Thursday, January 28, 2010

Libraries And The Homeless: Random Thoughts

I first became homeless in February of 1982, 27 years ago. Since then, I have spent about half of my life homeless. That's 13 years of literal homelessness. Arriving for the first time in Nashville, a city I had never been to before, and becoming homeless, happened simultaneously. I knew practically nothing about the city of Nashville. So my first days of homelessness were spent mostly hovering around the rescue mission. Eventually I heard about certain downtown landmarks from other homeless people. After quickly tiring of spending my days around the rescue mission I ventured out into the city. It seems that most of downtown Nashville has changed since those days, except for the places of historical merit. I would go for walks to look at the Cumberland River, or the State Capital, or the Tennessee Museum. Since the Tennessee Museum was free, I visited it quite often. And, I would go to the downtown library, at the time it located on Polk Ave, a few blocks away from the current library building. I wasn't much of a reader, so I didn't spent much time in the library initially. But I did have an interest in photography and art, so once I discovered those books I was at the library for hours at a time, not reading but looking at the art. I really didn't care much for what other people said about artwork. I let it speak to me itself, through the pages of those large coffee table sized books. The 750s and 770s is where I spent my time. I eventually got into photography myself and I think that time gazing at artwork developed in me an instinct for composition and an eye for inspiration in the mundane. Eventually I had a couple successful gallery showings of my photography.

During a later episode of homelessness I came to realize just how ignorant most people were about homelessness, so I was inspired to create a newsletter of sorts, that I planned to hand out to people working in the downtown area. Since I knew nothing about making a newsletter, I went to the library and found a couple books on the subject. They seemed a little dated though. About this time, the library had installed it's first two computers connected to the internet. This was so long ago, computers still did not have the capacity for displaying photographs. But, I did search for information on 'homelessness" and "newsletter" and discovered websites about a subject I had not heard of before - homeless newspapers. It wasn't long before I was exchanging emails with the people at Real Change, a homeless newspaper in Seattle, and with the people running the North American Street Newspaper Association, which was created by the National Coalition for The Homeless. With their help, and by utilizing computers at a local homeless shelter, I was able to create my own homeless newspaper. I made the front page of the now defunct Nashville Banner for creating this newspaper. And though it only existed for two issues, making this newspaper lead to chain of events that got me off the streets, into halfway house and eventually into a place of my own.

Fast forward a year and a half later and I'm homeless again. But Nashville had just built a new library, adorned with nearly 200 computers connected to the internet for patron's use. Before it was so popular, a person could sit all day at a library computer, and that's what I did, sometimes not even breaking for lunch. By this time, the computers were state of the art, and the internet had a great deal more to offer and was growing phenomenally. In August of 2002, I tried my hand at blogging. At that time blogs were a new and mostly unknown thing. I remember reading an article stating that only 750,000 blogs existed on the internet. Now there are hundreds of millions of them. After a few short weeks the popularity of my blog sky rocketed. Donations came my way through the blog and I was able to get off the streets, and into a cheap motel room with that money. Still, I was suffering from my anxieties and depression, and soon enough the fame of the blog faded and so did the donations, and I ended up back on the streets.

A couple years later the Mayor of Nashville created a homelessness task force, and mostly from my notoriety with the blog, which I still maintained at the library, I was asked to be a part of the task force, and the following year to be on the Metro Homelessness Commission. Most of my contributions to those efforts was made by referencing the internet at the library.

Yet during all this time I was growing increasingly concerned about my homeless state, what was causing it, and how I could possibly overcome it. While watching tv at the halfway house I lived in, I saw a commercial about Paxil, a drug for social anxiety. That was the first time I had heard of "social anxiety" and about Paxil. But I recognized myself in the commercial, so the very next day I was back at the library, researching books and the internet for all the information I could find about it. From that, I learned how to take control of my anxieties and depression so that today I do no suffer from them nearly to the extent I used to.

