Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Six middle and high school volunteers from Idaho Falls, Idaho arrived at the center on Friday to help cleanup. They were on an urban immersion. And so, after giving them the 20 minute tour of what we do and what we’re about I looked over longingly at the Seldom Seen Acting Company whose rehearsal I was missing. I decided, instead of cleaning up the center, to ask the Company if the kids could be included.

An amazing thing happened.

The Company was brainstorming new ideas for its second production, Season II of the Seldom Seen Acting Company. They were putting ideas for plot, character, place, and language on index cards. The Company was kind enough to include the young volunteers. So the Idahoans all sat timidly down, having just learned that the guys in the center were almost all on-the-street homeless people and many former drug users and ex-felons. There’s something special about youth, however, which allows the fears and stereotypes to drain away so fast: the kids jumped into the mix without fear. One suggested “an immigrant” as a character, another offered “mental patient,” and “junkie,” and a third put “hospital” into the mix of places.

After brainstorming about a dozen ideas for each category, each Idahoan was placed with a member of the Company and assigned the task of picking one idea from each category. The pair was then to create and perform the makeshift scene in front of everybody and report what they learned. The performances that ensued were hilarious, touching, silly, and completely earnest. For instance, I myself was a mental patient playing a scene with my Idaho friend who was a junkie. We were in Africa and were fighting over clothing and haircuts. Oh, and our language was gibberish. In another scene JR was a grandfather rooting on his grandson who was a Warriors basketball player during the Championship game (he won and the grandfather was proud). In another, Isaac was a counselor for a kid who was convinced he should drop out of school.

And finally, the best for last: a scene between Jesus (played by Dennis) and a hospital volunteer discouraged by the lack of results in his field and convinced it was time to quit. Imagine the scene: a white, suburban, young man from Idaho prostrated and praying to a very black, uneducated, ex-dope fiend born and raised in Oakland. The contrasts alone were enough to make the scene stunning. Beneath what appeared to be irony, however, was a resounding truth: the wealthy kid of the “1/3 World” that has the privilege of enjoying the fruits of life was praying to the poor “2/3 World” that is on the verge of dying. The poor is Jesus according to the spirituality of Dorothy Day, the Liberation Theologians, and (dare I say it?) Frederick Oznam and St. Vincent de Paul himself. And in this scene, the poor man literally was Jesus. This picture should be on the front cover of any book about solidarity. It was truly priceless. This was solidarity. This was the embrace of the poor. The impoverished black man (Jesus nonetheless!) was gently whispering words of encouragement to the privileged kid. Heady theologians subscribing to Ignatian spirituality wait their entire lives for a moment like this. And here, a fearless kid from Idaho unwittingly finds himself wrapped in the arms of Jesus. His faith was great, indeed.

Don’t you see: the kids got to be homeless! They got a chance to really, truly empathize. They were forced to perform the thought experiment, to think about what life would be like on the street. This is making a difference. Imagine, now, how many seeds were planted in these kids. What kind of effect will this experience have on them? What kind of effect will my experience have on me?

Everybody bought into it. For a moment, we were all together as one.

You see, there’s no better service that volunteers can do than to interact with our clients—to simply be with them. This fellowship is what causes the fears and stereotypes to drain away. It just happens that these people previously considered sub-human (homeless people, black people, gay people, immigrants, substitute any marginalized population) all of the sudden get viewed righteously as part of the human family. This is what the Champion Guidance Center does. This is its greatest strength and its core mission: to restore dignity. When a person rejects another both the person rejected and the one doing the rejecting lose. Because not only are the clients less dignified on account of the discrimination but those who discriminate themselves, even if they do it unconsciously, also strip away their own dignity. You hurt yourself when you turn away from your neighbor. So, this fellowship restores dignity to both the one “being served” and the one “serving.” I believe, and I have to believe, that pain and suffering is nothing more than a failure to bring this awareness into consciousness. The Champion Guidance Center is in the business of breaking the veneer separateness. That’s what we did for those kids on Friday. And that’s why it was so special.

That’s why, when somebody asks me “what do I do when a homeless person asks me for a dollar?” I say, “you respond with love.” How would you, for instance, respond if it was your brother or sister approaching you on the street? This is the response we are called to give as family members of this human race, as Christians. What would you do? Well, you might start by offering him some food and maybe even put him up for a night or two. Impossible? That’s exactly what Dorothy Day did. That’s what Steve does. It’s what the Champion Guidance Center is desperately, desperately trying to do with Marion Village.

Do you get it yet?

Friday, July 07, 2006

Steve told me this one day while I was here: no matter what we do during the day, what happens, what are our worries, stresses, or concerns, we can’t help but be on the positive side of life. I am thankful for the opportunity to be on the positive side of life for a year. It has been transformative (as promised!) above and beyond all expectations. John Sutton asked me yesterday, when I told him that August 5 will come too soon, what was the best thing about it. I responded that I’ve learned to be open. In one sense it’s a gained ability to interact, communicate, and find friendships with people that are dirty, smelly, crazy, and generally socially unacceptable. In this way I’ve blossomed my natural pity—my penchant for including the classroom outcaste, for refusing to cut the freshman tennis player with a heart condition, etc. In short, I’m a far cry from Day One when Steve told me after realizing I was having trouble interacting, “a good way to break the ice with them is to say hello.” But in a deeper sense I’ve come to understand how abusive some of our guys are to themselves and how hard we can all be on ourselves. Also called by Steve, "cranial rectal insertion." At this point, if I had to answer succinctly the question, “why are people homeless,” I would respond: self-loathing.

Seeing sadness here has been unavoidable—it is so stark, obvious, physical, and different from my personal history. We witness rock bottom experiences. There are many kinds of people that find their way to the Champion. Some of the more touching, for me, have been the unexpected ones: the professional on the brink of emotional and relational breakdown who gives us service, the young volunteer grappling with addiction, the white collar criminal, etc. It makes JR’s monologue from Sleeping: It’s a Wakeup Call just a twinge weightier: “all people, from all lifestyles, are welcome.” And each rock bottom moment is special, sacred, and precious because we get to pay witness, to participate in, and every once in a while to actually be a catalyst for…hope.

But it is hard to pay witness to constant rock bottom. Sadder still, than seeing all the misery, is thinking about all of the people who are on their way down, the ones who will need our center in the future, “the addict” as we say before the customary moment of silence during Twelve Step meetings, “who still suffers.” I started wondering about all the others. I began seeing the sadness in my own life, in the lives of some of my closest friends, and within the privileged community from which I came. I found out, for example, after years of friendship, about a close friend’s traumatic childhood. I’ve come to realize that crack cocaine may be a drug of choice particular to the community we serve, but addiction is universal. In other words the center with its vividness forced me to confront suffering which, upon closer inspection, I discovered in areas previously hidden by materialism and distraction. In this place I have faced a tough choice: to either embrace trauma or else completely break down myself. I think this is why people are scared of the Champion. It forces us to make that choice.

I think self-loathing manifests the sadness which is medicated through our addictions, whether to crack, alcohol, sex, violence, gang banging, money, or power. So when I say I am thankful for the opportunity to be on the positive side of life, I mean I’m grateful to have learned self-compassion. Self-compassion floods in immediately after embracing trauma. Buddhists find wellsprings of compassion by visualizing suffering. I have been forced to see suffering and I have chosen to embrace it...sometimes, kind least, as best I can.

It is in this way that I have received far more than I gave this year. It is also in this way that August 5, 2006 very much represents a beginning, rather than an end for I have learned a great lesson—it seems to me one of the greatest—for it can’t help but be shared.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

"The Lord Provides" a.k.a Karma Exists UPDATE

Today, the very day the first posting of Karma Exists, the guy and his brother walked into our center. The guy's face lit up, he gave me a huge man hug. His brother was older, not younger it seems; too embaressed, perhaps, to come in the first time. It's a striking contrast: a young, short hyperactive guy with freshly cropped hair dressing, walking, and talking just like Eminem together with his older, tall, long-haired, laid back brother walking, and (not) talking just like Kurt Kobain.

I saw my shoes on Kurt Kobain today, the very day I told the story to the world.
"The Lord Provides" a.k.a. Karma Exists

So I'm writing an email to my sister about how I'm doing random acts of kindness for the little one in her womb for whom I am to be a spiritual guider (shout out to Jazzie...that's the baby's nickname given by my sister's college friends who had a penchant for the New Orlean's Jazz Festival). I'm telling my sister that I'm doing these random acts of kindness without having really started doing them. You know, one of those promises type things, it's like stock option karma.

As I'm banging out this email and guy pops his head into the office asking for shoes for his little brother--some sneakers. As we recently stopped giving out major clothing (anything other than t-shirts, underwear, and socks) there were no shoes in our hygiene room. I glanced down at my own feet and asked him what size his brother needed: size 12. I decided that since I had two other pairs of shoes at home he needed my size 12 Pete Sampras sneakers more than I did. So I gave him my shoes. He was shocked saying, "you're not kidding are you?" He left happy.

I walked around the center in my socks figuring that the worst thing to come of all this is a half day without shoes and a long walk home. When some of the guys saw me with no shoes they asked me what happened. I explained that I gave them away. In about 45 minutes a donation came in and David brought me into the storage area. There was a pair of brand new Wilson Pro Staff tennis shoes size 12 that had come in with the donation.

