As founding director of the Glass House Shelter Project, a grassroots organization that brings college level reading & writing courses into shelters, I have had the good fortune of teaching and being taught by those who find themselves, most unexpectedly, sometimes chronically, homeless. There isn’t a student yet who doesn’t seem incredulous at the circumstance of his or her life, by the sudden falling and downward spiral that is homelessness, the toppling into the fringe. There also isn’t a student yet who hasn’t shared their stories of being abused and bullied—sometimes domestically, sometimes by the military, often by the justice system, and almost always by those who pass by daily and fail to see them, so much rubbish in the street.
As a Visiting Lecturer of English at both Salem State University and the University of Massachusetts, the students that I have at these universities are often not so different than those I encounter in shelters. Many are the first in their families to attend a university, many work long hours to be able to afford an education at a state school, some are homeless—though they would be quick to call it anything but. The modern day homeless individual eschews the labels, preferring instead to refer to their housing instability as a passing idiom—couch-surfing, apartment-hopping, sleeping in their cars—just a humorous episode of beatnik-like endurance that somehow confers them with an other-worldly wisdom that, dare I say it, is to be envied on Saturday nights downtown by the do-gooders, straight-lacers, unhip, conservative stiffs sticking keys into the ignition of cars bought with trust fund booty.
Frankly, it’s all the same to me. The couch-surfers, the sex traffickers, the food pantry regulars. If we cannot afford heat and running water, a roof over our head, food in our belly and clean clothes in our cupboards all at the same time, than we are some version of homeless—if ‘home’, as it should be, is to be defined by those most basic of rights. It’s one of those things that gets pieced out by degrees, and we all know where six degrees of separation can take us.
Which is why when I was asked to curate this folio on homelessness, I jumped at the chance to give some of my students from the shelter a platform to say what they had been saying in class for years—to tell their stories in a language that didn’t smack of clinical observation, statistical analysis, cost per person, per meal, per bed. I wanted to hear their stories in the language of increased rents and heatless nights, fistfights and needles to the arm and children who shudder when someone whispers He’s home. In the language of the other, of the unwanted, of the shunned and ridiculed and pushed out, of those who go to the end of the line when the teacher blows the whistle to line up, there is no safe zone; there is no home. The drugs, the lack of education, the domestic abuse, the mental illness—all the labels, the social ills that we choose to dump on the homeless are there and cannot be invalidated, but it is coupled with a Herculean amount of courage, determination, resourcefulness, intelligence, strength and above all—hope. The kind of hope that somehow, miraculously, gets to be bigger than our fear. The kind of hope that makes people walk across deserts, jump from burning buildings, stare down the barrel of a gun. The kind of hope that makes 1 in 100 odds we live look like a solution. I wanted the homeless/ex-homeless to breathe air into the gnarly bits of their experience—the trafficking, the bullying, the beatings—and rain them down on their readers. Quite simply, perhaps impossibly, I wanted our hegemonic view of this national crisis to be shaken to the core. For us to collectively see firsthand what it looks like when the fastest growing segment of the homeless population is revealed to be college-aged kids, nearly 40% who identify as part of the LGBTQ population and over 60% who have been raped, assaulted, beaten up or robbed. I wanted us to see our children, our brothers and sisters, nephews and nieces; I wanted us to see that we are them and they are ours.
Instead, other truths, unexpected and tangential truths surfaced as a result of the submissions we received that taught me a few things about the work that is yet to be done before the rains come, before we are washed with an understanding, with an absolute awareness of who and what and where and why. Despite having reached out to national agencies that deal with the homeless, to shelter networks and politicians and healthcare professionals, to academic institutions and humanitarian efforts, all of the submissions we received have been from people who see themselves first as artists, second as homeless. It made me begin to question the relationship between homelessness and the artist and to ask myself whether psychological assessments might draw a clear bridge between an artistic personality and our ability (or lack thereof) to act in ways that ascertain our survival within the confines of a contemporary society, within that loose definition of home as an inalienable set of rights. In John Gardner’s book, On Becoming A Novelist, he writes of the artist that
Like other kinds of intelligence, the storyteller's is partly
natural, partly trained. It is composed of several qualities, most
of which, in normal people, are signs of either immaturity or
incivility: wit (a tendency to make irreverent connections);
obstinacy and a tendency toward churlishness (a refusal to
believe what all sensible people know is true); childishness (an
apparent lack of mental focus and serious life purpose, a fondness
for daydreaming and telling pointless lies, a lack of proper
respect, mischievousness, an unseemly propensity for crying
over nothing); a marked tendency toward oral or anal fixation
or both (the oral manifested by excessive eating, drinking,
smoking, and chattering; the anal by nervous cleanliness and
neatness coupled with a weird fascination with dirty jokes);
remarkable powers of eidetic recall, or visual memory (a usual
feature of early adolescence and mental retardation); a strange
admixture of shameless playfulness and embarrassing earnestness,
the latter often heightened by irrationally intense feelings
for or against religion; patience like a cat's; a criminal streak of
cunning; psychological instability; recklessness, impulsiveness,
and improvidence; and finally, an inexplicable and incurable
addiction to stories, written or oral, bad or good.
Although partly tongue-in-cheek, Gardner’s description is dead on in nailing the open-hearted and trusting, almost childish, nature evident in so many of my homeless students—or rather, the armor that has been born of it. The more sensitive, the more prone to pain, to being wounded, the more hardened and drugged (metaphorically or otherwise) and lost we become.
