There’s an interesting conversation going on over on Amanda Palmer’s blog about the difference between asking and begging. They’re talking about it from the perspective of the relationship between artists and fans, crowd funding vs labels and agents, which interests me a great deal as an artist, but I’m also interested in the ideas as a person who’s been homeless.
Homelessness is one of the most screwed up, misunderstood, pervasive mess of a thing in our world. It’s a monster we don’t really even begin to understand. It’s something I’m wrestling with as I try to make life decisions about housing. It’s changed me in ways I’m still coming to terms with. I’ve never slept rough but I’ve run from violence. My girlfriend Rose has done both, first on the streets at 13. I’ve slept in shelters, on couches, in my car, and lived in a caravan park. There’s two big, complex, deeply unfair aspects to homelessness that most people do not appreciate when they give the topic a cursory glance:
- We have an absolutely bizarre, expensive, exclusive, complex system of housing. No other animal on earth has to spend a third or more of their lives working to own a home. Only a couple of hundred years ago, here in Australia we were settled by people who built their own homes from wattle and daub and whatever other materials they could find, in an act that is now illegal. Indigenous Australians certainly didn’t spend most of their lives trying to afford basic shelter. We have created this problem.When I had nowhere to live it was illegal for me to squat in disused housing. Illegal for me to sleep in my car on public property. Illegal for me to put up a tent on the beach, in a park, or by the side of the road. Illegal for me to find shelter in stairwells, drains, porches, bus stops, or emergency waiting rooms at hospitals. Illegal for me to camp out in the backyard of a friend in public housing. Illegal for me to stay more than a month at most caravan parks. We have made housing extremely difficult to attain for a lot of our population, while making being homeless illegal.
- Homelessness is not just about shelter. It is also about community. To be in a place where I am sleeping in my car means I have run out of social support. I have no friends who own investment properties they can rent out to me. I have no family willing or safe or in the same country. I have no mates who can drag out the sofa bed. We do not solve this problem merely by providing shelter to people, because if you’ve been homeless for awhile, you change. Your social world changes. You make friends on the streets. Most people learn how to steal food and basic supplies because getting welfare without a fixed address and a lot of paperwork is extremely difficult. Once you’ve adapted to that world, being dropped alone into an empty unit with no furniture, no community, and the culture shock of a world that includes a shower every day and a toothbrush is overwhelming. Many people go back to what they know. It took me over a year to get back my basic routines like brushing my teeth, for them to be easy and automatic processes I went through every day. That process was filled with shame and loneliness.
Homelessness has changed me. The cost was extremely high. It alienated me from my own society in ways I’m still struggling with. I hated everyone who had a place of their own, somewhere to keep their belongings safe, somewhere safe to sleep, a hub where they could sit behind windows and look out at the world and decide what they were going to do, and when, and how. Being homeless was about constant change, moving from one place to the next. It was about loss – my belongings, my pets, my garden. It was about failure – having to withdraw from uni studies because it was impossible to sustain them. Life becomes day to day, about survival, about where is the next meal coming from. Driving around Adelaide with a cardboard box of food as my pantry. Living on sandwiches from the service stations. Homelessness was about desperation and fear and shock.
I begged services for help. I rang every single service I could find and begged. There was no asking. Asking can accept a yes or no. I needed. I begged. I was told no. I got into free counselling at a local clinic. The counsellor told me there are empty beds in empty houses all through Adelaide. I just have to be persistent enough to get one. Keep ringing them. Insist. I keep ringing them. I was refused. Over and over. I was four months too old to access the youth homelessness program. Frustrated workers got angry with me, implied that it was my fault I was homeless. They told me that 26 year old people don’t become homeless. They told me that no one cares if they do. Told me I could sleep in the parklands. Told me to stop calling. The humiliation was unbearable. I stopped begging.
With my friends, I didn’t even ask. I couldn’t bear to. I knew that I’d beg, and that if they said no, I wouldn’t be able to look them in the eye again. Wouldn’t be able to pull a blanket of deniability over my pain and shame. I figured that if anyone had a resource they could share, they’d offer it. I embarrassed no one. When sleeping on couches, I left when asked. I didn’t cry, didn’t beg, didn’t ask for another night. Somewhere in my heart is a frozen scream that makes it almost impossible to love, or forgive, or believe in other people. Shame and rage.