So I took them. This is a literal, physical example of, when you serve, receiving more than you give. You see, my Pete Sampras shoes were half a decade old. Now I walk around with brand new tennis shoes. At first, I felt guilty about this. I mean, the brother should have received these new shoes because, while I may not be able to afford shoes this year, I'm confident in the fact that I'll leave this place and, eventually, be making a living wage. This guy and his brother may never get there. But I'm learning to live in the moment. I'm learning to receive as much as to give. Who am I to say that the guy and his brother won't be making a living wage and who am I to be so confident that I will be? Besides, I gave him my shoes before the donation came in; if I hadn't he might have left completely shoeless and then the new shoes would have gone to somebody that didn't need them.

It's like when I sit down to eat some donated food with the guys. When I first came I thought I had to deny myself: I should let all the poor homeless people eat and then I can eat if there's anything left over. But now I take part equally.

It's this kind of thing that really makes me believe in karma. If you give from your heart, out of pure generosity, without any strings (or, as Steve says, "maybe just a few"), then you are repaid in multiples. The cosmic forces, it seems, didn't want me to walk around in socks all day--to reap the arrogant rewards of prostrating myself in front of the poor like some sick modern Pharisee. I gave the shoes because somebody else needed them. I received some shoes because I needed them.

My JVC administrator commented later that she felt like giving me a hug and then slapping me in the face. Is it obvious that she's a nun? I took this to meant that my undertaking was heartfelt but misguided. It took me about seven months into this year to realize that I could, literally, give the shirt off my back in this place if I so choose.

But you know, sometimes a man just needs some shoes. He doesn't need your program for living, he doesn't need your ideas on how he's mentally ill, he doesn't need a lecture.

Besides, it was all for Jazzie.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

In late February some members of the Seldom Seen Acting Company and others from the Champion Guidance Center went to the American Conservatory Theatre (A.C.T.) in San Francisco to see a professional production of August Wilson's "Gem of the Ocean." As the Company's director put it, noBODY, charges more than the A.C.T. The A.C.T. is where the rich go to play. Interesting then, that a troupe of homeless men and women and their friends should be in attendance. Much thanks to the people of A.C.T. for their generous donation.

The evening was complete with a pre-performance trip to a lavish New York Deli immediately across the street from the theatre. It was one of the best meals of my life.

For two hours or more the men and women of the Champion Guidance Center--11 of us in total--ate like kings (and believe me when I tell you that not a crumb was left untouched), drank coffee and coke, and laughed big belly laughs. We made fun of each other constantly and told jokes left and right. It was, in the truest sense, an experience of family. And what a diverse family! Afrian Americans, latinos, white, homeless, transitioning folks, teachers, social workers, educated and uneducated alike. Let me tell you, we were jiving. We brought out the best in each other. You see, at only the slightest of opportunities, the joy of the human spirit is evident down at the Center. There is much sadness, indeed, but in the midst of all the pain, allt he suffering, all the depression, violence, anger, rage, and sorrow, just below the surface of all this negativity, there is a sensitivity. The Buddhists would call it "bodhichitta." It is a change in experiences, like going to a play in San Francisco, which often allows the spirit to break free.

And then came the play. What a powerful experience! This was art--both the play itself, the effect it had on the Company, and the Company's presence at the theatre. The connections between the characters in 1904 Pittsburg were powerfully similar to the current life situation of African Americans living in downtown Oakland. The similarities were uncanny, extending all the way down to sayings, modes of speech, even clothing. When someone inquired about Solly "Two Kings," he responded, "I'm blessed. I'm blessed." This very same response can be heard from Dennis--the resident Deacon in our community--in much the same voice.

Row J, seats 1, 3, 5, 7, 9, 11, 13, 15 and Row D, seats 1, 3, and 5 responded with their hearts and they responded in different ways at different times. Oftentimes we laughed big belly laughs when the rest of the audience fell silent. They didn't get it. Other times we were deathly silent or offered a supportive grunt--the kind you utter when somebody shares the bare naked truth even when it hurts--when the rest of the audience felt pulled toward laughter. You see, you have to understand, to live and breath the African culture in America. I was priveleged to identify with certain parts because I happen to be an observer of the play's modern day counteparts at a homeless drop-in center in downtown Oakland. But don't you see: the play was written in their language. There was no intellectual, ivory tower leap that they needed to make. There was no thought experiment to undertake. The play was their play. It literally used their words! And so, one of our illiterate friends can exit the play singing the old negro spiritual from the trip the City of Bones and wonder where his own two pennies are going to be found. He got it.

We were smoking cigarettes at intermission and Dennis was concerned about his money. A friend of his, a Company member himself, apparently owed Dennis. I told him he was being too much like Ceasar. He said "I ain't like Caesar, I'm like that man with the stick. If he don't give me my money I'm going to break his bones!" How could I argue with that?! He could have said that in the play without it skipping a beat. Our men are real life versions of the lives portrayed on stage by highly skilled professional actors. But these actors were so good, so polished, so rehearsed, that their life, to me, was almost indistiguishable from the lives I see lived at the Champion Guidance Center.

Man I wish we could have spoken with the cast.

I wonder how many of the audience members hated Caesar; but how many of those same people turn a blind eye to capital punishment. Afterall, the law is the law and without the law there is chaos.

The juxstaposition of Christian dogma against African tribal ritual is a tightrope walked daily by our guys. In the Center even the preachy tone that the evangelical brothers often undertake when sharing from the Gospel or from the Old Testament always carries this twinge of a more spiritual, more mystical experience. The more vehement their argue for Christian dogma the more vehement the belief in spirits, ghosts, and devils. Dennis always talks to me about the Devil's influence. He really believes in a personal Devil--someone or something out there trying to influence people to make wrong choices. This personification of the Evil One is something outside my realm of beliefs--a thought that I reject. But in the context of Dennis' spirituality it seems to have roots in African spirituality. The characters take a trip to the City of Bones, they perform something that looks like an excorism, they cast out the Devil. The dialogue in the play about how God threw Lucifer out of heaven and how he really did not treat others how he would be treated (surely God wouldn't have wanted his own self thrown out of heaven) represents the point at which Christian teaching falls short of speaking to the African. It was superimposed on them anyway, was it not? But nevertheless the story of Jesus Christ resounds. Aunt Ester wounders why Peter denied Jesus three times, three times. Mythical charaters--Aunt Ester counted among them--are always good teachers. The holes in the Christian dogma were apparent to Solly. The contradiction between the Old Testament and the New Testament were explored.

Aunt Ester talked about how everyone come into her house looking for something but what they're really looking for is love. This is exactly what our guys are looking for. Everybody has a hole in their soul, everybody needs their soul washed. They need love. And they need to face their deamons, they need to face God, their Gatekeeper, they need to say "My name is Joe Adams, and I stole the bucket of nails."

She told the intruder to go and get her purse and she would give him $2 out of it. She trusted him regardless of his obvious reputation as a scoundrel. This is what we do at the Center. We trust the scoundrel, we give the keys to the center ("the keys to the kingdom") to the low-down rotten drug dealer, the pimp, the hustler, the prostitute.

The economic frustration experienced by Citizen is rampant for the guys that come into the Center. As Citizen said, "every time I get some money, seems like it belongs to someone else." The woman who signed up for Homeless Court just last month wrote a letter about the gap in her income: "I'm always behind in something," she wrote. Citizen lamented how the mill promised him $2.50 a day, they gave him $1.50, they took $1.25 for "room and board." But when they didn't feed him he had to spend $.50 on food, leaving him $.25 in debt every week. There was not getting out. Emancipation made freedom the law, but the sharecropper system implemented after Abraham Lincoln's made it impractical.

The line about the situation being Abraham Lincoln's fault garnered many laughs from the audience. Most were probably from the white folks dismissing it as ironic. But the laughs from our guys may have been more like laugh you laugh just before you start to cry. You see, Abraham Lincoln gave the African freedom but didn't provide any support systems for taking advantage of it. It's like when the Allied troops rolled into Nazi concentration camps and the prisoners walked out of the gates confused, totally incapable of understanding what had just happend. When captivitiy is extended for a long period of time, freedom, it seems, is dislodged from the psyche. That's why Solly cried when he got to Canada. The air didn't smell different. Food didn't taste different. All he knew was his family was still on the battlefield in the United States and he had to stay on the battlefield until everybody was out of it. Freedom seemed hallow unless you were raging against captivity.

I am forced to wonder, now, "how free our the people we serve?" Sometimes it seems we still have yet to make the Emancipation Proclomation a reality. Lyndon claims, as a black man, to be a member of history's unwanted race, and I think there's some truth to that. But I tell you, on this half day, for at least several hours we were wanted. You see, within the story told by August Wilson--the one about Solly Two Kings and Ceasar and Aunt Ester--is the story of August Wilson himself, a giant literary figure and an African American. Thanks to August Wilson, the men of the Champion Guidance Center were able to hear their own story--the story of their history, their spirituality, their love life, their mothers, their fears, and their dreams--told by a fellow just like them. But August Wilson's story (both the one who wrote and the one he lived) is one of hope. Because he made it, he created purpose, he shocked the world of playwriting and he stuck it to everybody when he refused to stray from his singular purpose of chartering the map of the African American experience for all to see. The message, to me, was that August Wilson had made it to Canada, he had been released from the Nazi concentration camp, and then he pushed on. He waded through the hangover of slavery, of sharecropping, of Jim Crow laws, and of the corporate glass ceiling. He freed his mind and dedicated his work to awakening the minds of his own people. This steadfastness was a great act of compassion. Like the Buddhist monks who find enlightenment only to remain on Earth so that they may share the message, like the recovering alcoholic who found serenity only to return to help others along the path, August Wilson found freedom and, like Solly, steadfastly fought to help others find the same.

Monday, July 03, 2006

The homeless population is the United States' untouchables. Part 1: The Homeless as Outcasts.

