Via Michael Levin
on Sep 8, 2008
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(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?

10,000 Girls dot org

(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.

Social Worker and Activist Sh\'mal Ellenberg

(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)


About 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)


9 Responses to “Homelessness”

  1. Michael says:

    Thanks, Heather. The video on Umoja Village brings so many issues to mind. Questions like what society’s responsibility to people in need is. It shows how the process works with municipal statutes in light of current conditions. Isn’t it good to hear arguments that point out the reality of emergency housing shortages versus gaps in laws against vagrancy? This shows progress. I can remember being approached by a person on the street while I was walking with two friends. The person first asked whether I needed help finding something. Then, after he gave me directions, he asked for fifty cents for a bus. When I gave him the change and thanked him, my friends objected, arguing that I was encouraging panhandling by giving him the money. Another time, a friend and I were exploring a city and the first thing he did was buy a bag of fruit. He explained that he’d rather give fruit to the street people. Perception. Action. Understanding. We can affect change by doing small things. Thanks!

  2. Joseph says:

    I once lived in the congressional model for homeless centers, i shit you not. it was located in my hometown and people would come from 100 miles away to stay there. Long story short, I got into a lot of trouble in my late teens and my family pulled the “tough love” card. I sat in jail 3 months and the homeless center for 10 months. Thing is it worked very well. It was humiliating at times, enlightening at others. I met so many different kinds of people, every race, every background, every story imaginable and then some. Finding oneself homeless truly could happen to anyone, and for anyone to think of their fellow man/woman as a bum or undeserving of the same rights is very sad indeed.

    What strikes me however, is that the current model of land/property ownership in this world is most certainly where many of our problems stem from. Who can one man own a mountain and another not a pair of shoes? Is it because one deserves it more? That must be what we’re silently agreeing.

    Honestly, i would be happy for the rest of my life with just 1-2 acres, that I chose, that was mine to steward, and that i didn’t have to pay taxes on. I think this is truly an inalienable right, among many that were stripped from most of us by imperialists, landlords, and kings. I think in a way we are all homeless, we just have the illusion of actually having a home. As long as our current understanding of property dominates, no one really has anything, it’s all for sale or subject to repossession or theft.

  3. John Mears says:

    Interesting article. Too little attention is paid to the homeless and needy in the United States, and too little funds and public attention are allocated to this problem. With the financial crisis squarely facing our country, each of us will have a harder time dealing with the economic impact. Imagine how difficult the homeless may have it, many times through no fault of their own, and many times with small innocent childern in tow, who lost a job because of things like medical problems. And their numbers surely will grow in the near term. We all need to try to do our part to help this needy but worthy segment of our population.

  4. Robbie says:

    This is very enlightening, Mike. I too, met and spoke with Joseph a few times in Portland. The first time Gabby and I passed by him he said to us, “Would you guys like to buy a copy of Street Roots?” I said no, thank you, and he replied, “Do you even know what it’s about?” I stopped, turned around, and said “Actually… no! and he informed us on how it really is being homeless. For the record, we bought a copy of Street Roots. It’s very informative and I recommend anyone who travels to Portland- buy a copy! Fortunately, Joseph was able to get a job at a fastfood restaurant. Great article, Mike. Great article.

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