Homeless Days, Homeless Nights

by Jessica Amanda Salmonson

   

I was reading in a small publication a commentary about homeless people, which boiled down to the following quote: "The media likes to celebrate the homeless, making them into downtrodden saints. The most saintly among them are the schizophrenics turned out to the streets by the closing of mental asylums. The majority I've met have been alcoholics or sociopaths. They are sad, but you wouldn't want them in your homes."

This really set me off. My first thought was that the line about "the majority I've met" should really have read "what I imagine about the ones I've seen, though I've never met one." You do not "meet" street people & come away with such narrow-minded ideas (well, maybe a complete asshole would). If you see ten street people, chances are each is of a differing type, & all are on the streets for different reasons. Yet the above commentator imagined few & limited reasons. As well to say "all" apartment dwellers or "all" people living in the suburbs fall into one or two categories. The street life constitutes a community, & everyone is distinct. Here I'd like to speak to that variety in a way I could not do in some of the madness tales of A Silver Thread of Madness or in my novel Anthony Shriek based on close-at-hand observations of schizophrenia, & first-hand experience of street life.

"Sociopath" is a pejorative used as a polite replacement for "psycho" in liberal vernacular. A conservative ass says, "Lock up the crazy bastards & throw away the keys," but the liberal says "Put those pitiful people in mental hospitals so they'll have warm food & beds," which translates "lock up the crazy bastards & throw away the keys." The clinical term would not be "sociopath," but "antisocial behavior patterns." Because this doesn't sound scary enough, "sociopath" is better liked by laymen, even those purporting to have the best of intentions, for the fact remains that the central intention of such labeling is to exaggerate the alienness & frightfulness of street people & thereby deprive them of rights & dignity & to negate their humanity.

"Sociopath" is less & less used by doctors, as it has become clinically meaningless. A true antisocial personality, such as are commonly called sociopathic, ranges from the slick con artist who everyone likes until he has ripped them off, to anyone who is habitually inclined to commit crimes & lacks guilt or remorse. This is more apt to be someone's Uncle Joe than a street person. Antisocial personality remains sufficiently subjective that it frequently is misused professionally to include disobedient children (who may have damn good reasons to rebel) & people whose politics or philosophy does not respect the property rights of a smug, annoying middle class.

As I live inner city, in a poor district, I have observed that street people are predominantly 1) kids in their early teens, many of them coming to town from the suburbs to "hang out" for days on end because it's cool, but a few of whom are genuinely homeless because they escaped from abusive parents, & 2) alcoholic men, about half of whom probably have homes to go back to if & when they sober up. A third, miscellaneous category includes a growing number of non-alcoholics who are simply jobless, including women with children; professional panhandlers & squatters; low-end sex industry workers; & a minority of retarded adults & finally those individuals who are indeed mentally ill. This reflects the street population of Seattle. It varies from city to city; but I will speak from my own experience.

Surprisingly enough, some street people have nice homes, are politically motivated, & 100% healthy-minded. I've been to several squatters' homes over the years. One consisted of old-time hippies who invited me to a wonderful vegetarian Christmas dinner in their swell Victorian squat. Another consisted of young punkers with dreams of being rock performers, mostly kicked out of their parents' houses for bad haircuts or because their fathers were hard-core alcoholics with big fists, or they were hiding from child molesters (stepdads mostly). These kids even figured out how to plug into a neighbor's electricity without getting caught or having to pay utilities.

   

As for the insane turned loose on our city streets, this is a broad exaggeration. In the late 1970s private & public hospitals lost a great deal of funding & there was at that time a sudden rush of the mentally ill living in the streets. By & large this is no longer the case, for the SSI system works pretty well for those with the most obvious dysfunctions. Even so, an easy, ridiculous "explanation" for homelessness has ever since those days held that most of the people on the streets were "cruelly" ejected from mental hospitals (where the enhomed would like the mentally ill to have remained imprisoned forever, & never have to learn about the actual conditions they were once forced to endure without recourse or civil rights).

