Friday, December 21, 2007


That was the prevailing mood of sadness (and joy) amongst many of the homeless that were left today in "tent city" in New Orleans.

The 'sadness' I am speaking of - on a loss of community - may be hard for some to understand.

What someone who hasn't been homeless and who has been through the trauma of the Katrina related levee failures may find hard to comprhend is that for at least 100,000 people just in New Orleans, everything they had was destroyed for so many people. Those who are homeless since then who 'had' something to call their own, lost everything tangible, everything that to them, gave their lives meaning and gave them a sense of identity.

Think about it. Right now, you have to leave your house, you have right now. What are you going to do in in the next 10-20 minutes you think to yourself. Remember, you are also dealing with shock and your mind can't fully comprehend the reality of that which is unfolding before you. Your mind just doesn't have a context for the level of trauma you are presently engaging in.

You are going through the experience and find that it is so mind blowing, that don't have enough wherewithal to process it - so your mind goes into a "shock" mode and you just move automatically.

You grab whatever your mind has previously identified as "valuable".

You get out.


For others, they might be 'luckier', they get to come back and mop up and throw out their previous lives, memories; pick up the debris, look at the slat of what is left of which used to be their 'reality', perhaps not even that...

Now imagine, your life for the most part, had up until this point, seemed to be pretty much behind the "8 ball" in one way or another, to a greater or lesser degree.

Now you have just lost, everything.

It's months later - your homeless, you stay in the shelters, the mission, on the streets, with friends, with strangers, in abandoned buildings, in your car, on a bench, in motel rooms when you can afford them.

Your trying to get your life together. Perhaps your not trying at all. Perhaps at some level or another mentally and emotionally you cannot be fully 'present'. There are some among us who during their lifetimes, never 'fit' into the structures society creates, for whatever reason.

It doesn't matter. You stayed on the roof, you walked through chest high waters, you were without food for days and nights, no toilet, on a roof. You drank Katrina water indesparation. Or you were in the convention center or SuperDome. On top of a school or an apartment building or in a tree. It doesn't matter how you got to tent city. Or even if you were in the flood zones. What mattered was that you were in "tent city".

What mattered for the homeless that I met, who spoke with me - was the shared experience with each other, the camaraderie and the rare experience of collectively feeling "more than" the "less than" worthy that they have experienced from many other New Orleanians.

I don't know much about it tent city's origins or who was who there - I just can share with you the experiences I had with the homeless staying there and then the people who help who I met today.

(What was really funny is the self righteous contempt a few of the case workers from Unity dished out my way. For one thing there was a sudden "sea of white faces and middle class white folks" at tent city today. I usually came before dark or in the mornings on weekends. I don't keep office hours, I follow the rhythms and the time of the homeless. And before dark is a good time to find people who are like the birds, returning to their nests as it gets dark, while it is still relatively, safe. So they had no idea who I was and thought I was here for the first time today.

Nah, I knew enough to come with extra sturdy large trash bags on moving day.)
Here is the theme of what I have learnt and experienced amongst the homeless, the people who try to help them, and the people who really do care but are silent and unseen. Worthiness and dignity.

The people who came together in "tent city" shared a unique experience with each other - for better or worse, and in many cases it was worse - (and worse is 'relative'). The became a family in Ultima Thule. And they knew community again.

It seems odd doesn't it to think that the homeless miss community or that it would be important to them. I think perhaps that we look upon the homeless, I have until I was homeless myself; we look upon them as loners - the outsiders of society and community. I think far too many believe, without even questioning the origins of this belief, that the homeless don't want to be a part of community.

The odd thing is that they do. But the homeless don't fit for the most part, into the structures and boxes that society (communal, ideological, and political) have created. For most, not all of the homeless, there is a need to function to the best of their abilities, as human beings, with dignity, on their terms within the greater society. These are human beings who are willing to suffer degradation and being very un"comfortable", in order to live a life that they can relate to, on their terms. They need as human beings, to "be" right where they are at in the moment. Not where you or I are 'at' or where you or I believe they should be 'at'.

And this is where 2 men I met and spoke with today intersect in this story of the homeless leaving 'tent city' :


I got the inspiration for the sign from the 1960's trash strike - "I am a man".

--James Sowell

1968 Memphis Sanitation Workers' Strike

More to come on James.

Story # 2


I spent some time today talking with a one of the 2 police officers assigned to the NOPD Homeless Division.

I am once again "humbled" by my preconceived prejudices that I bring to my writing on the homeless situation.

I got the first clue that my bias on writing about the homeless had skewed a little too far out of balance even for me, and it came when Herbert mentioned, that "the police division were helping us out of kindness by letting us stay here."

The Universe made sure I followed up on that thought today by presenting in my path a person who spends his time in the streets helping the homeless every day he is on the job.

I stand beside all my previous postings and I admit that it wasn't the whole story. Mea culpa.

And I "should" know better when it comes to New Orleans.

This city does have a compassionate aspect to it that has been a part of its heart for a very long time. I get caught up some times in the politics that are playing out - like with what is happening with the public housing issue and I forget there are other aspects to this scenario.

New Orleans is unlike many other US cities and towns I have lived in over the last 20 years. It understands and at times, prides itself on its charities and good works. And it is not an egotistical pride that I witness, it is more of the "good feeling" pride that you want to teach your kids.

The officer from the Homeless Division I spoke with today taught me so much more about how there are those in the city who are trying and do care - within the NOPD.

And he talked to me in a language that I speak. If you have spent anytime on this blog you may have figured out that my "perceptions" and they way that I understand reality is "different", perhaps one would say from the "norm". I speak in a language that is political and spiritual at the same time. I try to live a life that is about "doing" rather than "preaching, "being" rather then telling. The NOPD homeless division officer I am speaking of Sam Scaffidi, spoke the language that spoke to the same level of "caring" and "respecting" the dignity of others, no matter their circumstances.

My time speaking with him and most of all listening to him share about his work, his heart felt desire to help the homeless, his willingness and compassion in understanding the many levels of complications that can occur with each individual within the greater homeless population touched me profoundly.

I did not take notes as this was form me, a personal conversation for my own edification.

If I would have, you too would be as inspired by who he is as a person and how he brings this "self" to his work.

Yeah. I am talking about personnel from the New Orleans Police Department.

You can't fake integrity. you can;t fake compassion. It there is any contempt it will slip out in phrasing of a sentence or through words unconsciously chosen. When I spoke with this man I was touched by his sincerity, clarity, his ability to recognize his position as a bridge between opposing viewpoints and his willingess to expose his vulnerability by being openly compassionate on the beat. And this is an ex-marine. Semper Fi.

Can you understand now why I write that I have been humbled by his humility? I found this NOPD officer whose job it is to work with the homeless and interface between the force and the homeless, to be a compassionate human being "within a law enforcement capacity".

He became one of the teachers that comes across my path whose integrity and true passion for what they do - really makes an impact in my consciousness and creates an opening within me when I get stuck in ruts where my thinking is preconceived or prejudiced.

I felt like Officer Sam Scaffidi in my conversations with him today was embodying "being" in purpose and his humility humbled me and inspired me.

I have an opportunity to speak with him again in a few days. This time I am going to write down as much of the conversation as I can and you can judge for yourself.


Prayers for the suffering everywhere, especially for the homeless, the hungry, the violently oppressed, the fearful, the tortured, and the lonely.

A p.s. from your P.S. - I am really tired and as much as I would like to edit this posting, I am just too tired.... Peace.

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