This blog will argue from analogy that the most impoverished citizens of the United States in Oakland, California served by the Society of St. Vincent de Paul of Alameda County Champion Guidance Center exhibit similarities to and in some contexts are actually worse off than, the citizens of India's well-known (and currently illegal) bottom caste--the one not even recognized as existing in the eyes of their Creator--the untouchables. I assume most reasonable Americans cringe at the thought of an untouchable caste and probably breath a sigh of righteous relief that such a system would never be tolerated at home. My hope is that this sentiment may be used to break the veneer of self-denial, to eliminate the gap between where America thinks she is and where her economic health actually lies. My hope is that after America cringes at herself, she may begin to heal herself.

According to National Geographic Magazine, "Untouchables are outcasts—people considered too impure, too polluted, to rank as worthy beings. Prejudice defines their lives, particularly in the rural areas, where nearly three-quarters of India's people live. Untouchables are shunned, insulted, banned from temples and higher caste homes, made to eat and drink from separate utensils in public places, and, in extreme but not uncommon cases, are raped, burned, lynched, and gunned down. The primordial being does not claim them"

I will use my experience at the Champion Guidance Center to argue that the clients we serve fit the above definition. Not unreasonaly my experience could, with some tweaks, be universalized to encompass all of the homeless in Oakland and the United States. As with any analogy, the parallels are not exact; in these instances I argue that the American homeless man's situation is actually worse than the Indian untouchable's.

The Homeless as Outcasts.

The first description of untouchabes as "outcasts" defined as someone considered a non-human, is readily apparent. Let's work form the macro level on down. First, they are ghetto-ized into a specific geographic loation. Right now, this location is usually an urban location near downtown, unless downtown happens to be a genetrified tourist attraction, as with the Gas Lamp District of San Deigo California. The evolution of this is incredibly interesting. For downtown were presumably formed because they were the centers of economy--the place for the weathy to shop, eat, and recreate. The homeless, during these times, were relegated to rural outposts. (Note here the definition's pervasiveness of prejudice "in particular in the rurual areas." The only place where homelessness seems to receive attention is in the city center. Choosing to not even acknowledge people, as with the homeless in rural areas such as Native American Reservations, seems to me, to be worse than prejudice.) But when the poorer and more colored people arrived in the city centers seeking work the wealthy suddenly fled, creating strip mall paradises and a whole new land called suburbia. We have Orange County, California, as evidence--a classic "white flight" response to the influx of poor people to downtown Los Angeles.
Unlike the former Indian situation, the government as in the policymakers, of American have not (yet) endorsed this ghettoization with its words (another essay might argue that its actions have in fact done this). But the government, as in the people, has, however, in other ways collectively stamped approval for this situation. The word "ghetto" itself, for example, has morphed in American language from a description of a social catastrophe ("ghetto" as the precursor to prison camp), to a glorifed almost honorable situation. Rap stars "from the hood," are often revered, although one would note that, after they amass enough wealth, they usually move to elite, mostly white, suburban neighborhoods--a clear sign that the ghetto (in both the more recent vulgar sense as well as in the more traditional social mode) is, in fact, not a very nice place to live.

What other evidence have we to prove that the homeless of America are considered outcasts, that is, non-human? First, we must select our definition of human. Shall we take the United States Declaration of Independence where enlightened Europeans declared that humans are those beings with "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?" Or should we use the United Nations Delaration of Human Rights where it defines humans as those beings with "the right to life, liberty and security or person (Article 3)," and "the right to not be subjected to torture, or to cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment (Article 5)," and " the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state" (Article 13), and the list goes on. Perhaps, for reasons of brevity and lest my sentiments be interpretated as "unamerican" either because I didn't use the Declaration of Independence or because, if I use the UN's definition, I might just be hanging too much of America's dirty laundry out for all to see, I should use the Declaration of Independence.

So humans are those beings with life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. At St. Mary's Center just across the street from St. Vincent de Paul, they hold a funeral ceremony for all of the homeless clients they serve who have passed away. Need I say more? Another client who came to me for the Homeless Court described, in letter form, his desires to return to prison (a violation of liberty) and to seek the death penalty (a violation of life). You see, the situation of these people is so dire that the most extreme versions of possible evidence are actually true. Per the above the homeless are literally dying, every single day. Per the amount of Homeless Court cases the homeless are literally denied liberty, every single day. The pursuit of happiness? Not possible without life or liberty.

What is next in our definition? "People considered too impure, too polluted, to rank as worthy beings." Here again, even if we interpret the terms in their most extreme sense in hopes that America really isn't like India used to be, we still find ourselves unable to deny their truth. Our clients are literally impure and pollutted: they walk into our center dirty and smelly. At Project Homeless Connect I saw a staff worker follow a man around with disinfectant spray--disinfectant spray! He was a germ. Our clients have diseases too, not just the metaphorical kinds of disease like being raised in a culture of violence, but the literal ones like HIV, tuberculosis, and Hepatitis C. They are polluted literally: they live in smog-infested cities and use the space where the rest of us put only the bottoms of our covered feet--the sidewalk--to rest their heads. They are pollutted metaphorically: they are the most vulnerable targets of America's corporate marketing conglomerates. 100% of the homeless people who staff and run our facility smoke cigarettes. Every single one. What else needs to be said! Perhaps the word of an artist--a black, homeless, educated artist--may awaken your senses to this pollution: "Out in the streets the game goes on get your money buck the heat, smoking each others' lives filled with deceit. Just another nobody down for the kill, a statistic part of this year's bill. Whole generations of my youth break dancing right behind me into new corporate concrete steel hells, smelling of death caught up in player spells. Silly foxybrowns, Lil Kims broken black Barbie girls strung out on lucky charms, play things finding worth in folls gold, big cars, diamond rings, prisoners of material things, with no out date for all the pain life brings."

Thursday, April 27, 2006

A copy of a follow-up letter I wrote to some colleagues from PricewaterhouseCoopers in Orange County, CA asking them for money.

Just last Friday we hosted “Project Homeless Connect,” an event bringing together, in the spirit of homeless outreach projects in San Francisco, over 40 agencies to provide one-stop services to the homeless in downtown Oakland. About a half dozen of us in my organization were instrumental in getting the thing off the ground—I was, in fact, having flashbacks to my PwC days with outrageous deadlines set for strict parameters of deliverables. The difference, however, in the final product was profound: the sense of trembling pride that I had delivering those “Blue Backs” to Advantage Sales and Marketing in late Fall 2005 was replaced with a burgeoning heart.

Let me tell you about Will Rice.

As you may know per the packet I sent to you guys, I run the Homeless Court Program. This is a program to help minor offenders clear their record for such criminal activities as sleeping in the park, urinating in public, or vagrancy (defined as “walking around without a place to live”) which often prohibit our folks from obtaining employment and its incumbent niceties, e.g. shelter. I first met Will because he heard of the Homeless Court program. But being completely strung out on crack-cocaine, totally without shelter, smelly, and mentally unstable I knew he needed much help before he would be ready for the program. I did my best to perform an intake and suggested some ways he could improve his life, hoping at the very most that I could use Homeless Court as an excuse for him to get off the streets. Eventually he made his way over to St. Mary’s Center, a place across the street from here that helps the elderly homeless to receive shelter and what we call “case management” in the business—that is, someone who helps other people who couldn’t otherwise do it on their own generate an income stream and obtain housing of some sort. Just last night I ran into Will when my roommates and I volunteered at St. Mary’s Center in the evening. As my roommate put it, Will is “a walking miracle.” As an employee at St. Mary’s Center, my roommate told me of his initials nights at their temporary winter relief shelter. “He used to shit his pants because he wanted crack so bad,” were her follow-up words. But you should have seen him last night: alert, energetic, helping out with the dinner. I was dumbfounded and when he asked me why I kept looking at him, I blurted out, “you just look so much better.”

I’m telling you this to give you an idea of the kind of work we do. In terms of specifics, this story has little to do with the Champion Workforce—the place your money will be going. In terms of generalities though, it has everything to do with it. In short, change takes time. Will Rice is still not qualified for my Homeless Court Program (he needs permanent housing). His case manager thinks he still uses crack on occasion. But he is seeing a therapist, he is taking his medication for bi-polar disorder, he is temporarily off the streets, he is emerging as a functional human being. And he happens to be a charming, energetic, gregarious type of guy as evidenced by his penchant for interviewing with news reporters during their coverage of the aforementioned Project Homeless Connect

This is what we do and this is what your money will do: it will be there at the exact moment somebody is ready for help.

Friday, March 03, 2006

I have the utter privilege of running the Homeless Court Program. This program represents, in the words of Federal Judge Jeremy Fogel debating the cruelty of lethal injection as a humanitarian method of execution, "an evolution in the standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society." People, finally, have slowly--every so painfully slowly--recognized that the social systems we have created do, in fact, fail to provide for a significant portion of our population an opportunity for the pursuit of life, property, education, and liberty. The Homeless Court program begins to remove some of the barriers to self-sufficiency facing homeless individuals. Simply put, homeless people cannot afford to pay the fines that are levied against them for...being homeless. Sounds outrageous? The case for this claim is opened and shut if we simply look to a single definition. It is a crime in Alameda County (and I'm sure a majority of counties throughout the United States) to commit "vagrancy," defined by as "wandering from place to place without a permanent home or a means of livelihood." In short, if you do not have a permanent home you are breaking the law.