I've often listened to mentally ill street people talking to each other about what medications they're on -- a major subject in their lives -- & they share resource information about clinics & who to see on staffs, which doctors are poops, which are supportive. Since clinic staffs tend to be professionally aloof if not actually mean-spirited, a pleasant doctor or nurse becomes the object of loving discussion among the mentally ill on the streets. Their illnesses range from chronic depression to pill-controlled schizophrenia to actual brain damage. I used to counsel a street woman who in her younger years had been hospitalized as chronically depressed, but in her late middle age was just trying to hold it together after having been lobotomized. None of these folks are dangerous to themselves or to others the way the alcoholics are, & only a few of them are literally homeless despite the great many hours they spend socializing on the streets.

A mentally ill Asian woman, who I've spoken to on many occasions over the last fifteen years, is by no stretch of the imagination an antisocial personality. She is of ordinary intelligence, & it's hard to put your finger on what exactly is "wrong" with her, but there's obviously something disconnected in there somewhere. She has a mother who wants her to live at home. But, to do so, she would have to give up the freedom to express her sexuality. Also, when she lives at home, she is forced to take drugs that, she says, "stop me from thinking." It is her choice, therefore, to live in the streets, usually with one or another boyfriend, for in the streets she has friends who don't misjudge her, condemn her, or drug her into a stupor. Once, after she was raped, she got a dog; but a year later, when the dog bit someone who kicked it, the city took the dog away from her & destroyed it. No doubt there are those who'd like to do the same with this woman, even though her only point of obnoxiousness is panhandling in grocery isles.

She was eerily beautiful a dozen years ago or more when I first met her, but a thyroid problem together with general hardship has by degrees left her haggard & monstrously bug-eyed. She used to obtain odd jobs here & there, but as she became increasingly ugly, no one would hire her for any purpose at all, so she now begs incessantly, or occasionally tries to sell dumpster discoveries to junkshops & used bookstores. Many such people would gladly perform poorly paying shitwork, but some physical deformity keeps anyone from hiring them even for the cruddiest chores.

   

Previously many Downs syndrome & retarded adults were warehoused in mental hospitals, often drugged to keep them calm, with very little attempt to educate them or prepare them for the outside world. They were "out of sight, out of mind" & nobody gave a shit about them. Again, it was twenty years ago they were finally given a small percentage of their rights & permitted to live on their own or semi-independently in group houses. There is now a new generation of retarded adults who've never been institutionalized at all, & whether or not they hang out in the streets all day, it is an improvement not to be shut away as before.

Many retarded adults obtain marginal jobs as dishwashers & janitors. One retarded man, Steve, a friend of mine for many years, who had once been institutionalized & had been considered unteachable, after he was liberated started his own window washing company & became, in his small way, a successful businessman. He married a Downs woman who was for a while jealously convinced I was after her husband since he & I conversed together on the bus. Steve asked me to ignore him whenever he was with his wife, as otherwise there was strife at home. He remains part of the street life insofar as he is often downtown with his window washing equipment, & keeps track of his old buddies.

The majority of independent retarded adults receive Social Security Income. Near where I live is a group home for less independently capable retarded adults. Some of these wander the city freely, which I think is great. One of the Downs women in this enclave has been a regular feature of Seattle's street population for at least fifteen years. When she was younger, she was an annoying unpleasant panhandler, & as she gets older, she's become short tempered & creepy. If it was a crime to be an annoying creep, however, we'd be locking up half the people at fantasy & science fiction conventions, including a good many well known authors.

There are not many social outlets for retarded adults, so some of them form a layer of street culture which annoys the middle class that knows almost nothing about them, & cares to know less. Many people would rather this Downs woman was institutionalized, drugged, & strapped to a bed, rather than living in a group home from whence she is permitted to roam.

