I was homeless for 15 years, and most of that time was spent on the streets of Berkeley and Oakland. I spend time thinking about those days now. I think about those moments often. I ask myself, “What is the takeaway? What have I learned from those years sleeping behind bushes?”
I never took a vow of poverty. If I had been able to hold down a job and pay rent and function the way that one is expected to do, I probably would have decided to. But I will never know because I was never able to. It just did not happen, because somehow that decision was made for me. And so I have lived in poverty my entire adult life. And although I never took a vow of poverty, I have tried to live as if I did.
I used to wonder if Buddha could ever be homeless in today’s world. Or Jesus.
I want to share a story with you. It is a story that I believe has an important, dare I say sacred, lesson in it. About two months ago I was walking to a bus stop and passed by a CVS. There were seven police vehicles surrounding it, and so I stopped and tried to figure out what was going on. There were about a dozen police officers and most of them had guns and rifles. It was pretty obvious that something was going down. I overheard someone say, “There is some guy in the store threatening people with scissors and knives.”
A few minutes later the doors to the CVS opened and an old Black man walked out. His clothes were torn and dirty. And he looked so lost and alone. A few seconds after he walked out, one of the police called out to him over a megaphone: “Lie face down. Put your hands by your neck and don’t move!” After a few seconds the man did just that. All I was praying for was that no violence would happen. I just prayed that the police would not hurt him.
Five officers slowly approached the man with their guns and rifles drawn. Two of them patted him down and they did not come up with any weapon. Then he was handcuffed and taken away.
I was watching this incident right across the street along with about a dozen others. One person explained to another who had asked what was going on: “Oh, a homeless guy was threatening people. He got arrested and taken away.”
It was as if some animal had escaped from the zoo, but “noworries the animal was captured and put back.” You see, when I looked at the face of this lonely, suffering, angry, lost soul, I saw myself. I remembered that many years ago I went to a big flea market and bought a hunting knife. I bought it because I was homeless and needed a knife to cut rope and twine to help me set up my tent and to dice whatever veggies and fruit I may have.
So I spent $20 on a large rugged knife and started to walk back to my homeless camp. A few minutes later, I stopped dead in my tracks. All of a sudden, I wanted to either stab myself or stab others. I had a weapon in my hands and I wanted to harm people. And this terrified me. And so I just threw the knife away in the trash.
As I write about this now, I am in a different place in terms of my suffering. If I had a knife now, I would not want to do the same violence. But I did then. And I understand why.
When someone sees a suffering brother of mine as just “a homeless man,” then they have defined that sentient being as an other. What if the man who was in CVS was seen as a vital and precious member of the human community? Then the explanation would be: “Oh, a neighbor of mine was in trouble and made some threats. I hope he is OK and gets the help he needs. I am worried about him.”
Do you understand? When we as a community define someone as an other, an animal, a beast, the person internalizes this and acts it out; then we want to punish the person for acting out exactly what we have been telling him.
I am glad that I threw the knife away. I am proud of that decision. But let me tell you that I do not believe it is possible to want to harm people while feeling loved and respected. It just would not make any sense. Helping a homeless person is not enough. It is not as if that person lives in a compassionate, loving, nurturing nation and for some reason lives like a dog or worse. You can give me food, clothes or even some money, but what you really need to accept is that you are complicit in the cause of my suffering.
We do not need the Salvation Army telling us that the poor need more salvation than the rich. They did not, apparently, read the part of the Bible in which the rich man or woman has the hardest time getting into heaven.
What we as a society need to understand is that this is class warfare and the homeless are the victims of the ongoing crimes of hypercapitalism. We commit crimes against millions and then criminalize these victims for how they react to this ongoing crime.
We can not listen to the stories of homeless people because they are too upsetting. This society demands such 24/7 functioning that when a bleeding, lost, sad, lonely, shouting, unclothed soul cries out to us we can not stop and be present. We are too busy, because we’ve got to go to work or home or the cafe or yoga class or the park or the doctor or just go, go, go. We destroy people and then after we have destroyed them we abandon them because they are simply too wounded. We stab, rape, starve, punish, incarcerate, betray, abandon and shame our brothers and sisters. We do this so horribly that we then can not handle the very ones we have so wounded.
It is not what our behavior says about homeless people that is important to ponder. It is what it says about us as a people and as a nation, as a society and as a family. Do not think that psychiatric hospitals are places of love. Do not think that county jails are places of compassion. Do not think that human beings get cared for in shelters. Do not think that the police are peacekeepers. The truth is that the most enslaved are forced to end their slavery on the terms and timeline of those who are enslaving them.
The other day, a homeless woman whom I see often was in my face. She was shouting at me and yelling at me and would not stop. I was not able to be present with her. I am not grounded enough to give her that sacred love and attention. But I did ask her what her name was and although she did not answer she said something about “sexual molestation.” I honor this brave sister of mine for being a troublemaker. One day all the homeless—and there are millions—will not be polite any longer. One day, they will get in their neighbors’ faces and holler, yell, scream and demand to be heard.
Can you come up with a reason why this should not happen? I can not.
I am glad I threw the knife away. But there is another more powerful weapon that I do honor and that is my soul-spirit, and I will not throw that away ever, nor will I ask any of my suffering brothers and sisters to abandon that weapon. Anytime another precious being lives from their wild honest self, I give them my blessing.
I remind you that they did not find a weapon on the body of the CVS. man. Perhaps he threw his knife away as well.