten public awareness. This must be a concern for everyone. Any one of us could, due to circumstances we can’t predict, join the ranks of the homeless.

This morning, I read a thought-provoking poem shared by poet Joe Hesch on The Bardo Group’s blog that deals with the problem of homelessness. Please consider stopping by to read it. It brought to mind a poem I wrote quite a while back that I would like to share with you here.

Photo: Wikipedia Commons

Photo: Wikipedia Commons

Homeless Man

Walking down the road I saw a man in tattered clothes.
I couldn’t help but wonder what had led to his defeat.
Tell me, if you would, about this life that you have chosen,
or did it dare choose you to live like this, upon the street?

I handed him a buck or two and said, Here, take a seat.
It was a rusted old park bench on which we hunkered down to meet.
You’re curious, my boy, he said, why do you want to know?
I want to understand you, sir, to see what makes you so.

That money that I gave to you, I know you’ll give to others.
I wonder, how do you survive while giving to your brothers?
A smile broke across the wrinkled landscape of his face,
the pain I’d seen inside his eyes seemed suddenly erased.

You may not really want to hear the story I will tell,
it happened many years ago in a place not far from hell.
The name you’ve heard—‘twas Auschwitz, a camp they took us Jews
the horrors that surrounded me tempted me to choose

to take my own life ere they could subject me to a death
without the grace of dignity. I was so eager to go.
But then some words came tumbling from the darkness of my mind
Words spoken by a holy man I heard in years behind.

The teacher’s voice was strong; it traveled straight into the core
of all I understand of God, of what we’re living for.
Do you know how much good can be done in Auschwitz late at night?
How hope can be a gift to those who tremble in their fright?

And what I learned back then—the truths that saved me from despair—
I carry them within my soul, there’s so much need to care.
So I refuse to see my life as a symbol of defeat.
Do you know how much good, my son, awaits me in that street?

The old man stood and shook my hand and left me with his smile
I sat, transfixed, upon that bench for quite a little while.
Now I withhold my judgment when I see a homeless guy
and wonder still at wealth within that money cannot buy.

Please share your own experiences with the homeless. Those of you from other countries, how big a problem is this for you? What is being done to deal with it? Then, reflect within yourself if there is anything you can do to help.

Have a blessed week.

Disclaimer: the facts in this article are based on my own memories so there could be misperceptions. I don’t believe these (if there are any errors) undermine the seriousness of the issue and our responsibility toward the homeless.