We're sitting in the Grizzly Peak Roasting Co. listening to tales of the homeless, who want a permanent camp in Ashland, so they can have a place to conduct their subversive activities, like doing laundry, making dinner and sleeping.
It's sure to set the landed, the great washed masses, a-howl, reports the mayor.
I've done stories on this before. Most of the presentation is about what it's like to be homeless, which always puts my guts in a slow roll. I do stories on cancer and much worse things, but this homelessness story always gets to me. Why, I wonder. I realize that, well, if you get cancer, there's no shame. It can befall anyone. You battle it and heal or you die.
But, if the right series of nasty things happen, like being sued, robbed, hit with health problems (without insurance, like so many of us), then you could be out there, living in your car or camping in the watershed. In that situation, you not only would be coping with poverty, hunger and the elements -- but also with unspeakable shame.
Everyone you pass on the street would recognize you as homeless. You would not have that determined pace of someone on his way to the market, bank or video store. You are here, being you, in this moment, on the street. Also, your clothes look different. They're built for temperature extremes and show a bit of the earth you sleep so near
Unlike being black, Mexican, Jewish, gay, female or any of the other previous outgroups, it's clearly understood by mainstream people (the ones looking the other way as they pass you) that you are a voluntary subgroup -- and you can and should change and be like them, getting educated and working to pay for house, car, furniture and the kids' college all your days.
These homeless, they talk too long -- so I think. Then I realize they talk too long because no one's listening. We don't want to listen. We have our minds made up. There are jobs. They can work. End of story. The police should increase their harassment so the homeless leave our nice, white, unaffordable town, whose prices are supposed to keep out all the outgroups, so we can be safe and happy, smiling, talking with and hugging people like us.
Finally, this one homeless guy talks sooo long and I get so tired of listening to him that I finally start hearing him. He tells the mayor that he could easily get a job and be dying slowly in a cheap suit, selling widgets to yahoos at the strip mall in Medford but that, guess what, even though he's homeless, he's got a mind, soul, visions and "I'll do hard work occasionally, but I want to fulfill my potential and express myself, not be stuck in some slave job!"
Ok, I'm semi-enlightened but I'm conditioned to a lot of prejudices and unexamined assumptions, like everyone else and this guy's statement brings them up bigtime. What right has this homeless guy to expect and demand self-fulfillment and self-expression, when he (now the conditioned Babbitt in me is near-apoplectic) HASN'T EARNED IT!
Ah, here we are at ground zero. So, he can have life and liberty (lite version), but what right has he to claim pursuit of happiness? He's homeless! But, in testimony a few days later with the Ashland Housing Commission, 30 of these homeless people start spelling it out.
Randy, Ashland's most visible and verbal homeless guy, tells them, hey, a great case can be made that society isn't responsible for its poor, that you shouldn't reward laziness, that it will be the ruin of our nation's moral fiber, that the individual's fate is in his/her hands, but the reality is that it's in everyone's best interest for the homeless to have a safe and legal place in our community to make the transition, not to careers and home ownership but -- ready? Now listen to this -- to less desperate and more productive lives AS WHO THEY ARE.
They don't want to change. They're just like us. We don't want to change. They have become a "tribe," as one woman, Montana, termed them. The American Dream, for them, is not a good dream, but a boring, empty servitude to huge, lifelong mortgage, insurance and tax payments (add college tuition now).
As it was at one time criminalized to be gay or black, it's criminalized to be homeless and by the way, I think it's time for a different term for that, rather than describing them by what they don't have -- and we think they should have. How about post-tribal? How about the Lightly Living? How about Extreme Voluntary Simplicity?
With repeated listening to their stories, what I come away with is a picture, I'm sure some of it projections, of a people who are deeply feeling, very present, living in the now, able to speak feelings clearly, passionate, funny, sincere, connected with one another in a seeming tribal way, engaged in policing one another's behavior, desiring to live lightly with as few possessions (and bills) as possible, keenly aware and appreciative of nature and the fate of the earth, deeply troubled by and apart from our consumerist system and wanting a lite, low-impact village that (to me, as a student of prehistory) seems about like a Neolithic or Native American village (plus electricity and composting toilets).
Also, I think they're a lot more fun and interesting to be around than any 30 people, say, in a Medford apartment complex.
Randy's right. The "homeless problem" is not going to go away. What it's going to do is stop being a problem, because we, as a society, will start accepting that these Neo-Tribal folk not only have every right to be here, but have every right to be who they are and reject this consumerist system that is clearly endangering, nay, destroying our planet.
After hearing their plans for a community garden, interdependent, self-policing living, toilets that don't send waste to creeks and other sustainable community ideas that we're not doing, city housing commission member Alice Hardesty told them, hey, you never know when bad times might befall our nation or city and we might need to know these things.
Yes, Alice, we just might. In fact, truth be told, we all know we definitely will need to know these things -- especially living together interdependently, lightly and in harmony with nature. We all know it's coming. Our world-gobbling expansion is drawing to a close. And it's time to stop blaming the ones bringing the message to us.
John Darling is an Ashland writer and counselor