A couple years ago, a new homeless newspaper, The Contributor, hit the streets of Nashville, and luckily I was able to be a part of that happening. Some of the very first organizational meets in the creation the paper took place at the library.

Between these highlights, the library has been a focal point of my homelessness. Days began and ended at the library. I have known several librarians by name and consider them to be friends. And the library is where I met up with what few friends I had from the streets. When I conducted business of one kind or another, the library was where I met with other people. It was a central location that most everyone was familiar with.

I have had only a few negative experiences with libraries and they were due usually to an over zealous librarian or security guard enforcing some rule or another.

Once I brought with me into the library a backpack and a rolled up sleeping bag. As I sat at a computer, a security guard walked up to me, pulled out a measuring tape, measured my things and told me that the combined length of my backpack and sleeping bag was over the limit, and that I'd have to leave. Well, my backpack was empty enough so I stuffed my sleeping bag into the backpack virtually cutting the combined length of my things in half. I did not leave the library and he said nothing more to me. Later that day the regular rush of school children hit the library. In Nashville, many children ride city buses instead of school buses. All the city buses transfer downtown, within walking distance of the library. All of these kids came into the library carrying large book bags, musical instruments in cases and a lot of other school related paraphernalia. And as these kids walked past this security guard, he said absolutely nothing to them about the "combined length" of their items being over the limit. One kid in particular always carried a cello which was taller than he was.

Another time, I was having a conversation with a couple other homeless people. Our voices were of a normal volume, no debating, just talking. And, we were located in a corner of the library away from other reading patrons. But, when a librarian walked past us on her way to her desk, she told us that we had to keep our voices low, or else we'd have to leave the library. We did as she requested and spoke softer. Then a woman with three children in tow walked up to this librarians desk. Two of the children were running circles around their mother playing tag and laughing and yelling at each other. And then the younger child in her arms started crying loudly about nothing anyone could discern. This went on for a good 15-20 minutes, and in all that time the librarian said absolutely nothing to the woman about the noise her kids were making. Oh, and when the school age children come into the library they are quite loud as well. I've learned that the library is a good place for playing hide and seek. And for the older teens, a place for making out. :)

Of course sleeping in the library is not allowed, but they have gone too far with enforcing that rule. Homeless people have been banned from the library for a month or more for that very violation. I believe they have calmed down on that level of enforcement, but looking for potentially sleeping homeless people occupies and inordinate amount of the security guards day. Several warnings are given to people for sleeping before they are forced to leave the library, but even having your eyes closed for longer than a blink will have the attention of the guards. It's actually spelled out in the library rooms that having your eyes closed, or even praying, is against the rules. It is an unwarranted fear that libraries will turn into flop houses if the homeless are allowed to have a few minutes sleep. It is not as if the homeless are rolling out their sleeping bags and setting up camp. Sleep deprivation is common for homeless people, and when in the right environment of reading a book in a quite and warm place, it is easy for them to drift off into sleep. In most cases, falling asleep in a library is unintentional. The offense does not require harsh punishment.

I think a good way to curtail the sleeping in libraries is for cities to open up homeless shelters for day sleeping. I don't know of a single homeless shelter that offers that, but it's a good idea non-the-less. There are many good entry level jobs on 2nd and 3rd shifts that homeless people just cannot take because shelters do not offer day sleeping options.

The best thing that libraries can do for the homeless is to treat them with the same status afforded to all other library patrons.

I got my first library card when the book mobile came by my house. I was ecstatic not only with the selection of books, (God bless you Dr Suess) but with how many I could take with me at one time! That stack of books in my arms was a real treasure. This event was also my first experience with library fines. Use of the library was not encouraged in my house after that. I still have a hard time getting books back in time.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Contributor: February 2010 Issue

The February issue of The Contributor, Nashville's homeless newspaper hit the streets about a half hour ago. I will start selling tomorrow at 20th and West End, starting early in the morning. Please come by and buy one or two. The suggested price is one dollar, and all proceeds go directly to the homeless/formerly homeless vendor. Last month the paper had 99 active vendors selling an average of 112 papers.

