Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Why I'm doing this blog

So many of us just walk or drive straight past beggars and homeless people, often seeing them as a bit of a nuisance or an eyesore. I see people. Is that weird? Many of us will say that a man who stands on a street corner begging, holding a note on cardboard and clutching a scruffy bag is just lazy and useless. Is that true? Sure, you could say that, for them, this is their lifestyle of choice, or that they made bad decisions, or that they don't really want homes. Or that we have to be responsible for our own lives, and they need to be responsible for their own. I'm not sure how much of that's true.

There is a real attraction to the freedom of the road, and to live "outside the rat race" - that I've experienced myself - but at the end of the day can we really tell ourselves that these human beings that sleep by the sides of roads, or eat from garbage cans, or drink booze till they're knocked cold - freezing or soaking some nights - are anything less that human beings? There must be some psychological problem or awful spiritual poverty, if not financial poverty, that leads any man to ending up this way, surely?

So shouldn't there be some better, more effective help for them? Or are they society's warning to us: "Shape up within the system, jump when you're told to, and have some definite value, or face the consequences"?

Having suffered from post traumatic stress myself, I understand something of the awful fears that can beset a person just in everyday functioning and simple decision making. In the United States, many of these men we see on the streets have been traumatised by war, overwhelming personal, physical or emotional difficulties, or have simply been victims of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. So many are mentally ill: not in some dramatic, bizarre way, but in a spirit wrecking, sad and depressed way.

When I see what I can only describe as obscene wealth in the United States that lives right alongside this poverty and helplessness, I can't help thinking that something's so very wrong: not just with our leaders, but with ourselves for being so collectively negligent of others. I guess fear's at the root of it - fear, and a sense of helplessness in us as individuals, even to help in some small way.

I really do believe we should personalise the homeless. I want to document the stories behind the faces that we so often choose to not look into. I hope that'll be one of the main functions of this blog: to help people see that there were once regular lives going on for the homeless, and that it's really a case of "there but for the grace of God go I", when we think more deeply about them.

When I came to America in 1997 I landed in Phoenix, which I chose as a symbol of rebirth. Silly, I know, but I wanted to tell myself clearly that I was doing something for me and I needed the symbolism. Symbolism is powerful. Things had got bad for me in the UK and I felt I just needed to take desperate measures in order to survive, psychologically, and to reinvent my life. I looked upon it as an executive decision, like abandoning ship or ejecting from a plane. Not the ideal thing to do, but it seemed appropriate at the time for me to get a completely different perspective on my life - even if it just meant a different set of problems. For a while I was actually homeless, pretty much penniless, and quite desperate. But I know now that were it not for the fact that I'm white and English, surviving in America would have been a lot more difficult for me. And it hasn't been particularly easy! I've been in a few scrapes, pretty much from day one.

So one wonders just how difficult it must be for these men - and occasionally women - who end up on the streets, who don't have the bonus of having a cute accent or perhaps white skin; the love, support, education and luck I've had.

I heard that in the United States the main cause of homelessness is the inability to pay medical bills. A single hospital bill can wipe out someone who's on the breadline. Many, many Americans live so close to the edge, earning poor wages, that they can't afford medical insurance.

Is it any wonder that they end up on the streets, then? And how do they get back into the system, with no money, a fucked up mind, a tired body, no home, and no credit? Yet we call them lazy and useless. Fact is, these people have simply crashed at some point in their lives, and there was nobody to help them. They're burned out, way beyond any place we dare imagine.

But any one of us can crash, right? Even driving our Hummers or our SUV's or any one of our nice, new paid-on-credit cars, we can crash. No car, no matter how expensive, is that safe. Would we expect one of these homeless people to pull us out of a wrecked car, were they around to do so? I'd hope they would, and I'm pretty certain any one of them would. We expect that behaviour of our fellows in society, don't we? It's at times like that - our own crises - that the illusion that we're separated from the rest of humanity is dispelled, after all.

So why don't we just help them out of their own crashed state?

I really believe it's because of the collective denial that we have that we're helpless, ultimately. And it's that collective denial that leads us to thinking that what we are is "a success" or "a failure" in life, and that we've "done it by ourselves". It's ironic that one of the greatest insults you can bestow on someone in the US is to call him a "loser". Competition is deeply ingrained in the American psyche. To win is good. Sure, we all know it is. But it's an illusion that we "do it alone"

Or could it be that we really are just slaves and masters again, as the gulf between the haves and the have nots widens?

Albert Einstein once said that capitalism relies on an army of unemployed. I understand something of that - of course it does. Communism certainly doesn't work. A man's labours - whether it's with his mind or his body - should be adequately rewarded. Levelling society to a place where each is forced to be as wealthy - or as poor - as the next man is foolish. It didn't work in the Soviet Union. Capitalism, properly administered, is healthy. The effective organisation of labour is tied to a market economy. That's undeniable. But the spirit of cooperation has to be in place, in my opinion. And a society must have compassion for its weaker elements, surely? For what is a society without compassion?

That's my bit said for now. Maybe this is something of my Englishness coming out. The effects of growing up in a socialist country, perhaps. Who knows? Don't get me wrong: I like my stuff as much as the next man. I just like to feel I can look people in the eyes, that's all. Maybe that's why I take photos of homeless people.

7 comments:

Basiballi said...

Hey this blog is not about cash flow

I have been doing hours of research on "cashflow" and it brought me to your blog on Why I'm doing this blog. Anyways, Jack I was reading your blog and I think it is really cool. It’s really a pleasure reading your posts! Keep up the great work.

Keep blogging away :-)

Vivian said...

Thank you for your story.Iam a mother who is searching desperately to help a family in need.Who has been down on their luck.The father in trouble d\t poor choices which has put his children in CPS .Sadly this family is my sons and I am at a lost where to get help.

Jose said...

I have been living in Austin for two years and I'm in agree with about what you've written. Probbably because I'm an european too, and I can see the cost of living when you just try to survive in this country where you don't receive any government's help.

As a society, we should learn how to deal with homeless and help them to leave their actual situation. First step doing that it has to be knowing them as you are doing throught this blog.


Great job!!

Jose said...

I have been living in Austin for two years and I'm in agree with about what you've written. Probbably because I'm an european too, and I can see the cost of living when you just try to survive in this country where you don't receive any government's help.

As a society, we should learn how to deal with homeless and help them to leave their actual situation. First step doing that it has to be knowing them as you are doing throught this blog.


Great job!!

biko said...

You sound more homeless than the "homeless".
Maybe that's just an english thing i don't know.

Kitkat said...

Hi Guy's

There are two blog's we are asking you to check out.

http://homelessundergound.org/

http://www.twusea.org/

SSGT Amanda Long
1/45 82nd Ranger (retired)

txpaintme said...

I cant believe the way out system is here my brother is homeless and has mental illnes and is not able to jump thru hoops like the structures here want why cant we address the issues here and move on. Provide Shelter with some dignity they are peolple too yet we chose to send cash everywhere else. Come on people! lets help ours including our veterans!! sorry i get off my high horse frustrated