Last issue I was beginning to speak on working in homeless centers for the past 15 or so yrs, so I’ll follow that for a while. I’ve seen some affecting stuff.
My time at the homeless resource center in Portland was frenetic and happy. I started volunteering there at first, mostly in the soup kitchen. I was good at it, dependable and positive. I thrived in that atmosphere for some reason. When the brkfst was done I would sometimes go upstairs to work on organizing the clothes pantry. It was here that I first heard this kid rapping at a table in the day room who was so spot on and good I couldn’t believe it. He began calling himself Poverty and got a record deal and MTV vids.
I was offered a job there as the breakfast coordinator in the soup kitchen, responsible for organizing the volunteers – and it was all volunteer run except for me, so I could have 2 or 15 people a morning helping out – and we had to prep and cook breakfast for 200-250 people each day. I would get in for about 5:45 a.m.. Breakfasts were loud, colorful, tense. The volunteers were what made it run. Looking back on it now I don’t understand how we did every morning. Roger, in his 70s, came in like gangbusters every morning and was always grumpy and getting into tiffs with the homeless peeps that I’d have to smooth out. He’s must be dead now. We made a good team, starting some mornings with barely a grunt of greeting before starting in with the routine: potatoes, oatmeal, coffee, eggs, cereal and random donated foods. The Greenpeace crew visited one week and volunteered at the kitchen, donated a bunch of weird international canned goods and invited me and my co-workers to go on board their ship docked in the harbor. I met great people at this gig, people who wanted to help out as well as people who were court ordered to volunteer for some crime. I became friends and hung out with many of them for years afterward. I had a portable 8-track player that I would bring in and play retro tunes on while I did my best to amp up the kitchen energy and serve a good meal. The cafeteria was a buzzing madhouse of social workers with clipboards, homeless people and volunteers. I learned how to make 20 meat n’ veggie omelets all at once on the griddle there. Some homeless retired navy dude taught me, whom we eventually had to ask to stop volunteering b/c he got in too many arguments with people. It was a varied, multi-mood place. All emotions, in one day, everyday. Somehow.
The cops were called often b/c of fights and it seemed like every other morning someone had a seizure of some sort on the dining room floor. Cleaning the bathrooms each morning was horrible. I usually didn’t ask volunteers to do that. There were people who screamed at you to stop touching them (when you weren’t touching them), there were people who never said a word to anyone, there was a man who mixed sugar and syrup and fruit juice into several bottles every single day, stirring them, focused and quiet, storing them in his duffel bag. Women talking themselves, screaming at times, goth teens, vets, kids, babies.. There was no one look, no one defining mood. It’s hard to think of things that stick out from these mornings when this population was all in one room, waking up together. It was usually too much to quite take in at once, so I focused on sections and constantly moved in a wide circle. This job is where I started being addicted to mountain dew and coffee. I got a hernia from this job (I think it was lifting too many oakhurst milk bags into the milk dispenser, trying to carry two crates at once repetitively). Each day started out like a whirlwind and by 11 or 12 I was just mopping floors and doing paperwork in a mostly empty room.. I would get out around 2 or 3p, after prepping food for the next day, attending staff meetings, supervision and trips to area food banks. I remember afternoons after work in the winter when I would sit on the back porch of my shitty apartment on Greenleaf Street, always with a 40 oz of Colt 45, shivering in my coat, hat and mittens, watching the pink-orange sunset, tired, alive. I’d look out over the small rec field and basketball courts to the descending concrete skyline of tower lights and office windows, all slowly getting transformed by dusk, sinking into to the cold. I would relax into the cold and numbness, feel a buzz, think about my day and sort of wink out for a bit.
I found some poems I went back and looked for, finding some pieces where I tried to articulate this time:
hatsy came in today
eyes, 18 years old,
something level in her, straight forward,
she was on the dishwasher
then sorting bread
her community service and our
acquaintanceship because of this.
the voice on the radio
changes in its intensity and accent.
i am tape voices.
this older small woman,
volunteer, street smart
and sweet, always always talking-
we brought her to the salvation army
in the center’s van with a voucher to buy a bed.
played on sally’s pianos
and looked at the people,
this curly-haired boy buying an irving berlin album.
we loaded up the mattress and box spring
and moved it into her house.
pictures of ships taped and tacked on the walls
and this bushy guy named charlie sitting in a chair,
green flannel unbuttoned shirt.
later, i opened the door to the porch
to take out the trash and it swung
into this huge glowing brightness
that was the sunset when i looked to my right.
i cooked potatoes,
made home fries and mashed some
while talking with sherrie.
4 or 5 pm.
singing as usual
“i should be enjoying this”
as i watched the first snowfall
in the dark walking to work.
but i did not feel in it –
listening to music in headphones,
some seagull hooping around the cold slow air.
the headlights of a city truck made
a living corridor of light, depth-rippling
down both sides of this street of houses.
it felt like almost too much perception,
too much to notice.
i thought about shoveling
at work as i cooked pasta and did dishes.
i looked out the window once
to see the fat flakes fall onto oxford street.
i carried juices to the cafeteria.
i have been thinking
and being angry more
but i’ve been singing as usual,
jumping onto the wheeled platform cart as it moves and
crooning into the broom for angela and michael.
they chase each other around the wet tile floor,
she threatening to chop him
into little pieces for soup.
he loved this, and i thawed soup.
their work is bumbling
when my action fingers don’t
move in a single direction
when they dart
when they’re work is bumbling
i peel the anger over my brain
and rage, i’ll rip screws out of their holes
and leave doors swinging,
i’ll hurl mop sticks into plastic walls.
over every bit of direction
i’m in charge of,
foolish-feeling tasks and buttons
all for my doing.
i neglect my voice
i didn’t have my tables wiped down
before my chairs were put up, so to speak.
i can sit on break to write
and lift my scapula over the back of my chair
and hang them there
while a big guy named Tiny interviews
for an offsite kitchen training program.
my job is a big heap-ful
of floating salad that i have to
scoop up and push into a bowl,
a traffic jam of direction and duty
that i should charm
and cooperate with.
there has been no calm-down and
no superior structure to sit
and float a pen over.
my limbs have been tired, my mind has been crazy
in that boring, knowing way.
not dastardly real crazy but intellectually
pounded and grasping for a snug knowledge.
i scoff at it now,
it’s ok that there is too much to remember.