This issue sports the very first color photo for the paper. It's on the front cover and goes along with an article about the tragedy in Haiti. Also, for the first time, the Hobo Sudoku, brought to you by yours truly.

Robert Funke wrote a eye-opening piece about his experiences taking an Urban Plunge. As he put it: "Now, over a year later, I can't tell you a thing about what it's like to be homeless. What I do know, however, is what it's like to have been an educated, upper-middle class white guy who pretended to be homeless for a few days."

There are also articles about Room In The Inn, The Oasis Center, the cold weather, funny hillbillies, and more. 20 pages of goodness in all.

The Contributor is growing rapidly. You can find vendors out as far as Franklin Tn, and The Rivergate Mall area. Still your best chances of finding someone selling the paper increase the closer you get to downtown.

If you live outside of the Nashville Area, or even if you live within it and would like it delivered to your home, you can opt to buy a year subscription on their webpage, Please be sure to put my name in the box designating who referred you. I'll get credit for that! Thanks.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Ingram Scholars At Vanderbilt Talk To The Homeless

The Ingram Scholars at Vanderbilt is a unique program offering full tuition scholarships for students engaged in community service work. They work in many fields, and one of them is homelessness. So this past Wednesday the Ingram Scholars invited three formerly homeless people to come talk about their homeless experiences. This was followed by a question and answer period. The Scholars asked great questions, I hope they were able to get something useful out of our answers.

There were a couple things I had planned on saying, but the direction of the conversation got me away from them and I forgot to mention them. Two similar questions were asked: "What do homeless people need most," and "what need of the homeless population is most overlooked."

This is how I'd answer those questions:

The methods currently employed in curing people of homelessness are akin to bloodletting as a method of curing people of ailments. And this is because there has been no serious concerted effort made to understand homelessness with a scientific and intellectual focus. Occasionally a class will be offered on homelessness within a sociology program, and a few books have been written on the subject. But more needs to be done. Just as there are whole fields of study dedicated to subjects like "Women's Studies" or "African American Studies" there needs to be whole schools dedicated to "Homelessness Studies." It was only a couple years ago that HUD, a government agency attempted to place an official definition to a type of homelessness, with their definition of "chronically homeless." This definition was not the most accurate, but it was a start in the right direction. Homelessness is still today a vast, unexplored field. Academicians looking for a unique, undiscovered, unresearched area of study, would easily get their names in the history books of firsts, if they undertook a serious, dedicated study of homelessness.

Until now, the treatment and cure of homelessness has been left up to the religious, based on an inaccurate assumption that homelessness is a spiritual problem. But now people are admitting that this approach to homelessness has failed. Hopefully soon we will see an interest in the scientific approach to understanding and curing homelessness. It is time to drop the notion that homelessness is caused by a dysfunctional relationship with God that can be cured with copious amounts of prayer, and a proper belief in all the "right" things.

In the Christian sphere, a sphere which dominates the homelessness industry, and where supposedly judgmentalism is frowned upon, we find the greatest amount of judgment being passed. It is this act of "judgment" of homeless people that has become a tremendous road block in overcoming homelessness..

When a car accident occurs, emergency personnel rush to the scene. All injured people are treated, and if injuries are serious enough they are immediately taken to a hospital. And all of this is done so to save the lives of these people and to get them back to a productive and meaningful life as quickly as possible. During all this no one takes into consideration who was responsible for the accident. Imagine if the first thing responders did was to spend time determining who was responsible for a car accident, and then decide to refuse any service to them. Imagine all those people left on the side of the road without treatment, and possibly dying, because they were refused treatment, all because they were judged to be at fault. Seeing ourselves as decent, humane, citizens of the world we would never allow that to happen. So, why is it this type of judgment is passed on the homeless? Most homeless people are seen by society as being responsible for their homelessness and so people withhold treatment for it.