   

Several years ago when I broke up with someone for whom I still hold strong feelings, I sank into a deep depression that lasted two years. Various street people went out of their way to look after me. I must have looked like a street crazy at the time, & perhaps I was. My short story "Madame Enchantia & the Maze of Dream" in the major anthology Walls of Fear was written then, & chronicles my emotional state at the time, though the editor insisted the murder spree be removed. (I exaggerate a bit. There was only one murder which editor Kathryn Cramer wished excised. The story's definitive text thus appears only in a limited edition collection of my surrealist pieces, The Eleventh Jaguarundi and Other Mysterious Persons.)

One homeless punk (who happened to be a reader of my novels) showed me the empty warehouse he lived in. I had an open invitation to stay there if I lost my apartment, which seemed a possibility at the time. On several occasions he gave me inventive ideas for "revenge" on my ex, to cheer me up. He was a very sober, wholesome fellow who could not go home because he'd be beaten up by dad. This was years ago, & he now has an regular job & even finished school; we keep in touch. Another street person asked me to teach her martial arts so she wouldn't get raped again, or at least to hang out with her all day & protect her. At the time, I generally wore a Japanese hapi coat & everyone assumed I was expert at karate.

About the same time, there was a street crazy who used to bring me offerings of food that were quite horrible & which I refused to eat. He wanted to get me a dog. He told wild hallucinatory stories of a better future & had bizarre notions of recycling random debris as a method of restoring the world's soul. He had stashed, all around the city, secret treasures of broken bits of china such as teacup handles & rusted tools & metal parts. He went by an assumed name lest his parents find him again & reinstitutionalize him. By now a twenty-year veteran of the streets, I still see him from time to time, though he no longer recognizes me.

By contrast, I used to work in a major metropolitan hospital, as secretary & library research assistant for a lot of well-off doctors. So I can make a learned comparison between Seattle's wealthy versus its riffraff. Percentage-wise, street people are more generous, humane, & reasonable than are doctors. In fact, I'm sometimes convinced all rich people are evil, but very few street people are completely bad.

So I wasn't very keen on the simplistic idea that while few street people are saintly, many are sociopaths. From my first-hand experience, most are simply ordinary human beings, despite having a harder time of things than most of us.

Almost anyone higher on the social scale despises & misunderstands street-level culture. Yet in its own impoverished way, it's just people like everyone else, forming a lower social caste, a caste of untouchables. It's hard for someone whose life is pretty normal to walk along a city street & observe these people as anything but a lot of obnoxious beggars & borderline personalities. But such categorizations are simply false.

   

What would I do? Put everyone on the dole, give everyone a house, & stop harassing anyone just for "hanging out."

All over the cities, park benches are being removed because street people sit on them, while richer neighborhoods & business districts have sufficient police officers to shoo away anyone without money. Most of the time, I'm annoyed by these people too. But your or my discomfort should not be sufficient reason to shoo someone away, or to categorize them as asylum ejectees, or to decide they're sociopaths when in fact they're hurting the environment less than "successful" people & if most don't pay taxes then they don't support the military machine that so many people consider sane. I won't say I'd have them in my house either (though I have had a few in my house); but then, I'm a misanthrope, & wouldn't have many "normal" people in my house either. Of the two categories, however, I like the normal less.

When viewed from the ground up, as I've sometimes had the "privilege" of doing, it turns out a surprisingly high percentage of the street people are pretty well meaning & decent & willing to share what little they have. But then, I have sub-working class roots -- I began this life with an itinerant family disdained as carnies & gypsies -- & what I've always considered acceptable may well strike the middle class as sociopathic. I consider "normal government" sociopathic, & the middle & upper classes are largely asses who've successfully placed an enormous prophylactic on their collective mass psychoses as they slowly destroy the planet.

Therefore my slogan-of-the-week is, "Save the planet! Become street scum!"

See you in the gutter, Jocko.





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