When I was a child, an elderly shop owner taught me a lesson on the power of words. He said to me, “Opinions are like assholes. Everybody’s got one.”
I don’t remember what I’d asked Art, the gentleman in question, to prompt that response, but as the years went by and public discourse veered farther and farther from true communication, I have often revisited and repeated those words. And never more so than when hearing people talk about the “experience” of homelessness.
But let me back up a bit. Art was a fixture in my childhood. He owned my neighborhood’s small-town grocery, the type that used to be commonplace before corporate convenience stores took over. Art did not happily engage with his fellow adults or suffer fools gladly. For that, people called him cantankerous. But for this child who was abandoned by his sire at birth, Art often played the role of surrogate dad, teaching me that words could be double-edged swords and offering his take on the state of our union.
One day Art explained to me what the Great Society of the 1960s was all about. Sadly, it never had a chance to grow, and in the ghost city of what could have been, I’ve been left with frustrating discourse in which applying words like “experiencing” to homelessness have become a self-serving substitute for actually doing something about the issue.
In the sixties President Lyndon Baines Johnson was controlling the political narrative from the White House. He had signed into law the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965—thereby making noticeable headway in building the Great Society. This was a heady time for anyone in America, especially for an inquisitive child beginning to take stock of the world around him. Change was spreading across the land, and everyone was chiming in with opinions.
Art and I used to sit in front of his small, soon-to-be outdated grocery. He’d prop his feet up after filling his pipe with Amphora tobacco. Then he would allow me to speak to him mano a mano while he puffed away. He never spoke down to me, nor blew smoke in my face, and he always had time for my questions.
On another occasion, around harvest time, I asked Art why people were sleeping on the ground near the river and railroad tracks.
He told me that they were migrant workers who had come to Wenatchee to pick the famous Washington State apples, and that they would be leaving when the trees were bare.
“But why don’t they stay in a motel?” I asked.
“They got issues,” Art answered. “Issues in their head and heart that make them spend all their money trying to forget their problems.”
I told him that everyone else had said they were Okies and Arkies (and, to be clear, some used racial slurs) who enjoyed sleeping outside.
“I used to have problems that forced me to sleep outside too,” Art replied. “It’s not fun. And don’t let me hear you calling them that. They are people struggling to survive.”
That’s when I understood the difference between opinion and firsthand knowledge. What follows is not an opinion, because I, too, ended up having problems that forced me to sleep outside.
Everybody has opinions on everything. When the subject matter concerns dire issues such as homelessness and addiction, so-called experts and do-gooders, people who have never been homeless or addicted, begin postulating and proselytizing. That’s how “experiencing homelessness” and “experiencing addiction” became the in-vogue euphemisms to describe human suffering. The sole purpose of euphemisms is to soften the blow. They desensitize, especially when they are deployed to describe the nightmare of homelessness and addiction.
I was homeless, and I have overindulged in conscious-altering products (including government-taxed alcohol, illicit substances, and prescription drugs). It never once crossed my mind that I was experiencing homelessness or experiencing addiction. On the other hand, I was painfully aware that I was enduring a precarious existence. That I was stuck on an ungoverned roller coaster, tethered to a life-and-death teeter-totter, wondering how I’d be able to secure what I needed to escape the nightmare.
During my thirties I navigated life without a home, and without the physical resources and psychological wherewithal to correct my course. My descent into despair was a gradual slide that began long before I entered my teens. Without naming the events, suffice it to say that unresolved childhood traumas acted as the foundation upon which my homeless existence was built, year after year, brick by brick.
I used substances throughout my life to find relief from my psychological plights and physical realities. And I’d be willing to bet that those who are sleeping on the streets and under overpasses—and are attempting to drown their pain and fears—do not feel that they are having an experience.
An experience is alfresco seating at the Carbon Beach Club restaurant in Malibu, California, while the sun sets over the Pacific Ocean. A coast-to-coast motorcycle excursion across America is also an experience. I know this much is true, because I have experienced both! That’s why I know the difference between an experience and a life-and-death struggle, which is exactly what homelessness and addiction are—but you can’t say that in 2023 without a disclaimer. So here it is, my warning: this writing includes sentences that some people may find uncomfortable, that some people may find disturbing, that some people may use to work themselves into a frenzy and begin screaming, “I’m offended!”
So be it.
Experiencing homelessness? Experiencing addiction? Give me a frigging break from the bureaucratic doublespeak, will you? Let’s jettison the constant coining of neutral terms that do not reflect truth. All they do is mask unpleasant realities with palatable descriptors. That’s how “suffering from homelessness” and “surviving addiction” became an “experience” for the uninitiated, for the politicians, for the bureaucrats, for the media, for the Woke, for the Left, for the Right. What’s next? Referring to the Warsaw Ghetto as the Warsaw experience?
“Suffering” and “surviving” are too straightforward, too blunt, too jarring, too distasteful for today’s hedonistic society. So, with a wink and a smile, editors and talking heads deploy the word “experiencing” to describe anguish. I’m surprised that I have not heard the following related to capital punishment: “Today a death row inmate experienced execution.”