So, these are the immediate and overlooked needs of the homeless; to end once and for all the judgment of homeless people regarding who is responsible for their state of homelessness, and to begin treating fairly and equally all who suffer from it; and to create an institution where homelessness is studied, so that the best cures can be developed, and taught, so to bring an end to homelessness. It is time to stop thinking of homeless people as somehow deficient in character, or deficient in their relationship with God, and think of them instead as injured people in need of proper treatment. People used to pray for a cure to polio, but when science focused on it, a cure was found. So, who will be the Jonas Salk of homelessness?

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Room In The Inn Part 3

(written for the February issue of The Contributor)

Room In The Inn is a winter shelter program for the Homeless in Nashville. The program is five months in duration, from November 1st to March 31st, covering most of the cold weather here.

In less than two months the program will be over for the season. Long gone are the fun filled and exciting days building up to its launch. The fund raisers and the clothing drives and the supply collections are over. So are all the pep-rallies and prayer circles and organizational meetings. So too are the holidays that coincide with the beginning of the Room In The Inn season. The excitement, the parties are all over, all that is left now is the work. And the work is becoming monotonous, and tiresome, and perhaps feeling less than rewarding. Dealing with some of the homeless who seem less than grateful has left some volunteers feeling jaded. Some volunteers are dropping out, and as the end of the season approaches some whole churches will drop out early, leaving more work for those who remain.

The homeless are feeling it too. The benefits of getting off the streets and into a nice peaceful environment are starting to pale in comparison to all the drudgery of submitting to the process necessary for participating in the system. More is demanded of the homeless staying in Room In The Inn than staying at the Rescue Mission, or just staying outside for the night. The church volunteers are less enthusiastic, less willing to engage the homeless. Supplies commonly available at the beginning of the program, like soap and toothpaste, socks and shirts, etc., are more difficult to find. The lack of sleep that is part and parcel of this kind of shelter system makes the homeless more tired, and perhaps a bit depressed.

Admittedly, the situation is not this bad for every church and organization working Room In The Inn. But the burn out happens to everyone to a certain extent. So, now is the time to recognize, and do something about it. It's time to re-energize, time to have new and motivating pep-rallies and prayer circles, time to recruit new volunteers to help finish out the season. It's time to restock the food pantry and clothing room and other necessities. Homeless people still need to take showers and brush their teeth and dress in clean and appropriate clothing. More than ever, as the end of Room In The Inn approaches, the homeless need to see and connect with caring and supportive people, and prepare mentally and otherwise for the change. Additionally everyone is getting cabin fever, even the homeless. It is still the middle of winter. It's time to break the monotony, shake things up a bit, and get recharged for the remaining 6 to 8 weeks of Room In The Inn.

Whatever your church or organization did to prepare for the start of Room In The Inn this season, it needs to do it again, now.
I was asked about something I wrote in the previous article about having a "sleep-in" church. Most of the churches return the homeless to the campus of Room In The Inn fairly early in the morning. This means that the homeless have to be awakened even earlier, so to eat breakfast, clean up, gear up, and take the ride back into town. Over an extended period, this can bring on problems of sleep deprivation. So, it would really benefit the homeless, allowing them more rest than they usually get, if they were allowed to sleep-in occasionally. The question was about the homeless needing to draw tickets in the morning for their next nights stay.

Many if not most participants in Room In the Inn will want to get back to the campus early so to draw their next ticket, but that is not really necessary. Participants are allowed to draw tickets in the morning and in the afternoon. Many prefer to get their tickets in the morning, but it is not mandatory. There are churches that do certain things with their Room In The Inn program that outside the normal function. Some will want all their homeless guests to attend a church service, or they will want to take all their guests out to dinner at a local restaurant. All that is necessary for this to happen if for the church to notify the administration of Room In The Inn prior to the event so that they can assign the people who would be willing to participate in whatever your church is offering. And I am certain that when the call is made for those interested in going to a church that will allow them to sleep in a couple hours, they will have no problem finding takers.