If you can't pay the fine it doubles. If you can't pay the fine you are afraid to go to court and you receive another charge: "failure to appear." You can't pay that fine and it doubles. There are people who have racked up half a dozen charges of "failure to appear." Finally, after repeated failures to appear a bench warrant is issued for your arrest. Now we understand why in the song Mr. Windel, the artist comments, "his [a homeless person's] only worries are sickness and an occasional harassment by the police and their chase." I would only add that the sicknesses are plethoric in nature and the harassment more like persistent rather than occasional.

That being homeless itself is illegal should be enough to justify the existence of the Homeless Court but more can be--although should not need to be--said. If we can set aside our egos for just a split second and resist the temptation to tell ourselves "nobody becomes homeless without a reason. It's not my fault he's an addict, he's uneducated, and he can't get a job," then we begin to take an honest look at the causes. What the Homeless Court represents is a change in this attitude of apathy. The Homeless Court recognizes--and as advocates we encourage all of our fellow citizens to recognize--the problems with our community. The Court takes responsibility for the community--recognizing that helping the poorest members of it will help all members. This, I like to refer to as the "trickle up" effect.

Perhaps an example will help. This is an example of how concerned citizens of our Oakland community discovered the ability to and necessity of affecting positive change in order to benefit themselves. I have been involved with helping plan the next "Homeless Outreach Fair," a quarterly "one stop shop" effort whereby homeless individuals visit one location to receive, or at least gain knowledge about, the services already available in this community. There was one community group that was vitally responsible for getting the project launched. This community group is nothing more than a band of local, middle-to-upper class citizens concerned, in this case, about the cleanliness of the recently created Grand Lake Park. The park is on the north end of Lake Merritt--the natural centerpiece of Oakland. At Lake Merritt you can get firsthand experience of the beautiful diversity which resides in Oakland. With one walk around the lake you'll interact with the suburban middle aged jogger, the business men in suits on a lunch break, homeless people begging for change, elderly Asian immigrant women rummaging through garbage to recycle aluminum cans for a buck, the new age hippie en route to a yoga class, young lovers making out under the trees, Mormon evangelicals, and, if it happens to be a Sunday afternoon, the weekly war protesters.

In other words, Lake Merritt is a great equalizer. It attracts upper class citizens from the Oakland hills as well as panhandlers from downtown. It is the interaction of these two groups that our concerned citizens in question wanted to minimize. You see, the new Grand Lake Park was placed on the North end of the lake, a lovely crown to the Grand Lake Theatre area rife with unique shopping. To the surprise of the residents in the Hills, homeless people took to the park equally well. One retired entrepreneur, a self-proclaimed advocate of the self-interest model of capitalism (i.e., far from my so-called radical socialist viewpoint), decided to take on the project of cleaning up the park he worked so hard to create. It was precisely his entrepreneurial spirit--his willingness to look at all available options, and the motivation and resources to make possibilities become reality that enabled him to launch the Fair to help homeless people. You see, he wanted the homeless people out of his park but realized, short of locking all of them up or creating modern day gas chambers for them all, achieving his desired end required working toward real, practical solutions.

That people have considered and in fact implement the seemingly extreme solutions of permanent incarceration and mass execution is limited not only to Nazi Germany but, in fact, includes the City of Oakland, the State of California, and the United States of America itself. You see, permanent incarceration and mass execution are the de facto decisions we all make as a community when we elect to do nothing, for without help most of these people will end up permanently incarcerated and/or in an early grave anyway. This is not bleeding-heart liberal propaganda. That the people served by the Homeless Court would, without the Court’s help, most likely end up in one of these two scenarios comes simply from the statistical demographics of the people we serve at St. Vincent de Paul Champion Guidance Center, the same ones that we prepare for Homeless Court: probably 75% formerly incarcerated, 50% ex-felons, 30% veterans, and over 90% formerly involved in the illegal drug industry either as user, abuser, or seller. Without the Court’s help, based on cold statistics, the people served by it will, in fact, die at the hands not only of themselves but of the entire community who stood by and watched apathetically or, in the case of Capital Punishment, actualy agreed to have a hand in it themselves.

And so, in some way, I must congratulate the County of Alameda for taking responsibility. I congratulate the citizens of this community that have created, implemented, or at the very least elected the officials who have allowed, such a program to flourish here. Alameda County has, in a very small way and despite its own self-interested reasons, said "yes" to the question of community responsibility and admitted that maybe, just maybe, our social systems deserve a second look.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

This is an actual letter, written to the Superior Court, for an applicant to the Homeless and Caring Court Program:

"To Home in may concern,
I served 6 months in Solowo County Jail, then they let me free on New Years Eve and I got busted and served 6 months in Napa State Mental Hospital. I went to Reno Nevada hopefully return to California and work the day shift at the Atlantis Casino. Then I arrived in Oakland to find work I found out I have $8,000 worth of tickets in Oakland and tickets in Berkeley for smoking near Starbucks. And a open container I found out I have HIV and my life is ruined. During this time I got a voucher for California ID card went to Claremont DMV to get my picture taken and ID to be sent to Daves Open Door Mission. Anyway if you send me to San Quinten or Santa Rita I want Lethal Injection or work furlow. Hopefully I'll get my job for military sealift command I would like my SSI once I get my ID I'm gone I'm going east or S.F. maybe original Joe's #144 Taylor will hire me back.


John Doe"

Shame on us. Shame on all of us for not caring. Shame on us who think it more important to just build a pile of money for ourselves so that when we die there's a big ole fat set of zeros in our electronic bank account. Shame on us who think we will get to heaven just by taking care of our own, that simply by putting our rich white middle class children through the best schools we can sit back and dust off our hands and pat ourselves on the back for a job well done.

Don't tell me that people who are homeless deserve it. Don't tell me that they're all crack addicts, low life scoundrels who got what's coming to them. Don't tell me about no American Dream farce, about the equality of opportunity in this country, about how anybody if they just had the work ethic, if they just stopped being so lazy and stopped feeling bad for themsleves, can save themselves.

As August Wilson in Gem of the Ocean wrote, "sometimes it's all you can do to just stand up." But so often there's someone there to push you back down, to keep you in the river to drown you. Not only that, it's not those of us wo do the pushing back down that have me on this soap box. It's all of us standing on the shore, watching, doing nothing, pretending it doesn't exist. We busy ourselves with money, with wealth, with success, with pleasing the corporate hinch men. We make ourselves so busy, so busy, that the marginalized really do begin to fade from existance.

For when we stand by the shore and watch this is what we are saying: "You, you who are drowning, you do not exist. You are not human. You are certainly not my brother."

For crying out loud, pick a cause. Why wait? Don't wait until your loved one dies of cancer or a friend's child get hits by a drunk driver to get involved. Why does it always have to hit home before anyone gets motivated? The time is now people. The problems are plentiful. Pick a cause. My God, pick a cause.

Don't know where to start?

Well, with just this one John Doe we have a whole host of possibilities before us: mental illness, drug addiction, homelessness, incarceration, unfair legal practices that continue to bill people who can't pay, job readiness, emergency care, food shortage, health services, harm reduction, HIV education testing and counseling, slave labor masked as "work furlow," corporate irresponsibility, and finally the culture of violence that not only allows people to be viscerally executed--killed anesthetically--but actually convinces people that this is the best option for them, that their life is, indeed, not worth living, that John Doe does not exist.

Give money, give time, give expertise. If you have any of these, then you have a responsibility to share it because John Doe is part of your community. He is a by product of the system you have helped create, the system you help propogate when you do give your time money and expertise to your favorite political cause. The system we have created, that we propogate, is MALFUNCTIONING.

John Doe still has love, do you?

My God, pick a cause.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Below is an email sent to the Director of the Seldom Seen Acting Company regarding rehearsal last Friday.

Donna --

Rehearsal went great! At first it was just Isaac and Lyndon and I'm thinking we should just call it, then I went and checked the Chapel and JR was waiting! So we had 3 guys, then Dennis showed up, then Matthis, and lo and behold Ole Phil Wilson came straggling in. Mike, unfortunately, did not show up. So 6 plus me made 7 and we even had a visitor, a guy that has played piano in the Center before, so I asked him to stay and listen, but not to participate.

We got started about 9:45 and managed to complete the entire exercise and even dabbled with the scene order. Matthis is very anxious to know what part he is doing. We had the "fine tuning an engine" conversation (or, rather, Dennis recounted it for us) after Matthis expressed an interest in tweaking some of the script to make it more real to him. So Dennis walked Matthis through every part that had Deandre's name on it. I told Matthis to read that and the other scenes where you had blanks and to come back on Friday with an idea of what spoke to him most. I told the guys we'd finalize scene arrangements on Friday as well as sign contracts.
But the exercise went awesome. It was very very effective. The guys, once again, amazed and inspired me. My biggest hope, "that this lays the groundwork for consistent work for the guys," was starkly different than Dennis' "that the children don't grow up to be like us." Many of the biggest fears were similar: that we might forget lines, that men may not show up for the performance, that men may drop out. They also came to discover that their hopes and fears were often the flip side of the same coin. This summarizes Isaac and Matthis' biggest hopes and fears.

I was JR's partner and, while he gave a beautiful response in the one-on-one session with me, my biggest fear "that the company will explode in real conflict once again the day of the performance," was trimmed back to "forgetting lines." So we even had the chance to correct each other! Lyndon asked to correct what Phil said he said.

Many of the guys--JR and Lyndon included--hoped that, this time around, our affect on the audience would be greater. Greater, not in the sense that they would be more pleased or we would get more donations or a bigger standing ovation or something, but greater in the sense of impact. JR wanted more questions during the Q&A about their homeless situation, not just "how'd you manage the production" type stuff. It was fascinating: they really want to affect change in the audience. The fact that we will be performing in front of children and young adults really touches them. More than one man echoed Dennis' hope.