Asking vs begging.
Asking comes from a place where the other person is free to say yes or no. Begging comes from need, from desperation. I want to be in a world where I’m never begging. I want to be in a world where all my friends are always free in how they respond to me, where they offer from love, deny from love, where guilt and fear and shame and power never enter our relationships. Because my homelessness was not their doing, and their burdens were already many. We tangle want and need in our culture, use the same terms for both. Need is raw, and harsh, and when we speak from it, it sears us. We’re ashamed of it and we feel deeply betrayed when other people don’t hear that we’re not asking, we’re begging. Ask anyone who’s ever been life-threateningly ill and watched most of their friends drift away. We’re used to being able to ask. Begging, when we’re forced to it, is something else entirely.
Begging, and the loss of dignity that comes with it – for the one who begs and the one who is begged of, is the reason we have welfare.
A poor man, as distinct from a complete pauper, has at least some sort of dwelling and he does not dress in rags but respectably. Poverty can be noble, by pauperage is repulsive… You are the powers that be, and your primary responsibility is to ensure that every inhabitant of this province has a piece of bread and roof over his head, since without these basic necessities man cannot have any dignity, and a man without dignity is not a citizen. Not everyone can be rich… but everyone must be fed – not only for the sake of the destitute but for everyone else’s sake as well, so that they do not have to hide away shamefacedly from the poor as they eat their fine white bread. Those who feast in the midst of wailing and misery will not be dignified.
from Pelagia and the White Bulldog by Boris Akunin.
It’s the reason we need a radical shake up of how our housing works. We don’t have to have the system we are used to. Many other places in the world use completely different approaches to housing, housing where all homes are owned by the state, and all tenants are paying to own rather than to rent. Housing that can be built by communities or individuals, and cost a few months wages rather than 10 years. I’m not saying it’s easy or that all the alternatives work, issues with tent city slums and high rise ghettos are terrifying. But what we have is appalling, we have maintained the dignity of the housed by keeping the homeless in our midst invisible.
We can also look at a community and culture change. I remember once speaking with a lovely hippy girl at a party. When the topic of homelessness came up I talked about how painful it was when a worker told me derisively that I was lucky to have a car to sleep in, with the implication that I had no right to whine because so many other people had it worse. The hippy gave me an odd look and told me that, well, I WAS lucky to have a car to sleep in. I felt punched in the gut.
I’ve thought it over a lot since and come to consider that community is probably the difference between her situation and mine. When you are part of a broad network such as the hippy subculture, home isn’t bricks and mortar. Ownership isn’t the same. Some degree of nomadic travelling is normal. Barter trade for handmade goods is normal. WWOOFING (working for rent) is normal. Home is your friends, is your experiences, is your capacity to offer something to that community and to rely on it.
This is not what I experienced because I lost almost my entire social network through relationship breakdown and domestic violence. I didn’t have a sense of family anymore, much less an extended one. I had nothing to trade or barter because I was exhausted, extremely sick, and in severe mental and emotional pain. I had no safe hub to keep precious belongings. I had no idea what the next week, month, or 5 years held for me. I lived on the edge of my life, with a tenuous hold on the world, fighting to survive and chronically suicidal. I was disabled by chronic physical illness and barely able to care for my basic needs. The first time I was homeless I had not yet been diagnosed with Dissociative Identity Disorder, but I was a switchy, confused mess, drowning in a dissociative crisis. When my car broke down one night driving back to a flat I rented with the help of a friend for a year, there was no one to call, no money for the RAA. I walked kilometres home in the small hours of the night, alone and afraid to a unit that I could not afford to stay in for long although I loved it dearly. On another occasion, I was on the run with a family member who was in the grip of a mental breakdown. I stayed for the allowed 2 weeks in a motel organised by a domestic violence service. At night I would lie in the bed, listening to the sounds of glass breaking as the men came to the motel, which was well known as a cheap local place that women on the run were housed, and reclaimed their women. During the day I fought with the mental health services to find care for my desperately suicidal family member, and tried to coax them to eat anything. There was a screaming pain in me that never went away.
