Some people say being homeless is like being a nomad. This doesn't ring true to me. Not only that, sometimes I think maybe the truth is exactly the opposite.

Most homeless people don't want to be. Lots of people who rent are just a few paychecks away from eviction. Get fired, or get sick or hurt in some way that's not covered by insurance, and suddenly you're sleeping in a car if you're lucky, sleeping in a back alley if you're not. Sure, some homeless people claim they choose it. For most of those, it's really the mental illness or the alcoholism or the drug addiction talking. They don't really want to be homeless either, but overcoming homelessness and their other problems all at once is too much for them to handle. So they just try to adapt to a way of life where everyone expects them to be failures, anyway.

There's more to being homeless than finding new places to sleep all the time. In most places it's illegal to be homeless. (Never mind that this is a lot like making it illegal to die.) There's this unspoken contract. To survive being homeless, you have to learn a new skill. Stay invisible as much as possible, or someone will punish you. Civilization doesn't care that you have no place of your own to sleep. Civilization just won't let you sleep anywhere you might be seen. If your lack of shelter is too visible, you could get defined as vagrant, then taken to sleep in a place you are not allowed to leave.

You might think government agencies and private charities set up to "coddle" poor people are different about this, but most of them really aren't. Almost every charity and bureaucracy has its own special brand of invisibility to promote. Need help overcoming addiction? Learn how to pretend you've been instantly cured, because many drug treatment programs have zero tolerance policies. No relapses allowed, or you're back out on the street.

Even those who try to overcome being homeless entirely on their own, with no help from charities or the government, don't find much sympathy. Many employers won't accept job applications from anyone who can't give any address or telephone number. Opening a bank account can be difficult or impossible too.

Many homeless people have embarrassing mistakes on their permanent records. When people get desperate, trying to stop their slide down the slippery slope to the bottom, they can buy into crooked scams that trash their credit ratings. If addiction contributed to the downfall, your bonus can be a scary looking criminal record to make potential employers think twice.

On the off chance you're one of the very rare people and you really do choose to be homeless in a modern society, you still need to learn a new skill. You must accept being seen as a complete failure by everyone you meet, except maybe the ones who look past you and pretend you don't even exist.

It seems like almost none of this happens to people in a nomadic culture. The only similarity is, nomads don't settle down in one place.

I only know what I've read about this, but it seems to me that most nomadic people choose to be nomads. They live in communities that accept moving around as a normal, successful way of life. Usually it's a whole community that actually moves. You won't see any lone person or small family from a nomad culture wandering around aimlessly unless some huge disaster happens.

Most nomads never wander around randomly. Most move in a pattern and repeat the pattern every year, or every few years. Some move to give desert grasses time to recover, before they let their herds of sheep or camels or yaks graze it down again. Some move to follow the migration of animals they hunt for food. None of these are people who see themselves as having no home. They see their home as so large that it takes years to move through every room.

I think about that more and more these days. We think we are so much more advanced than nomads. But we define our ideas of home and community so narrowly, almost anyone can become homeless with a run of enough bad luck. I wonder, what would it be like to live with ideas of home and community so vast that it's almost impossible to become homeless?

Like most "civilized" people, I was brought up to think nomadic people resisted efforts to educate and civilize them because they were too primitive and ignorant to recognize what was best for them. I don't think that way now.

I'm not saying we should all go back to making our living like nomads. The scientists are probably right, this planet probably has too many of us now for that to work. We can't all go back to living that way. But maybe the nomads remember some things we need to learn over again, to feel truly alive and at home in this world.

Berkeley homeless

The homeless in Berkeley are a very diverse group of people. Berkeley has been touted as a haven for them, a place where it is easy to be homeless. This has a grain of truth to it, but the situation is more complex than that.

The first and most major cause of homelessness is insanity, or, more precisely, Ronald Regan's budget cuts. As governor of California, he closed down a number of large mental asylums in the area, leaving the mentally disabled with no option but to be homeless. These are the people most frequently found living around the "homeless compound" created by the conglomerate of the I-80, the railroad and University avenue. Some of these people are very kind-hearted and seem to be treated decently by the West Berkeley crowd. Others are violent, and I have talked to an almost angelic old homeless woman who was attacked by one of the violent homeless men who live under the traffic bridge. There are a couple other homeless who live in that area who are homeless for political reasons (the government is corrupt and they don't want to be a part of it), one of whom has been living there for 30 years. The politically-motivated homeless are by far a minority, however.

Another major cause is crack. The homeless around Ashby Ave., where Berkeley borders with Oakland, have hungry stares in their eyes. I had an Ashby resident yell at me once for giving money to the homeless people there, for supporting their crack habits. The homeless man just stared at me without speaking.