I also began to think about all of my artist friends in relation to shelter, in relation to stability and need of the most basic human sort, and came to realize that indeed, on this very day, so many of them are living close to the edge, sometimes coming close enough with the dependence on food stamps and public assistance to be all but homeless, slipping closer and closer and then a shift, slight at first, the rent is late, the contract fizzles, and they are there on my couch or yours, showering at the gym, living at the library, attending readings for the warmth not of words but of walls. Indeed, they are not only ours, they are us.
I look through the Humans of New York volume my sister-in-law has given me for Christmas, looking for the faces of those who are obviously homeless, and for those hidden homeless, for those shunning the label, the sound, the shame of the “H” word. I find a man lighting a cigarette who’s quoted as saying “Anyone who has a two-hundred-plus IQ runs the risk of just hanging out because you get too involved in your own thoughts and you just want to sit there and think about them,” and it sounds like half the writers I know.
As I write this, my bank account is one hundred and fifty dollars overdrawn because the lawyer who helped me go bankrupt last summer (a necessity in the wake of divorce) deposited one of nine predated pre-signed checks sooner than we’d agreed. Between his check and the overdraft fee collected by Bank of America, the $60 I’d hoped would buy the gas I need to get back and forth to my university jobs has disappeared into the negatives. As a newly divorced mother of four, two of them still dependents, I am barely surviving on poverty level wages, despite having an advanced degree, despite that I routinely work long into the night doing the work of an adjunct teaching five courses at two state universities and running a grassroots organization that brings college level reading and writing courses to people who need them as much as they need warm winters and cool summers and compassion. I am in this position because the state has deemed it fair to make adjuncts wait a full month into each semester before they receive their first paycheck and by the time the end of next week rolls around, it will have been a full two months since I received the last paycheck for my work (despite having had only two weeks off for the holidays). What I do receive regularly, however, are accolades—accolades for my work as a teacher from students, from the administration, from my 83 year old mother who is sure I will die before she does if I don’t slow my pace. That and foreclosure notices from the bank.
All this to say that this folio includes artists who, like myself, are living in varying degrees of poverty, who have experimented differently with the pain of loss, of doing without—health insurance, heat, food, running water—for the sake of their art. Some have slipped over the line, into financial distress, seemingly only temporarily, only to find that they cannot climb back out, that the blur of irregular sleep and food begins to eek out an island of our days. At some point, we may begin to choose the island over the mainland, the swim to shore from here being more effort than what it seems worth, the current too daunting. We hear from William Keller, a poet who resides in his Ford Econoline van in Providence and Darryl Wellington, who says his poetry became darker after living for months at an Occupy camp in Santa Fe. There is Ariana Rodriguez, a former student of mine at Salem State University just north of Boston, who tries to buoy her mother’s spirits while packing up the family home before moving into a motel, and Peter Nelson, for years a successful novelist, who finds himself living virtually out of his office after separating from his wife of ten years. There is Zhulien Lambev, a journalist from Finland who writes of sleeping under bridges and living in the caverns of Tautavel, swimming with the fishes. And Phe Needham, a veteran who becomes homeless upon leaving her marriage, forced to come to terms with her PTSD while continuing to work full time, hiding her homelessness from her coworkers in the noon day glow of a computer screen, the busyness of the next assignment. There is Mark Norek, an ex-con, the boy he once was locked up at the age of twenty-two in a high security prison, and the man who recently graduated with honors from the University of Massachusetts Boston, in the upper 10% of his 4144 classmates, who walked into a creative writing course one fall day at the New England Center for Homeless Veterans that changed his life. We are, all of us, kindred spirits, who move between quasi-indeterminate realms in our craft and sometimes in the habit of our living.
What this folio does not include are the millions living without homes who don’t identify as artists and writers, those who are too reticent to speak up, write their truths, share their stories, but rather remain safely hidden from us, from themselves and cannot be reached by mere calls for submissions, no matter how well planted and well intentioned they are. Part of this I attribute to the lack of supportive writing programs, especially in proportion to those that exist in prisons, that are available in shelters. The homeless are too often considered too mentally and emotionally unstable to engage in reading & writing courses, especially 15 week college level courses that require a consistent commitment. My work with the Glass House Shelter Project has proven this not to be the case; although the numbers are fluid, life trajectories being irregular and unpredictable for many of the homeless, on any given day, 100% of the graduates of the college level courses I have taught are reportedly living successfully in independent living situations, fully employed and/or matriculated in degree-granting programs. Bibliotherapy works, and I would urge more shelters to make reading & writing courses a central component of the educational outreach offered to their clients.
I hope that when you read this folio, you might pay close attention to the rhetoric of shame that emerges in these pieces, over and over again, regardless of the extent to which the artist has succumbed to poverty. There is a palpable reticence to reveal ourselves as homeless, as wanting, even when the story of our lives suggest otherwise. The shame is present in all of the pieces we share here in this folio and it seems that the deeper we slip into denial, the more we not only carry our shame, but more critically, more disastrously, we become it. It is a condition born of our otherness, of that whistle that sends us running to the back of the line, of the voices we carry in our heads that whisper not good enough. How much we as artists invite the circumstance of homelessness into our lives is a question that may be answered by paying attention to what is not said; similarly, college kids are seldom as homeless as the guy with the paper bag curled around the glass neck of a bottle beneath the underpass, but finding a deep chair to sink into midday in the student lounge, at a friend’s house, at the airport, happens. I hope that this folio begins a dialogue about homelessness that questions our response to it, our naming of it - to the safe distance we put between it and ourselves. Our view of what’s normative for our students, our teachers, our musicians and poets and painters, sculptors—in terms of housing, food, visible sustenance—is changing. Let these words take you to the glittering shores of the other; they will be more familiar than you might imagine.
Glass House Shelter Project