2.5
September 8, 2008

Homelessness

(photo by Michael Levin www.zoobird.com)

“Hope is the thing with feathers,
that perches in the soul,
and sings the song without the words,
and never stops at all.”

Emily Dickinson

I spent a day in the garden. Spring had yielded many wonderful and delicious vegetables. But the summer had given me weeds that needed tending. My patch is in a community garden frequently visited by homeless people who forage for food. Each time I talk with a homeless person, I’m reminded that no one wakes up one day and decides it’s a good idea to start begging for money and food on the streets. I had to cut my weeding time short because we have no facilities to wash or relieve ourselves at the garden. I thought to myself what it would be like to be in a situation where there was no place for me to clean up. It would be tough to rely on public facilities for soap and water.

A local Portland Thai restaurant served me up some delicious curry. There was more than I could eat. I asked for a to-go carton and put the leftovers in it. A homeless person asked me for money as soon as I turned around to leave. I asked if he was hungry. He replied “Yes”. I could see in his eyes he was truly hungry. I asked if he liked Thai food. He smiled broadly and said “Yes” again. So, I handed him the food. I turned to tell my friend, who had thrown his food away, to see what I did with mine. But, when I turned around again, the homeless man was gone.

Sometimes I hear people thinking out loud that it might be a good idea to somehow put street people to work. But, consider the stigma attached to being homeless. Homeless people have no address, no phone, no real contact information. Struggles with medical issues, addiction, alcoholism compound the problems homeless people face. So many homeless people need help just getting well before they can think about working.

(photo by Michael Levin www.zoobird.com)

I had a conversation with Joseph, a Street Roots vender in Portland, OR. He described how some street people have felony convictions resulting from habitual misdemeanor convictions like urinating in a public place and trespass. Imagine trying to get a job as a homeless person with a felony conviction. 

There are serious debates going on in cities with homeless populations. It’s not like these cities are doing nothing for the homeless. But, the solutions, such as where to establish shelters, are complicated. In Gainesville, Florida Jon DeCarmine, Executive Director Gainesville/Alachua County Office on Homelessness, is actively addressing some issues such as the location of housing and services for Gainesville’s homeless population. If you’re interested in reading a letter he wrote detailing some difficulties the city has with the location and its distance from the downtown homeless population, it’s in the Zoobird “Caring Zoobird’s” group.

Some homeless people have taken up squatting. For example, in The Netherlands, if a building is empty or not in use for a period of time, it can be legally inhabited without the landowner’s permission. What do you think about that?



(photo by Michael Levin www.zoobird.com ::: click the image above to see more photos)

In Kaolack, Senegal, West Africa, Viola Vaughn formed a non-profit organization called 10,000 Girls. The mission statement is “To offer education and employment opportunities for 10,000 Girls in rural Senegal, enabling them to develop as self-reliant and capable women, through a self-sustaining organization run by the girls themselves.” 10,000 Girls is concerned with the plight of women worldwide, not just locally, and not just women with problems like homelessness, but some there have been cast out for one reason or another. 10,000 Girls actively takes on the problem of educating and preparing women for the workforce. There are programs to teach sewing, language and math skills. I worked with 10,000 Girls last year teaching web entrepreneurship skills. The program stands as a model we can duplicate wherever there are people with needs and others willing to help. Can you imagine a skills camp in your community? Do you have one already?

Arupa and Bob Freeman saw homeless people on the streets in Gainesville, FL and began handing out blankets and food. They established the Home (Homeless Outreach Mobile Effort ) Van. Arupa and Bob take food and supplies to the homeless. They don’t ask for any ID or explanations. They just help. When Arupa Freeman saw the Zoobird “Caring Zoobirds” group, she commented that she hoped it would inspire people to do something for the homeless. Arupa publishes a Home Van newsletter. A few are available to read in the Zoobird “Caring Zoobird’s” group.

The Satellite in Gainesville, FL recently published a telling article that shed light on many aspects of homelessness. Homelessness: myths verses economic realities, by Lars Din: “Of the chronic homeless, almost half reported health issues as the primary cause of their homelessness in 2007, according to the annual survey conducted by the Office on Homelessness.

(photo by Michael Levin www.zoobird.com)

Sh’mal Ellenberg, a former Gainesville social worker is documented in the film, “A Shmal World“, directed by Michelle Friedline and Laureen Ricks.  Take a look at the trailer. The film poignantly describes a homeless man with psychiatric disorders and addiction who Sh’mal finally places in a furnished low income housing unit. Soon, Sh’mal discovers that his client has sold all the furniture. Sh’mal deals with the situation gracefully and appropriate humor, but in the world of so many issues that have no hard and fast solutions, how many can adequately help people in similar situations?  A Sh’mal World, indeed. A tough world, sometimes. And,  a little tenderness and empathy combined with good sense go a long way. 

In Ireland, when the pubs close, you’ll sometimes hear the barman call out “Have ye no homes to go to?” When I finished weeding, I went home and cleaned up. I felt fortunate that I had a home to go to. I promised myself I’d pass these thoughts along. Please think of the practicalities of being homeless the next time you see someone on the streets in need. Even a kind word goes a long way.

(photo by Michael Levin www.zoobird.com)

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Michael Levin

Michael loves sharing what he’s learned about organic lifestyles like living off the grid and bicycle commuting. He calls it “lifestyle entrepreneurship”. He’s into organic gardening, mindful living, and realizes that we only have this life and each other. His favorite quote is “The master in the art of living makes little distinction between his work and his play, his labor and his leisure, his mind and his body, his information and his recreation, his love and his religion. He hardly knows which is which. He simply pursues his vision of excellence at whatever he does, leaving others to decide whether he is working or playing. To him he’s always doing both.” (James A. Michener)