The third cause of the concentration of homeless in the area is the liberal fairly-well-off crowd that UC Berkeley attracts. Many of the homeless who hang around Telegraph Ave. and cater for this group of people are something like street entertainers. Some play instruments, others sell jokes for "FREE". A couple cater to large drunk crouds, knowing how to involve large groups of people into telling their own jokes or playing games. Many people don't feel at all bad for giving these people money, and some of these homeless seem rather well dressed. Telegraph streetkids go into this category as well (paying them is paying homage to your own childhood rebellion).

No account of Berkeley homeless would be complete without mentioning the drum circle on Sproul Plaza on campus. Every night, at around 9 PM, a group of homeless people, streetkids, transients and anyone who wishes to join sit right in front of the UC administration buildings banging on barrels, pan tops and wooden sticks. This diverse group is "lead" by Hate Man, an old homeless man with a gray beard ready to yell "I hate you" at anyone who talks to him. Occasionally, one can observe random Berkeleyites in either willing or unwilling yelling matches with him.

(I conclude with a Reductionism Disclaimer: people aren't types and aren't stuck in places)

I have bagels and broadband. I live, on the whole, in relatively comfortable surroundings. I could be considered middle class. My experiences in not having a place to live are limited to being a very young child, when my parents were transients; and some adventures in Pranklin when I was a teenager. So perhaps some would take it as a sign of rich kid angst for me to talk about what homelessness really means. Feel free to take it that way if you like.

However rich you become, you will always be two, not one, because believe it or not, America ain't your home

About two weeks ago, at a train station, I got in an argument with some police officers. I don't know if "argument" is the right word, more of a double one sided shouting match. I yelled at some cops detaining a black teenager that they seemed to be better at harassing kids than stopping crime, and since they seemed not to notice my comments, I got on the train. About a minute later, one of the police officers returned, took me off the train, and told me that such a thing was not tolerated. Honestly, I felt bad for losing my temper, interfering with someone's job, and infusing my ignorance into a situation I knew nothing about. But that is not really the point. The point is the officer said he could exclude me from the train lines forever (which may be true), and that the platform was "mine, not yours" (which is either untrue or nonsensical). Perhaps the officer was just saying that my behavior didn't belong on the platform. But in a moment of truth, I realized that the meaning was that the platform, and perhaps the city, didn't belong to me.

Not fully American, but getting there VERY slowly

Which gives us the question: how does someone own something? What REALLY belongs to you? And why does it belong to you? I am not speaking strictly of property ownership here. Your home is where you belong, inalienably. Your home is your castle. Since the United States has now been our "homeland" for four years, is it now our castle?

One of the more cognizant things that Noung said, when he described the psychological makeup of the fascist, and mentioned the "unbearable kitsch propaganda". I don't know if he realized how important this is, though. Many people find their sense of ownership and membership in society as coming from participation in a mythic past. In America, we say "Mom, Apple Pie and Baseball", a phrase that is hard to explain but that we all know the meaning of. We could say that being "at home" comes from being "down home". While in our country, the roll of kitsch-membership is mostly used ironically, extreme versions of it are still important in other countries.

But kitsch, even though its importance is probably underrated, is only one part of the puzzle. While kitsch usually refers to a recent mythical past, in many countries, ownership comes from an actual mythic past. Both parties in the land of Israel/Palestine, or whatever you want to call it, have at least a partial argument that their claim to the land comes from histories dating back thousand of years, histories that no one else can confirm. I certainly wouldn't accept a check with this evidence, but it seems to be proof enough for thousands of square miles of land. One of the problems that comes up from this is that not all of us played a part in this ancestoral drama. Especially in America, where people came to this country by accident or worse:

Your ancestors come from Africa, through stealing them, you are not born in America, so how does African-American make much sense? I am not a racist, I am stating the facts: blacks are actually prisoners of war.

I have already discussed, as a joke, but also seriously, the idea that existence is meant to serve a mythic order to bring the past into the future, a belief I call teleological nihilism. The idea of teleological nihilism sometimes takes on a mythic element, in the belief that social activity is important because it carries us into the future, and sometimes it appears more pragmatic: a person is important in a society because they "contribute to the society", a society that is made up of individuals who are important because they contribute to a society that...This is what I mean by teleology, and this is what I mean by nihilsm.

Related to this is the belief that people own their place in the world due to sacrifices they have made and pains they have endured, a belief that is important especially in a Masochist culture such as America. While it is true that the actual weight of experience gives us a connection to the world that we otherwise wouldn't have, in the end, if pain is the only way to purchase a sense of belonging, it is not you that belongs, it is merely your pain. And even that is not finding a home to belong in, that is merely:

So you are homeless, even though you pay your rent

Our last options aren't much better ever. There is perhaps "law of jungle", where what you own is owned by the physical violence you manage to threaten or inflict. Since most of our options so far have been full of nihilism, this may be the simplest and most direct answer. Perhaps the question can only be untied when we refuse nihilism. But I am thinking there may not be much of a chance of that.

Home"less, a. [AS.hamleas.]

Destitute of a home.

-- Home"less*ness, n.


© Webster 1913.

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