There But for the Grace of God…

My brother was homeless off-and-on during his adult life. It was mostly because he couldn’t keep a job and he couldn’t keep a job because he was an incorrigible and belligerent drunk. He was also a masterful con artist, especially toward those who loved him. I’ve written about him a LOT here on my blog and while I probably DO have more to say, I don’t think I want to say a lot more. It did give me a slightly different perspective on homeless people, however. I came to see that there are people (like my brother) who’d rather be homeless than contend with their habits and who will use the concept of “rescue” as a way to manipulate others.

The summer I was on medical leave from teaching (having had a nervous breakdown, the summer of 1994) I was sitting in front of the sainted Quel Fromage on Washington Street in San Diego. Quel Fromage was a coffeehouse of the pre-Starbucks type. I spent a lot of mornings there that summer and had become part of the little community of regulars who ALSO spent their summer mornings enjoying that spot in the San Diego neighborhood of Hillcrest. We got so we kind of “knew” each other. The tables were fenced off from the main sidewalk. I was sitting at a table next to the fence.

One morning as I sat at a table, drinking a latte and drawing, a homeless guy, who had a beautiful border collie, came by and put two dollars on my table. “I’ve wanted to give you that for a long time,” said the guy. “Buy yourself a coffee.”

It was a stunning moment.

I know, personally, how close that reality is at any given moment. That crazy (literally) summer I nearly lost my house. Until my disability was approved, I had no income. I had recently been divorced and my ex closed “our” banking account — an account that was money I’d earned. I was at the point of standing in line in strange little buildings to pay my bills with cash. I was selling things so I could buy groceries. One of my neighbors bought lots of my stuff and never used it. I got it back when I was on my feet. I knew ONE thing in those times; I did NOT want to lose my house. A lot of reasons, but probably the big one was what would happen to my six dogs????

One of my students in 1996 was a homeless woman with PTSD. She was scary, but determined to get off the streets and become a counselor. I taught her in a freshman composition class. She liked me, and well she should because only two years earlier I’d nearly been her crazed neighbor on the street. I GOT her situation. The counseling department of City College was awesome working with her and over time, she calmed down. She saw she could do college. She saw that people were going to accept her. In the middle of the semester she was awarded a therapy dog — a Belgian Malinois. This was important because she’d been raped twice. The dog would protect and calm her. She was living in the back of her pick up truck. Social services was working hard on her behalf to find her a real shelter. Soon she and her dog moved into a converted motel room. Little-by-little.

The Malinois came to class with her. They always sat beside the door in case she had to escape. 😦 One day while they were taking an exam, and the woman had forgotten to tie the dog to her desk, it walked up to me in front of the class and lay down at my feet. I felt honored, and the dog’s gesture solidified a long “friendship” between me and this woman. One of the things I found while I was organizing “The Examined Life” was a letter from this woman telling me she’d graduated from San Diego State with her MA in social work, was working with homeless women who’d suffered traumatic experiences (war, rape, etc.) and she still had the Malinois. ❤

Homelessness changed drastically during the “Great Recession,” which will be remembered as “The Minor Economic Blip” when held next to what’s happening now. Still, the result of that for many families in San Diego was homelessness. At the time, I had students who lived on the street with their mom and siblings and were using government financial aid to put food on their family’s “table.” It made for some pretty awful classes as students who are not there to learn are difficult to teach. Over time, some families were moved into special housing — one such situation was an abandoned dormitory at San Diego State that was slated to be torn down.

In the immortal words of Jello Biafra, “We have a bigger problem now.” Homelessness in the economic reality of COVID isn’t just a bunch of people like my brother who would rather live under a bridge than, well, anything else, the guys who’ve discovered they make plenty of money panhandling so why work? (Truth) Now it’s communities of working people living in cars.

People are always looking for “the answer to homelessness.” There is no answer. The reasons for homelessness are as varied as the individuals living on the streets. Money alone won’t fix it. Education alone won’t fix it. Substance abuse counseling won’t fix it. But everything together can help SOME people. And, among the most troubled souls, there are angels.


P.S. In my blog, I have chosen to write openly about the mental crisis I faced. It was terrifying at the time, but in the grand scheme of my little life, it was the best thing that ever happened to me. As Henry Miller wrote in one of his novels, we might fear the abyss, but if we have the courage to fall, we will discover what we need to discover. When I recovered, I was greeted at my job by comments like, “It’s Lazarus!” and not given enough classes to support myself. People no longer trusted me, even after 13 years of exemplary work, and it became clear that I had to find a new job. People think things like clinical depression is contagious or something. I don’t know. In any case, there are so many people out there (out here?) who’ve fought that good fight and emerged stronger and more aware. I wouldn’t be me now if that terrible summer had not happened and, honestly, I wouldn’t want to be anyone else than the person I am now. ❤

22 thoughts on “There But for the Grace of God…

  1. My brother is still homeless in Hemet, even after numerous attempts to get him to come home. He cries when we talk to him on the phone saying, “I don’t want to die here alone.” It is heart wrenching to me. He came from a good family, but abuse from an uncle helped him to become a drunk and drug user. After no contact for 15 years, we found him. No longer on Crack, he is still an alcoholic with no intention of quitting. He doesn’t ask for money.. just scared and lonely, and too prideful to come home. Breaks my heart to think of my brother sleeping on the dangerous streets of Hemet, Ca.
    Thanks Martha for sharing. I suffer from panic attacks and severe anxiety. Almost debilitating, but managed through medications. I am always very open about mental health, I think it helps others to be open.

  2. Unfortunately people will probably always be looking for the answer for homelessness. And you’re right – now it is boiling over in all kinds of different ways. Bravo to you and thank you for sharing this story – in all its layers. ❤️

  3. Very moving post, as always, Martha. I had wondered if the man that gave you $2 and said that he’d been wanting to give that to you was your brother but I suppose not.
    I am interested in your ‘crazy’ summer – perhaps you’ve written about it in more detail in another post?

  4. Poignant post, Martha; thank you for sharing so much of yourself and your journey. Sometimes there are happy endings, like your student with her therapy dog. And you.

  5. My city is trying to come to grips with the homeless population. There have been many proposals but as you said – there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. I have often muttered “there but for the grace of God go I” as I see others struggle with issues and situations. Survivors are able to keep moving forward instead of dwelling on the past and attempting to change what has been. I see you as a survivor and even as thriving!

    • Yep. I remember the days when I said ‘I want MORE than to merely survive!” hah. Like surviving is easy. But what do you know when you’re 17? 😀

  6. A moving post. There are several areas that I identify with, especially regarding your brother and his abuse of alcohol. I come from a family with a history of mental health issues that involve depression and suicide with the tragic consequences often exacerbated by alcohol abuse. I often find it’s cathartic to write about these myself. Thank you for sharing your experiences so poignantly, gracefully and openly.

    • I’d say “my pleasure” but the irony would be way over the top! 😉 I’m sorry you and your family have spun around in this vortex, too. It’s so common. I remember an evening class I met in the depths of one of my brother’s crises. I asked them straight out, “How many of you have an alcoholic in your family?” Only two out of 35 didn’t raise their hands. That moment really bonded us, though.

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