I am now in my midsixties, and I live in constant fear that homelessness will again send me back to the streets. If I’m confronted with that reality and faced with an overwhelmingly apathetic American society led by inept politicians and ignorant bureaucrats who refuse to adequately address the plight of their fellow citizens, it would be an easy decision to escape through reality-altering substances or a final, self-inflicted solution.
I am now classified as “not economically viable.” Enduring homelessness this late in my life would not end in triumph. I am too old and too tired to fight my way through the bureaucracy again.
I have lost all hope that American society will ever adequately address the suffering that the homeless face daily. The homeless epidemic continues to grow unabated in America because we have not decided to end it.
This nation, with no infrastructure or technology in place, stood before the world in 1962 and declared that we would walk on the moon before the end of the decade. And in 1969, we Americans did just that. We now have our sights set on Mars. Don’t tell me that this nation cannot solve big, complicated problems. Americans have proved repeatedly that we are a force majeure who can accomplish anything when we unite, when we are relentless, when we declare that failure is not an option. We ought to make solving the homelessness epidemic a moral imperative and proclaim that we will overcome—by any ethical means necessary!
At the risk of delaying the point I hope to make, I’ll also state that the scourge of human suffering from homelessness and addiction in America is a direct result of Ronald Reagan’s 1981 Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act, and of each consecutive Congress’s and president’s refusal to adequately resuscitate President Johnson’s Great Society, itself derailed by the funding of the ill-fated Vietnam War. Oops, that tragic chapter in American history is now referred to as the Vietnam experience.
(Emphasis added above because of the tally: nearly 60,000 American soldiers slaughtered, 150,000 wounded, approximately 1,600 who remain missing, and, of course, the “four dead in Ohio,” shot by members of Ohio’s National Guard on the campus of Kent State University. To call the Vietnam War an experience is nearly as despicable as the war itself.)
With a stroke of a pen, we fully fund armed conflicts, but there never seems to be enough ink left to adequately fund what was once referred to as the War on Poverty. Naturally, there is an endless supply of ink for the armed War on Drugs.
Reagan’s voodoo economics and “trickle down economy” set the stage for the Greek tragedy that is still playing out (void of a deus ex machina) on America’s streets and in her alleyways and under her overpasses. Reagan’s vision of a Shining City on a Hill came at a cost: a 30 percent cut in federal spending on mental health and the gutting of social programs. Ronnie’s indifference to the poor benefited the wealthy and devastated the growing ranks of the downtrodden. Talk about a sucker punch. Homelessness is a black eye that must be addressed before “great” or “beautiful” can be used to describe America.
Political policies have enabled homelessness and addiction to take deep root in America, and the data to support an indictment of these and past policies for crimes against humanity is readily available. But you’ll not find that data on CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, or any other corporate-owned media outlet (now almost indistinguishable from social media platforms).
I can accept that my country, its politicians, and its citizenry are capable only of selective and fleeting acts of minimal compassion. I can accept that American society will walk right over homeless people to do whatever is necessary to rescue an animal in distress. But what I cannot accept are euphemisms that desensitize society from the conditions that allow human suffering to flourish. That is a bridge too far.
Please show those who are suffering due to homelessness and addiction the most basic of human courtesies by adequately describing their plights. They are not experiencing homelessness. They are not experiencing addiction. They are in an agonizing, unfathomable situation. They are caught in a quagmire. They are clinging to life by the thinnest of threads. The homeless and the addicted, the hungry and the hunted, are locked in a final tango, a death waltz. They are not experiencing a social dance.
In my teens, a native son from New Jersey inspired me. Bruce Springsteen commandeered my attention with his “runaway American dream” and his declaration that the poets had capitulated and were letting it all be. As it turns out, the poets never stopped writing. It was We the People who chose to stand back and let it all be while experiencing anything that would distract us from the horrid reality that America is not a great society, but rather a corporate wasteland driven by greed and fueled by fear.
I finished writing this essay over coffee inside of Beth’s Cafe on Aurora Avenue North in Seattle. Being back at Beth’s reminded me that in 2021 the Seattle Police Department was forced into the role of Grinch after being ordered to execute a pre-Christmas raid on the homeless of Green Lake Park. In other words, as children were nestled all snug in their beds, Seattle’s politicians and bureaucrats were conspiring to kick the homeless out of the park. Any hope that the Green Lake homeless population might have had for a moment of holiday cheer died that day.
As I was getting ready to close my laptop, a fellow customer who had just received his second refill of Beth’s coffee asked me what I was writing. I shared it with him. He read it slowly, and his eyebrows rose, or his nostrils flared, or he involuntarily grimaced or frowned. When he had finished reading, he sized me up before saying, “I agree that experiencing homelessness does not describe the reality.” Then he shrugged and added, “Please pass the salt.”
I still wonder if he meant that he was taking what he had read with a grain of salt. If so, at least he was being polite and did not engage in an ad hominem attack on me or the homeless. And that’s a step forward . . . or at least one in the right direction.
I’ll sign off with what Art the grocer once said: “Salus populi suprema lex esto.” We should all be able to unite behind that!