I was able to help run groups while doing this job. I helped facilitate a writing group at the center and host monthly open mic nights there as well. Writing group was open experiments with a host of characters. War-torn schizophrenics, quiet superreligious old men, transgender gorillas stuck in government computer circuitry (I swear to god), interested volunteers or interns, and me. We wrote about homelessness some but I also wanted to steer clear and focus on opening a wide expression. I brought in cotton balls, eggs, flowers and set the in the middle of the table to use as inspiration- topics to start on. We would try free-writing without stopping to see what we would come up with. We would read our pieces aloud after, if we chose. It was beautiful catharsis and structure in the middle of this building which held so much angst and pissyness. I put out 5 or 6 issues of a zine based on the work generated from this group. It got passed around locally. The writing was too good to lose. Many folks did write about their experience on the streets and couch surfing.. The stories were simple, stark, funny, cruel, dadaist streams, filled with want. It was a great experience to be able to write right there in the thick of it, straight off crazy sweaty mornings of food prep and serving and advocacy groups and mayoral forums; the center was a never-ending hub of community and political events.
first writing group at the center
attended writing group today,
a woman named michael had many ideas.
they wanted ‘troops’ to go out of the bounds
of the soup kitchen
and day shelter
and read out to raise money for this group
for notebooks and supplies.
a man named earl showed me a
1 page story he had written called the wolverine.
a man who has pain in his eyes
spoke quietly about a letter his mother
and father sent him
and he talked about a reverential poem
about jesus christ.
two sarah’s facilitated group.
i gave ideas.
a man my age called forrest was at the group
but left midway through.
i’m not sure why he left.
he had dark eyes and skin.
i went to kindergarten with him.
now i buy an apple here at bagel works
for 75 cents and do not eat it
because i am not hungry and
just want some place to sit and write.
i could’ve gotten an apple for free at the soup kitchen.
doing the writing group was fun
people seemed too much about their own ways of writing
while condemning other styles in an offhand manner.
people were more willing to talk than i had expected,
they talked a lot.
a girl my age with a cane shared a short poem.
all of a sudden a group was formed and a few connections made
and it was the basis for future ideas and experiments.
were bonds formed? maybe, in a vague way
about the concept of writing..
A topic on the act of writing that i’ve wanted to touch upon here is- the intent and energy behind the moment of something being written, typed, composed. I don’t know if this was coming through in the group but I believe the power behind words is actually the intensity of the feeling while you are writing a piece. I think the beats were hitting on that, when a literary movement in america actually had spark. Stretching not for the proper word but for the right arc of mind to write that word in, that it somehow wasn’t about the words. It was about the feelings that were meant to click on in the reader. More like a transmission.
I’d always maintained that this work was separate from any political or local community actions I participated in. That I wouldn’t stick around here if they stopped paying me, so therefore it wasn’t coming from my heart. But then I realized I felt too mentally exhausted from my job to keep engaging in local political volunteerism. I just needed to come home and stop. I finally told myself that this work was inherently political, that it was community-based enough, paycheck or no. So, enter my drum circle and kirtan group; organizing around ideas that stemmed more from the heart and body than the mind.
Generational poverty, harmful relationships, intense physical, mental and sexual abuse are the norm here. Working within these realities is very cause-and-effect, very rooted in simple listening and building relationships in order to allay basic fear so that resiliency can be nourished. Here the soul is at ground zero, a lot. That can be really good and really bad. People are real with you. People share a lot of intense personal information with you. The concept of self-fulfilling prophecy may be at work here, in the bigger picture. When you grow up with little or nothing, little or nothing is what the world gives you. Funny, that. Being homeless is a lot of work, actually. Just staying alive inside the environment we have built for ourselves in the city is dealing with one shitty obstacle after another. Interacting with people who are paid to help you is a helpless sort of life. Homeless agencies do good work (usually) but most other institutions could really give a fuck less about where you slept last night. Meals and emergency shelter are not always guaranteed and are provided within rigid schedules, so if you miss it, you miss it. And oftentimes they are dispensed in a cold, authoritarian manner that leaves the homeless ‘consumer’ feeling embarrassed, defensive, hurt. And this is all after somehow being strong enough to keep going in a life where your family wasn’t a refuge or reality, where your sense of self was damaged more than most. I know america is supposed to ‘have it made’ but if you’re down and out in america your basic trauma isn’t suddenly less valid than anyone else’s. Yet that idea is certainly reinforced here. I do my best to try and not take this stuff home with me at the end of a day. And years later I began to remind myself not to bring my traumas to work, which is even harder.
I have not been fond of being in a position of power over other people. I’ve always been uncomfortable with that. I’ve felt like ‘the man’ more than once, enforcing rules I don’t even agree with sometimes, just b/c I found a work environment that spoke to me. But I’ve never done it without empathizing, without saying ‘I’m sorry.’ I feel the same enough to live in this shit-hole of a world with them, not around them. People are people, money makes poverty.