We started to get at underlying internal conflict issues. I relayed JR's biggest fear, "that individual egos would begin to dominate the company, that this would turn Company members off, that men would begin to quit, that the work Donna and Steve put together would be for nothing, that there would be no more quotes like the one from Fr. Vince." And Lyndon responded, "you're afraid that personalities may come before principles."

So we talked about leaving our personal personality conflicts at the door. I specifically addressed the Mike/Dennis episode the day of the previous performance (which is when I really wished Mike were there). Dennis assured me that such a thing wouldn't happen because the woman that was the source of this conflict (it always seems to be a woman's fault doesn't it?) was no longer involved. But Phil was keenly aware saying: "fear of failure manifests itself in all kinds of ways."

ALL OF THE GUYS WERE TOUCHED BY FR. VINCE'S QUOTE ("We are promoting this event with our school in a special way. It will be a valuable experience for our students and parents - as well as for our entire parish. God bless you! Gratefully, Fr. Vince"). It started to become like this rallying cry.

So, rehearsal went great.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

It's like Golf.

I sat in the middle of our center today just soaking it in. The time was 9:15, our Coordinators just came out of a meeting juiced about new policy. Six volunteers were on hand to staff the day. Eight homeless, formerly incarcerated, recovering addicts, nearly all men of the "unwanted race," bustling and scurrying to prepare for the day--to prepare to serve scores and serve themeselves.

These little pieces of positive awareness come even in the midst of and despite (i.e. they are real nonetheless) the undertones of dramatic personality conflicts between the staff. These little pieces of positive awareness come even as the Coordinator continues to struggle with managerial consistency: reminding others not to store their personal belongings in the center, for example, as his girlfriend rolls a full shopping cart behind his desk.

It's small things like this that you learn to appreciate. It's taking a step back, putting the behavior in context of the clients' backgrounds, and appreciating the outcomes we so often claim are invisible.

You see, it's like golf. You live for that one shot. You know the one. That one sweet, effortless swing where the ball feels weightless, your form perfectly efficient and, as that ball flies, the ground beneath it undulates so as to conspire to bring that little ball in flight towards its one true resting place, a carved out divot in the middle of a soft pasture. This one shot will make a golfers day regardless his final tally. While some might say it's illogical and irrational--claiming that a single shot, a single moment of joy, can possibly justify 17 and 2/3 holes of pure misery--any amateur golfer basking in the 19th Hole will tell you it's all worth it.

In much the same way these small moments--they seem so few and far between when they're not happening, yet they limitless when underway--justify our work despite the vast majority of let downs and setbacks.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

One of my public accountant friends asked me to describe a "day in the life." Since no two days are the same I decided to take today as an example.

In short, imagine the pace of a professional (public accountant, lawyer, doctor, etc) minus the hours, combined with the emotional attachment of raising children and the multitasking of an executive assistant.

So, today it is then.

I woke up to two voicemails on my cellphone. I arrived about 9:30am after boxing up a cache of cookware from our house for a client who just recently found himself an apartment. You see, my community is moving its residence (this is relevant again later) and purging itself of "gently used" items. I glanced at my email--12 new--and noticed the phone was beckoning with its red message light. No time to get through them, however, because somebody needed a bus ticket to get to work. I obliged after sifting through paperwork to find the bus ticket sign-out sheet.

Next, I find out my roommate's colleague sent a client to our center for a coat. Because our Helpdesk Coordinator was busy with opening the center I rummaged through the pile of coats in the storage area--over 1,060 of them available via the One Warm Coat program--for an XL. I found a nice one, threw in a vest to boot and brought the goods back to a smiling client. I remembered what the Dining Room manager told me: "it's fun isn't it? You get to help people all day long."

I walked back behind the desk and decided after Harry, our new Workforce Manager, requested it and since I had been literally tripping over them for two days, to finally file away the two boxes of office supplies taking up valuable floor space (see the final portions of the "zones" blog.) I glanced again at the emails, was reminded that I had to submit the Winter Shelter Bed List before noon, but put the rest of them off because two clients were waiting for me to talk about the Homeless Court program. One I had seen before and he was just dropping off requeseted paperwork. I sat down, opened his file, copied the documents he brought me and realized, since the submission date was next Monday, that I needed to verify his continuing progress at a local Christian-based drug and alcohol recovery program. I phoned the manager, verified the client's progress, asked her about her own progress on finding funding for her drug counselor education credits, and suggested we set up a recurring Homeless Court workshop since this was the second client I fielded from her organization. She thought it a great idea and I promised to email her the information which I did a few hours later. I received the second client, introduced him the program, handed him the necessary paperwork and returned to the business of the winter shelter.

No changes were necessary since everybody showed up last night, I returned the census and put up a new standby list. In case other agencies fail to fill their alloted bed space I have the chance to send "stand-bys." Every day this list turns over. They sign their name, they return at 3:00pm and in the meantime I beg the shelter manager for extra space. This day, just like the last, held no extra bed space for the two who signed up.

I fielded a call from another local agency inquiring about the Homeless Court. I suggested to this agency, that we likewise set up a time to do a workshop. I find out that, hey, this afternoon at 4:00pm would be a great time. I agreed and suggested we set up monthly meetings. To make sure I could fit this in I reworked the schedule for fifteen minutes in my handy Outlook calendar--eliminated recurring services that have ceased and adding this one to the current ones. In the middle of this I fielded another call (the phone rings off the hook) from another local agency reminding me that the Healthcare Van will be at our doorstep tomorrow. I quickly put together the sign-up sheet, made an annoucement to the facility, placed the sign-up at the front desk, and reminded the Coordinator to put cones out to clear the parking spaces early tomorrow morning.

During this conversation I brought up the Winter Shelter--this particular agency gave up bedspace to me. I knew the system was screwing the agency so I recognized that and gave her an update on the administrator's meeting about which she was uniformed. I promised to type up some "unofficial" minutes from that meeting so she could find out what went on--that's next on the list following this blog but will not get done today.

Somewhere between all that I sat down with a new client, listened to his 15 minute story about getting released from a recovery center, and put together all our housing referrals for him. At about 11:30am I made some time to read through emails relating to a special need for a Homeless Court client. I set up a meeting for him for Friday.

I ate a 20 minute lunch.

I sorted through the remainder of the emails and jotted down the encumbant tasks: complete a write-up for One Warm Coat and send a Mid-year evaluation to JVC. I got to the cellphone messages and scheduled two coat pickups for the 19th. I got to the office phone messages and returned phone calls as necessary.

I created the write-up and sent off the evaluation.

I received a donation and helped input the day's statistics. I fielded a call from a student interested in interviewing the Seldom Seen Acting Company and invited her down to witness a rehearsal.

I had a meeting.

At about 3:30 I began preparing for the presentation I scheduled earlier in the day: copied all the necessary forms, grabbed a handful of business cards, roped in one of volunteers and walked to the agency just a few blocks away. For an hour I explained the program, handed out initial paperwork, answered questions, and provided referrals for people unqualified for the program, including one paranoid schizphrenic.

I returned to the center, dropped off the paperwork, and began writing this blog. I had to leave it unfinished, however, because it was time to walk home: it was my turn to clean the bathroom.

I arrived home about 6:00pm, ate a snack (it was my roommate's turn for dinner), cleaned the bathroom, ate dinner, had a 45 minute community meeting, and at about 9:00pm we commenced spirituality night--the first time the entire day I sat still, in silence.

What do you think Hitan?

Monday, January 09, 2006

Behind the Seldom Scene

So I was reading Audition last night by Michael Shurtleff--a fascinating "how to audition" guide for aspiring actors. What makes it special is the very fact of its fascination for me: I have zero plans for pursuing an acting career but nonetheless found it interesting for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is a consistent and consistently appealing recounting of real life stories that hang together to make a series of coherent points or "guideposts," as he calls them. It's interesting, informative, and argumentative. I was dumbfounded by his comments on love. Love, he said, is not this sort of stale, admirable, romantic idealism that we all imagine: the knight in shining armor, the perfect Gentleman Caller, and all that. Romance, real romance, is full of intrigue, let-downs, climactic passions, and emotional tightropes.

Allow me to make my own JVC Guidepost for the last four and a half months. Simply this: LOVE IS MESSY. I will use a real life story full of intrigue, let-downs, climactic passions, and emotional tightropes about the day of the Seldom Seen Acting Company's performance of Sleeping, It's a Wakeup Call. I will make the case that love, the same love Jesus spoke about 2000 years ago, that JVC purports to exist when it claims "you don't have to like our roommates, you just have to love them," that we all go through when seeking mates, and that Mr. Shurtleff would be sure to support, is very messy indeed.

December 10, 2005 was the performance date set in stone nearly six weeks earlier. What Shurtleff encouraged his actors to approximate we lived and breathed: the day was so powerful precisely because it contained opposite emotional reactions from the same individuals. This date was the whip under which acting company horse progressed. The date inspired excitement, nervous anticipation, and greatest of all, fear. Rehearsals, the roots of which go all the way back to July, had doubled in pace starting in November from once to twice a week. Like any deadline December 10 motivated us and we hated it.

Some context is necessary to fully understand the relationships which bubbled over in both rage and tenderness that day. The acting company was composed of eleven men, six of which were “on the street homeless,” one that lived with his ailing mother, one who teetered in and out of his girlfriend’s residence, two who were in semi-permanent housing situations thanks to the work of the Champion Guidance Center, and me. “On the street homeless” means, except for occasional rotations at the homeless shelters, these men literally live on the street. Of the six, one made camp in an old car, two near the lake, one downtown, one in an unknown spot, and one behind the Convention Center and next door to our performance site, the Oakland Museum.