Begging changes you. Every support I accessed, every bit of generous assistance I was offered by friends or by services, frightened and humiliated me. There’s a bitterness and a terror of being beholden to other people that has profoundly affected my capacity to engage with other people. My experiences with services were brutal and degrading. After being in a homelessness shelter in 2006, I made the call that next time, suicide would be higher on my list of personal responses to homelessness than seeking support from a shelter. I was surprised by people’s sympathy for my life in a caravan park, which was often peaceful, and their assumptions that a shelter run for women escaping domestic violence would be safe and peaceful, when my experiences with the staff were anything but. They refused to allow me to bring my scooter even though I was very ill and unable to walk far unaided. On cleaning days we were locked out of the facility and told to walk into town. Unable to walk that far I sat in the gutter and cried. I watched as young women who had bravely fled their known, but violent, lives for the total unknown of a DV shelter with two bags of clothes get housed in boarding facilities full of older violent men with criminal histories and drug addictions. Such courage rewarded with such suffering. For this, we are expected – we are required – to be grateful. We exchange the brutality of domestic violence for state sponsored violence against our dignity for which we are to blame and for which we should be grateful.
When I was incoherent with rage, a friend once summed up my own feelings for me; I’d rather die on my feet than live on my knees.
Another friend once kindly drove me around Adelaide in a heatwave to buy me one of the last evaporative (water cooled) air conditioners going because my health problems were causing me to suffer chronic heat stroke. I sat in the car in a frozen state, unable to speak, my hands dripping with sweat from anxiety, feeling like I was going to vomit, as around and around my brain two voices looped endlessly: “What is this going to cost me?” and “I hate myself“. My response to their generosity was terrified withdrawal, silence, an inability to tolerate touch or make eye contact for months. I remember stuttering as I forced myself to look them in the face to say thankyou when they left, hoping that somewhere through my terror I’d been polite, that I’d communicated that I appreciated their gift. There’s no dignity in this.
A generous friend who’d helped with money over and over during my homelessness once visited to say sorry for not offering to house me when I had nowhere to go. And I couldn’t deal with it, couldn’t reply, because by saying it they’d broken my pact not to look it in the face. How then could I respond? I had no words to explain the mess inside of me, that I loved them for their kindness, and envied them their house, and hated them for having what I did not, and felt grateful and blessed and humiliated by their care, and worthless, and that I forgave them, and that I could not forgive them or anyone else for the suffering I’d been through while they had not, that my world has collapsed while theirs continued, and that I hated myself and wanted to die and felt broken beyond mending and unworthy and defiant and furious about issues between us I couldn’t resolve because I owed them too much to make any criticism of them, and that I had words for none of this.
How to speak of the nights where the ghosts of everyone in my former life came and stood my bed as I tried to sleep, and tormented me in nightmares? How to speak of my rage when new friends told me that things would be okay now, when I knew my life was built on dandelion and would blow away in the next breeze, like it did, leaving me homeless again. The raw intense rage and pain I was always swallowing down and trying not to show. The Gap between me and the rest of the world. My desperation not to destroy the few relationships I had left. I was paralysed. Living in agony amidst regular lives and trying to hide the signs so that I wouldn’t be rejected. Most of my friends – for various reasons – trying to do the same.
Homelessness and poverty. Asking and begging. Alienation and community.
Sitting in my public housing unit now, watching the afternoon sun grow golden against the far wall. There’s a hate in me that would do violence against even the good people, a dog that bites the hand that feeds. I understand the rage of the disenfranchised, the place where dreams and dignity break and all that remains is an empty amusement at the world of attachment – at people so hopelessly invested in their lives that they hurt when you take things from them. These are the young on our streets, setting fires, breaking windows, tearing apart what little safety we’ve been able to craft for ourselves. They are part of the chaos and the pain now, it speaks through them and moves their hands to spread the night.
How to find grace in this place? I have been a poor leper, shrinking from touch.
The Lepers Who Let Us Embrace Them
by Kathy Coffey
Youthful, healthy, oozing joy,
Francis gets the credit.
Yet what of one who watched
him coming, dreading charity?
Which one is named saint? One rose
beyond hostility and shame to grace.
Centuries owe the leper thanks; he,
compassionate, accepted Francis’ kiss
(see the whole poem here)
How to forgive myself? How to forgive anyone? How to build a life from this, this wreckage, more, this black earth, so rich and fertile. Where lies our security? Where is my home? How do I, as a person who is often sick, who needs welfare to survive, who lives in this culture, this strange world, live and make choices with dignity? Asking vs begging.
Long grow the shadows into the light.