These were the men who survived homeless life’s extenuating circumstances for four and a half months, participated significantly in rehearsals over that time, and showed up on performance night. Imagine yourself completely broke financially and emotionally: no job, no money, no house, few enough possessions to fit in a garbage bag, a beat up car with no registration if you’re lucky, no family, no children, and no friends. Now throw on top of that no healthcare, a constant fear of the police, and an incessant depression. Next imagine yourself committing to twice a week rehearsals and a performance which promises nothing less than to bare your problems to the world. The greatest fear of a homeless person—it’s so logical if you just stop and think about it—is to be known as homeless. Why? Because homeless men and women are the modern-day untouchables. But that’s the point of another blog.

Some were present from the beginning, while others were newcomers. The Company itself was descriptive of the “fluidity” inherent in our facility: men come, men go, some recover, some relapse, some dip in for short periods of time, while others become permanent parts of the fabric. About three men were “founding members,” rehearsing since July. Is there any other acting company in the world that would tolerate 70% turnover?!

Out of this backdrop imagine the star performer. His monologue was 100% his own, his voice carried to the wall, he had the looks, he had the charm, and most of all, as the Helpdesk Coordinator, he had power and influence over the rest of the Company—if not explicitly during rehearsals than implicitly as a result of his ability to influence their lives every other day of the week. Now, in a “normal” company you may have heard about the personality antics unabashedly shown by the star and unabashedly catered to by his/her entourage of support staff. So imagine the “pre-madonna” capabilities available to a formerly incarcerated, formerly homeless, recovering drug addict and dealer who suddenly found himself the central figure in a play about homelessness. He was our star and he was fully prepared to prove it by breaking the boundaries of appropriateness, knowing we were powerless, or at least powerlessly unwilling, to stop him.

He was supported by a staff hell-bent on success. We had a respectable venue in the museum, a concert pianist, a symphonic oboist, catering, an event coordinator, and four professionally decorated Christmas trees which we raffled off. We even had professional carolers set to welcome guests as they approached the museum for Christ’s sake! We made a slide-show presentation to music and we had two dozen men and women hand sign 270 Christmas cards reading “Peace be With You” with a collage of digital reprints of our men making signs of peace. We made laminated, colored flyers, we printed up custom-designed theatre tickets, we got a write-up in the East Bay Express and the Catholic Voice, we contacted two televisions stations, the newspaper, and Jerry Brown himself who politely but in writing declined our invitation.

Those were just the external pressures.

We had been rehearsing for months, the dress rehearsal was over, tech week was done, we had undergone more than a dozen script rewrites, we had a volunteer director who contributed more than 200 hours, and a “black sheep” reputation within our own organization to boot.

So…nestled alongside the dramatics of working with and for homeless men and the pressures of professional life surrounding a significant public event, we have a single star and his half-brother, reunited after a decade, who surfaced deep psychological pains and channeled them, as timing would have it, at me.

The day was December 10, 2005, a Saturday, which is also a day the Champion Guidance Center is open for services. Remember the actors in the Company are also the staff that helps run the center and the center’s daily operations, mind you, are seldom stress-free—there are complaints to head off and tempers to assuage constantly. After any “typical” day the staff is understandably worn out. Compound the daily stressors with the impending performance and “tense” is an understatement of the center’s atmosphere.

Despite this the normal activities were coming to a close without major incident. As the center was closing we assigned our star the task of clipping dollar bills to thank-you cards we planned on handing out to the audience after the performance. The message was simple: “take this dollar bill, a gift from Steve, and use it to manifest prosperity in the lives of the men at the Champion Guidance Center…an example would be taking one of the men out for coffee.” Ever optimistic we had $217 in singles ready to hand out in case of a sell-out crowd. Needless to say, in a homeless drop-in center, the fewer people that know about the presence of $217 the better. So, the star was holed up in the storage area—the same place where we were storing coats which we just happened to be distributing the very same day. During a break in the pinning process, I entered the storage area to get more coats which I was distributing outside. I came back into the center amidst intense yelling. Apparently, the star’s brother found out about the dollar bills and made a joke: “yeah, that’s why you’re slipping those bills into you’re pocket.” Steve stepped out and, cutting off the commotion, boomed “STOP! Just stop! You guys are needed today!” The star’s justification elicited the following from Steve: “well how did anybody find out about the dollar bills anyway?”

I had left the door unlocked.

After I immediately took responsibility, the two brothers separated and I responded, “this is a small thing.”

The star then exploded into a supernova. He was only inches away from my face and I saw every vein pumping, not just the two major ones extending down his neck, but facial veins I didn’t even know existed: ones down his cheeks and around his eyes. He had become rage. My eardrums were exploding, my heart was in my throat, and I could feel the saliva on my face. He informed me that accusations of theft are anything but small.

After the two brothers separated I retreated to the Dining Room. As I previewed the slide show with the Company’s director—pictures of homeless men reaching out—I wept. Put to inspirational music, the slideshow was a symbol that we actually do Care and Help Assist Men Prosper In Our Neighborhood (CHAMPION). The emotions pulsating through me, however, were evidence to the contrary. I rested my head on Steve’s shoulder sobbing, “do they ever get out?” Briefly, I had become hopelessness.

I returned to the center and decided to speak with the star. I thought we couldn’t get through the performance unless the two brothers got back on speaking terms. I told him we needed to find some way to communicate again, for the good of the show, the good of the center, and the good of all the guys who put in months of effort. He was having none of it: “I don’t got shit to say to that motherfucker and I’m tired of your fairy tale bullshit.” These sentiments were succinctly expressed non-verbally when he kicked a ladder over.

We commenced the scheduled pre-performance pizza dinner. The brother returned. Time marched on slowly, painfully, tensely. As final preparations for our exit were made, however, the Company was in for one last pre-performance performance, starring none other than the star himself. A third actor, the most quiet and reserved of the crew, asked for a few cards to hand out to his friends. These cards, which had no dollar bills in them, were in a box on top of the money cards. The star jumped to conclusions, “I thought you was taking some of those dollars.”

“Well you thought wrong,” was the third actor’s response. Undeniably confident that he had a “behavioral blank slate,” the star physically charged the third actor. I was in between them with a panic-toned voice, “Please stop. Please stop. Please stop.” The star backed down and the third actor left the premises. Yet another actor chased him down, calmed him down and pleading, “Yes, you shouldn’t have to put up with that. But we need this. I need this. I’ve worked too damn long to let this go up in smoke.”

The third actor relented, walked through the center and by the star who hissed fighting words, “yeah, you better not look at me you piece of shit nigger bitch.”

Fortunately for all involved, the reserved one chose not to respond and we piled into the vans.

It wasn’t the first supernova or even the blow up on the innocent third actor. It was these fighting words which dug me deep. This was unadulterated malice; this was callous disregard for all involved; this was implosion. It would be hard for me to trust him again.

But the show, as they say, must go on.

And go on it did. Each monologue, you see, was a description of the actor’s real life story. These were homeless men facing their biggest fear: being labeled as homeless. Some were explicit, others metaphorical.

My piece was entitled “Amends to the African Americans.” Inside I was wondering, who owes who an apology? But if you reflect deeper on the “why” of the star’s earlier reactions we come up with, not a justification, but perhaps an explanation. To be black is to be history’s unwanted race; to be homeless is to be the present-day unwanted race. To be black and homeless must give somebody a towering perspective on abuse.

So at 8:00pm I find myself apologizing, and shaking the hand of the same man who was in my face just four hours earlier. He accepted my apology saying “God bless you unto all generations; truly you have waited long; I bless your children.”

After the performance I saw the brothers embrace on stage. Few in the audience knew that embrace to be anything more than celebratory.

You should have heard the question and answer session following the performance. My roommate admitted to weeping. Each question was prefaced with an affirmation, “I am astounded by your courage.” It was as if the audience recognized, for those brief moments, the play was a bridge from homelessness to shelter, drug addiction to sobriety, incarceration to freedom, unemployment to a job, depression to joy, and fear to hope.

During one particular response the star began delving into our relationship. He began talking about how he told me his story, how pleased he was to find out that I refused to judge him, and how indebted he was to Steve. Both he and his brother stepped off the stage to embrace Steve who was in the audience. The audience and the actors gave Steve an ovation of his own.

It was beautiful, hugely successful. We received a standing ovation.

Love filled the air. But it was messy. Damn messy.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

The mood swings are incredible, almost debilitating.

The day was Friday, probably a month ago. We call Friday "intern day." Since our volunteers are homeless themselves Fridays are reserved for our homeless staff who, besides working four hours a day four days a week for free, also have basic needs. What this is also supposed to mean is an easier day for the staff and the management--the only people using our facility are those with whom we've built a strong level of trust.

But Friday's have morphed. In an incessant drive to implement as many helpful ideas into every nook and cranny of this facility's possibilities, we now have a Free Medical Clinic every other Friday as well as rehearsals for the Seldom Seen Acting Company every single Friday. So, our doors are not open, but our doors are always open.

The day was Friday and in order to avoid constant distraction for the actors on account of the aforementioned door policy we obtained a different venue. But before we could obtain the venue I had to go through the right people in the Dining Room in order to obtain the keys. I went directly to my friend, the world's friendliest janitor. I was forced, however, to debate with him the merits of performing a play by homeless people about homeless people in a room traditionally dedicated to prayer. You see, the Dining Room has a small chapel that is never used except for every Wednesday morning when some of our homeless staff participate in a meditation session put on by an Irish, former Catholic priest. Needless to say the conversation stretched relations with the janitor--even the best of past human relations cannot challenge the bond many L:atins share with God. While this passion is one of the reasons I fell in love with the Latin culture, it happened to be in the way of Sleeping: It's a Wakeup Call which was my top priority on this morning. Fortunately, the janitor relented pending clearance from the boss.

Unfortunately, "the boss" aka the Dining Room Manager was out picking up food. I went to the second-in-command who immediately approved, being less inclined toward religiosity. This was not quite good enough for my friend the janitor, who made a phone call to "the boss" who did not answer his cellphone. He finally gave in and I delt with the guilt of violating his beliefs, decided I would write him a letter about how I respected his beliefs and how I thought the play was not mutually exclusive from those believes, and went to spread the good news.

The practice commenced but was missing one of its star performers who was also our new "Helpdesk Coordinator." The Helpdesk Coordinator is a former guest, turned intern, turned volunteer, who has proven his desire to help himself. The position is paid and is intentionally designed to be a transitional period--in other words after six months he is asked to leave--a circumstance he is made aware of in advance of his hiring. The Coordintator is charged with the day-to-day operations of the center, including managing the volunteer staff, fielding requests for referrals, receiving and documenting donations, writing clothing vouchers, cleaning up the center, issuing bus passes, rearranging furniture for special activities such as the Homeless Court, Free Medical Clinic, HIV awareness and testing, running AA meetings every Tuesday and NA meetings every Thursday, managing external volunteers, welcoming and touring visitors, enforcing all the rules of the center, and--what happened to be the most important aspect of his duties on this particular day--diffusing explosive situations.

Everybody take a deep breath.

As mentioned, the missing actor was a new Coordinator. You see, the center goes through transition anytime its Helpdesk Coordinator position changes and, analogous to the "13 zones" of the center, one Coordinator's tenure blends into the next--in other words, the ex-Coordinator was still lingering around. This gentleman, as opposed to moving "up and out," was, in fact, in moving down and out. Recidivism was in full swing as evidence of his return to drug use, violence both domestic and non, and theft began emerging. So, between me and the actor's new venue which, you might recall, I just so recently struggled to obtain, were standing the new Coordinator/star performer, the ex-Coordinator oozing resentment, and a mysterious beefy friend of the ex-Coordinator whom I had never before seen. They were staring me down as I moved from the rehearsal to the center, having in mind a sales pitch for the star performer. I could see hurt, fear, anger, and hostility seething from their eyes. To let them understand I knew their purpose but wasn't going to fight, I acknowledged their presence: "We got a big ole crew for the car wash today I see!"

I moved inside to commence my sales pitch. I came to find out while the ex-Coordinator was threatening violence on the Center and its management, the new Coordinator was trying to talk him out of it and into a rehabiliation center based on previously established prison gang bonds.


The desperate hope for conflict avoidance (of a middle-class white kid who never saw his parents fight, was never beaten as a child, has never been in a physical confrontation, shot a gun only once at a farm and felt naughty, cries at the ending of Homeward Bound every single time, and was labelled "soft" by his best friend) pinned on prison gang bonds. Unable to trust myself I immediately called my supervisor who, having left the premises and unable to answer his cellphone, had unknowingly left the situation up to the private school nerd.

Suddenly, a power lunch of sushi and sashimi with white-toothed public accountants discussing a defense contractor's treasury stock didn't seem so bad afterall.

Like any good conflict avoider I decided to let my salespitch fail. I let the new Coordinator "handle" the situation, the ex-Coordinator left the building without a peep, and the beefy friend disappeared as mysteriously as he arrived. Who am I to question the validity of prison bonds?

It was just after 10:00AM and I was exhausted. Emotionally, I was toast. So naturally I headed over to the rehearsal room where homeless men were struggling through the creation and rehearsal of a piece of drama. It was not, however, sanctity that I experienced in the dramatic chapel, but joy. A Nigerian friend and homeless volunteer performed--no, emobodied--his piece. Having fully memorized his lines during what must have been a dozen sessions in the park or in the soft light of homeless shelters, this large Nigerian man with a thick African accent spoke clearly and slowly, deftly painting a picture described by another man as if it was his own:
"By the age of 11 I smoked my first joint, at the age of 13 I sold my first joint; at the age of 14 I owned my first gun, at the age of 15 I sold my first rock at the age of 16 I smoked my first cigarette and drank my first beer.

"Society slaps a label on me, on my culture, and my lifestyle: subculture.
Fortunately, I do not let my history hinder me, I'm blessed to have the ability to not let the stereotypes hold my back, I am liberated from societal judgment.

"Living in a society where I am looked at as being black before human I must maintain the wisdom, knowledge, and understanding that is within me to manifest the power that has been granted to me from above.

"I have a home without a house, I am house less, not homeless."

This was an excerpt from"Robert's Story," written by a homeless man who returned to LA to visit sick relatives, performed by a homeless man wondering if he'll ever return home to see his family.

Like I said: the mood swings are incredible, almost debilitating.

This is a piece I wrote for other work purposes, but I figured it would be nice to know some of the terminology constantly thrown around this blog.

People who enter the Champion Guidance Center (“the Center”) of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul of Alameda County (“the Society") may be categorized as follows:
Guest – An individual who desires to receive the emergency drop-in services offered by the Center: shower, laundry, hygiene items, coffee, clothing, referrals and bus passes. Guests can also enter to receive more rigorous assistance such as enrollment in the Homeless Court Program and attendance at AA and NA meetings.

Homeless Court Guest – An individual who desires assistance such as enrollment in the Homeless Court Program.

Recovery Guest/Sponsor – An individual who desires to attend at AA and NA meetings and/or is working as a sponsor with one of the men and attendance at AA and NA meetings.

Member – An individual, who has completed the member application process, understands and agrees to all of the Guidance Center social agreements including rules of conduct and expectations of participation, and desires the opportunity to return regularly for services.

Speaker – A guest of the Center as a speaker at one of the Recovery Meetings; an individual or group providing a service or introducing the men to new resources in the community; someone hosting a Job Readiness or Life skills, or any kind of spiritual workshop leader or individual mentor.

Intern – A former member who has made a commitment to help work at the center. Internships are three months long, are not paid and are facilitated by the Helpdesk Coordinators.

Volunteers – committed participants from one or more of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul Conferences or District Council volunteer programs or Interns who have shown a steady commitment to the center. Interns who “graduate” to volunteers after three months often receive and sign a plaque which is posted on the walls of the center. Individuals remain volunteers indefinitely. Volunteers receive significant attention from the center in the form of job readiness: they are usually employed in the Champion Workforce and try to gain long-term employment both inside and outside of St. Vincent de Paul.

Helpdesk Coordinators – Individuals who are employed by the Champion Guidance Center on a six month stabilized work and mentorship agreement to facilitate the day-to-day emergency services. Helpdesk coordinators, usually two, facilitate a staff of interns and volunteers to provide the services. Helpdesk coordinators provide coordination and vouchers to allow Guests to purchase clothing and other items at the St. Vincent de Paul Thrift Store. All vouchers must be approved and signed by JV or Center Manager.

Champion Workforce – Employees of St. Vincent de Paul who are graduates of the intern program. (The help desk coordinators, volunteers, and interns are often a part of the workforce, but may not be). Individuals not included in these categories may also be members of the workforce pending appropriate completion of all proper human resources paperwork.

Jesuit Volunteer – Administrative staff assisting the Manager and Helpdesk coordinator as necessary.

Manager –Program Manager of the Center.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Description of My Surroundings Part 2: The Center

This is perhaps one of the more selfish blogs I have written. For purposes of my own documentation—I want to remember all the gory details of the place I worked—I am undertaking a fairly detailed and structured description of the facility.

I recently paced off the center. The place where I work is roughly 55 paces deep and 25 paces wide, about 12,000 square feet. In this square space we have arguably 13 different “zones.” I say “zones,” like they are official and labeled and documented in our mission statement when, in fact, this is the first time anybody has ever called them that. They are listed as follows:
Sign in Desk
Coffee Bar
Pop a Shot (yes we have a pop-a-shot)
Hygiene room
Computer Lab
Doctor’s Office
Bathroom 1
Bathroom 2
Cube Space

Where, pray tell, are the washing machines where 15-20 of our 80-100 daily guests wash their clothes? The answer gives you an idea of the amount of space violation going on at the center: they are in between zones, 4, 5, and 6 as well as between zones 7 and 11.

The zones are listed in the order in which one would view them if I were giving a tour, the last three being spots I would not take guests. They are in this order for no other reason than the facility’s natural footpath. I am trying, as it were, to paint a picture for the reader from the perspective of a guest. Besides the hygiene room, the pharamacy, the doctor’s office, the cube space, and the bathrooms, no space is enclosed and zone lines are rightly blurred. The computer lab, for example, is somewhat of a dubious name as it is nothing more than three wooden desks strung together on the way between the sign-in desk and the cube space.

The front door is in the corner of the building and immediately upon entering I pass the sign-in desk. Here guests sign their names to record a presence for fundraising purposes and sign membership agreements if it is their first time for liability purposes. Behind this waist-high counter, we store all guests’ personal belongings—a natural part of the center’s daily business that initially surprised me. There would be, I now assume, too much opportunity for theft otherwise. I used to wonder, “how can we extend them trust if we’re not extending them trust?” Recall that, on the other hand, we are the “world’s first sports bar for the homeless,” and probably the only one without booze; on our walls we have more than $15,000 in autographed memorabilia from famous professional athletes. In the business we call bag storage “refusing to set people up for failure.”

So we don’t have to put bags to faces, each man is given a playing card ripped in half: one piece appended to the bag, the other given to the guest. Also behind the counter and in this sign-in zone, lies the mailroom. The men constructed wooden cubbies so that our guests can receive mail—imagine filling out a job application without one. The sign-in desk has a metal storage cabinet, and a computer that does not operate, the latter representing our vision for the “electronification” of the sign-in process.

The coffee bar is immediately next to the sign-in desk along the wall facing the street. Here we charge $.25 for a small cup of coffee and under the counter are all the necessities: spare Styrofoam cups, extra sugar and cream, plastic silverware, and a few mugs.

The coffee bar juts up against a raised platform, a stage about four inches off the ground occupying the facility’s second corner. The stage is for speakers and performances, but most of the time it joins the lounge area: with two leather couches and a coffee table it is a popular vantage point for the movies which play next door in the facilities largest zone.

In the lounge area are four square tables placed end-to-end, two additional couches, three or four large reclining chairs, a dozen stackable chairs, and two televisions mounted high on support beams. Here men enjoy a respite from the street while drinking coffee and waiting for their clothes to dry or the shower to open up. The movies—very much in earshot of our cube space—are a daily part of the center experience.

Between the lounge area and the back door, which is cattycorner the front, is the famous pop a shot machine—a fully operational fair toy where players shoot small rubber basketballs under time constraints.. Donated by the Golden State Warriors this popular toy brings the noise level to new heights. The volume of both the movie and the voices move in direct proportion to the number of games played at the Pop a Shot.

After the pop a shot, as I move to face rear of the center, is the desk of the Helpdesk Coordinator. The Coordinator manages the day-to-day operations of the center and is a guest, turned volunteer, turned Champion Workforce employee. This is our key position—representing our “cream of the crop” client and the epitome of our therapeutic model. He has nearly complete autonomy to accept or refuse services to any guest for any reasonable reason. His decisions are the transitional training ground for his reintegration into the workforce.

The Coordinator’s desk is the center of the day’s activities. From this post the Coordinator issues bus passes and clothing vouchers, or official looking slips of paper authorizing the Society’s thrift store to release clothing at the expense of our center’s budget. Here the Coordinator usually stands and enforces the center’s rules, authorizes shift changes, and field’s special requests including tours and donations. He is the first line of defense for grumpy guests.

Behind the Coordinator’s desk are the two bathrooms I won’t describe other than to say that one of them contains the only shower in which 15-20 out of 80 or 100 visitors each day enjoy a shower.

Along the fourth and final side of the facility we have the hygiene room, the computer lab, doctor’s office, pharmacy, and my cube space. The hygiene room stores more than 10,000 items: everything from basic toiletries such as soap and shampoo to all kinds of men’s clothing including belts and extra shoe laces. Here the person in charge of the hygiene room records every item given out on specially designed tracking sheets. At the end of each day he records the inventory loss in excel. At about 25 square feet it is, needless to say, packed. Inside are two ceiling-to-floor bookshelves worth of clothing, a mobile unit for hanging clothes, a computer, a counter under which we store cleaning supplies, a ceiling-to-floor cabinet for hygiene items, and a storage closet of its own.

The doctor’s office, built entirely by the founding members of the center, is a storage closet that transforms every second and fourth Friday into a fully operational exam room with two-patient capacity. On those days the sign-in desk becomes a receptionist area, the computer lab a waiting room, and the lounge area a nurse’s station. Complete with two exam tables, a desk for each doctor, and a small supply of over the counter meds, about a dozen or so men and women receive free, individualized medical care out of our doctor’s office—unheard of in the homeless community. At its best, medical care means a couple of pain pills and a slap on the ass from the Highland Hospital. Next door to it is a pharmacy of donated prescription medicine—filled to the brim.

Invading in the doctor’s office zone is where I work: the cube space no more than 18 square feet. Behind the little green cube wall which separates my boss and I from the rest of the crew are two desks with computers, a copy machine, one inkjet printer, three filing cabinets, a large bookshelf with my boss’ mementos, one small garbage can, a dorm refrigerator, and finally a massive support beam from ceiling to floor around which I must dodge to get to my desk. It is in this area that all administrative tasks are performed. During the day it also acts as the final arbitration station: men from all over wait for the chance to see the short white man behind the green cube wall. They wait because he takes you in no matter what—he gives you money, he finds you shelter—in short—he solves your problems. He is social worker, case manager, counselor, confessor, lawyer, sponsor, mentor, financial supporter, and standup comedian for countless homeless men in the one of the nation’s most poverty-stricken cities.

It is, just on the other side of this man, where I work.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

A Description of My Surroundings Part 1: The Walk to Work.

Somebody recently asked me to write a "day in the life" piece. There simply is no "typical day" upon which I can expound to give a generalized view of my daily life. I will, however, attempt to describe my surroundings.

I walked about 15 blocks to work. Often on these walks I see one or more of the men who come into our center to receive services or to volunteer. On this particular morning I had no such company.

My walk can be broken into three phases. The buildings that dot the first phase of my view on the walk to work are as diverse as the people in Oakland: high density apartments and commercial real estate bump up against convenience stores, coffee shops, abandoned buildings, beauty supply shops, and a SEARS. In this phase I pass some classic-looking office bees in their black trench coats and I hear the click of their leather shoes on pavement; but I also pass a group of young black kids on my corner attending charter school as well as the group of crazy senior citizens chiefing at their cigarates (literally--there is a home for mental senior citizens across my street) . While still in Phase 1 I move quickly into "Oaksterdam," so named for the handful of "marijuana dispensaries." Many mornings during this part of my walk I am reminded of the way people back East speak about California: for them and still for me at times it seems like a foriegn land too hip, cutting edge, fast-paced, alternative and misguided for good Southern folk. There's enough damn variety and change to "worry the warts off a horny toad," as the old Southern expression goes.

I move quickly into Phase 2, aka the "gentrification in progress zone." This is a former ghetto (think wide roads littered with liquor stores, slummy hotels, and, well, litter) turned into downtown office complexes. Construction and "pending demolition" signs are everywhere. The sidewalk is literally being shut down one block at a time as old buildings that used to serve the under class are being remade into daytime hangouts for the middle class office folk finally grown weary of the commute imposed by their own "white flight." The buildings themselves seem unsure of their own placement--hungry for profit, but their placement still a little too "gritty and real" for their own good. Almost as stark as the railroad track that so symbolically separates White and Black American in Natchez, MS, the final phase of the walk is begins when I pass under the freeway.

Welcome to "beautiful downtown Oakland," as my boss likes to say. I work at the corner of two major cross-streets, San Pablo and West Grand. The office bees just four blocks away have suddenly disappeared. Not a single BMW or Mercedez Benz makes its way across this corner. The litter is so prominent I still swear the street cleaners have abandoned this part of town. There is bus stop just outside my facility always full of patrons that never get on the bus. A small open space not more than 50 square feet hosts a constant crowd of loiterers. Papers, cans, bottles, brown paper bags, shopping carts, and mattresses fill the open space--all items have been, are being, or will be used. It was here that a crowd of volunteers from the local college found a half dozen dirty heroin needles.

The street outside my facility is always full of vehicles. Outdated, beatup, and discolored vans and sedans remain parked there all day--many of them the only shelter available the men who come into my center. Their home is literally parked outside and it ain't no RV. Just west of my place "affordable housing" runs right up against industrial parks pinned underneath the swirl of intersecting interstates. The freeways around downtown appear thrown together--the hodgepodge noticeable especially when driving the tighly banked curves. You see, just North of where I work "the bottoms" as they call that particular location is actually a gravesite to the thousands that were crushed when the freeway collapsed during the 1989 Earthquake. That section of the freeway was rerouted and replaced with a non-elevated road "Mandella Parkway" which sports a green-space median through which a sidewalk meanders.

As I approach the entrance--a small blue awning just past the popular bus stop--I am greeted by the men that recognize me. Some will help run the center today, others will just stop by for a shower, a bus pass, or maybe even a couple bucks. A friendly conversation usually ensues before I make it into the building. Pleasantries continue when I enter the facility, only I make sure to say hello to everyone for feelings are hurt far too easily around this place. Everybody, you see, can use a friendly smile and a pat on the back for it may be the only acknowledgement they get all day.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Living in Community: The Price of Vulnerability

The purpose of this blog is to answer the following question: "What is the meaning of community?" Allow me to answer that it means to be voluntarily vulnerable.

I am going to use this space to recount, as best I can, the concepts we discussed late into the night last night because I just had this feeling we touched on some truths. I learned today that there is a "nod from the universe," when people speak the truth. I felt like there were several nods last night and I want to write them down before I forget them.

The conversation involved five people, then two people, then three people, then two people.

People talk more willingly when the sun goes down.

Safe, vulnerable environments have been created in the anonymity of addiction recovery meetings where people share no last names and also in the strict dogma of the Catholic Church confessional.

People are funny, interesting, frustrating, crazy, lovable beings.

We are all hiding; and in this way we are all the same.

We are so desperate in our hiding that when somebody finally reveals even a smidge of themselves, we fall in love.

We all have a host of different past experiences which shape our fears.

People's vulnerability is most easily seen through their strengths.

Community members cannot reach a level deeper than "roommate status" without sharing more about themselves.

I cannot make somebody be more open; I can only be more open myself.

I cannot make somebody be more vulnerable; I can only be more vulnerable myself.

It is the secrets that kill us; and in this way we are all the same.

If we are to live in community we must look at ourselves and we will not like what we see.

The live the ideal of community is to strive for the ideal of 100% self challenge.

Ideals, by definition, are unattainable.

What one man calls integrity another calls stupidity: to strive for ideals despite their inattainability.