January 23, 2009

My situation, as compared to the Wanderer's

After having put up the Tricycle piece today about a Chinese Zen man of high rank experiencing homelessness, with equanimity, Ed of the blog Bad Buddha asked how that man’s experience resonates with my own.

To my credit, I have to say that I am doing a great deal better in Homeless World Sacramento than I would ever have supposed. A large part of this is that “the guys” – that is, other homeless people, most of whom are men – are pretty terrific.

My experience differs from the author of the Trike piece in a lot of ways, some of which may be significant. I rarely have to sleep on the streets, and I’ve never had to dumpster dive for sustenance.

I’ve found shelter at the Union Gospel Mission and I’ve been mostly lucky at being able to renew my privilege of getting a seven-day “reservation” to use one of their bunk beds to sleep on. There is food available for me at the mission and at Loaves & Fishes that will guarantee that I will eat good food. Also, I’ve gotten small sums of money from my mother’s death benefit and from general assistance, and food stamps, to assure that there’s a little extra.

When I have had to “stay out” because I could not get a bed at the mission shelter, I usually have just stayed up all night. Sometimes, I’ve found a place to sleep where I haven’t been bothered.

Unlike New York, where the Wanderer was homeless, there aren’t many businesses in Sacramento that are open late hours. The train station is sometimes open as late as midnight; I have stayed there to stay warm. But, both the train station and the bus station sometimes are careful to check people in their lobby and toss out anyone who doesn’t have a ticket. I’ve been tossed out of both places.

There is a Denny’s near Old Sacramento that is open all night. If I have money when I’m out, I’ll go there for a little while.

Another option I have is to stay in the lobby of a hospital Emergency Room. I haven’t done this yet, but I’m told that the Davis Medical Center is a place a well-kempt homeless person can stay and sleep, pretending a friend or relative is being tended to by the hospital staff.

There are a lot of people who have treated me badly because they can tell I’m homeless. Sometimes, I feel bad about that and sort of hide away all day.

As I say, I have a lot of people out here whom I consider to be friends. Some of them have some overwhelming drinking or substance-abuse problems, though when I see them they’ve been sober and even keeled. In just the last week, two good friends, separately, got released from six-month and 30-day stays in jail for being drunk in violation of their parole. I don’t think that either guy has any intention to cease drinking.

Also, my friend Steve and his family have been a big help to me.

While pretty much everybody knows I am Buddhist, other guys I know are pretty intent on making a Christian out of me. Because I sing the hymns and have learned a lot about the Bible, many think I must be wavering in my dedication to Buddhism, but I am not, at all.

The author of the Tricycle piece writes a lot about equanimity. I cannot say that I am equanimitous. My mood varies, but, I think, I am pretty much universally thought to be a nice, smart, big-hearted guy who will do anything for anybody.

The exception to all this is that I’m not happy about a lot of ways that the mission and Loaves & Fishes are run. [See my piece Phobos and Thanatos.] There’s a fellow on-staff at the mission who seems to have no other job than dispense misery and threaten to take guys’ bunks away from them. I cannot understand why the fellow does that or why the mission does not rebuke him. Loaves & Fishes is a dirty and inefficient place, unworthy of the population that it serves. Still, both the mission and L&F attract many Christ-like or bodhisattva-like people who help run the two organizations.

I do try to be even-keeled, and some days I’m successful at that. Sometimes, though, I will have a difficult time in the middle of the night, worrying about how I might ever exit my homeless circumstance and the nine-months-running felony thing – my own personal Bleak House – that refuses to either wrap up or go away. Also, at times, my mind gets caught up thinking about what a supremely dastardly person my sister is. When that happens, I try to distract myself with other, happy thoughts.

As I say, I’m, mostly, not unhappy. Plus, if I ever get back to a life that is somewhat like normalcy, I know I will greatly appreciate a lot of things about it that I didn’t in the past when my life was normal. I will appreciate being more in control of the period when I sleep. I will appreciate being able to decide what it is I will eat. I will appreciate not having to worry about where a bathroom is that I can use, or that I might get sick and suffer mightily.

My experience of homelessness has also "awakened" me toward having an enormous amount of sympathy for poor and homeless people and their incredibly frustrating struggles and to the knowledge that "justice" in America is in terrible shape. Had I not been here in Homeless World Sacramento, I'd never have gained this awareness.


Ed said...

Thanks Tom -- I appreciate your openness and candor. I felt the Tricycle article captured a sort of idealized view, whereas your post seems much more real to me.

Thanks again for sharing.

~C4Chaos said...


it's good to know that you're "mostly, not unhappy." i wish you well and pray that you get back to "normalcy" sometime soon.

thanks for sharing your journey. i just have a quick question for you and i hope you don't take this as me being all Buddhist fundamental and stuff like that. it's just out of pure curiosity :)

my question: are you using your current situation as an opportunity to practice (with whatever practice you have)? or does your situation make it difficult for you to keep mindfulness and equanimity (which i assume it would, but that's my projection)?

i ask because i've heard Fleet Maull organizes something called "street retreats" (aka plunge experience). so i wonder what's your take on this since. maybe you can dedicate a whole post about this. i'll be there to read it :)

thanks, and take care out there.


Tom said...


I wouldn't say that I separate 'my practice' from 'Tom in real life.'

I do 'backslide,' if that's the right word, and there's a well-up of egoic indignation every once in a while.

But then my Buddhism is, perhaps, in the eyes of some, watered down. I don't really practice Right Speech; I try to practice Right Hearing -- which means I try to be focussed on not getting perturbed rather than ratcheting down my confrontational nature.

Being in Homeless World is a golden opportunity to practice 'not being offended' and living in close quarters with people [mostly men] of a wide variety -- from gangsters, sociopaths, to geniuses of various sorts and some huge-hearted fellows whom the world neglects.

The street retreats that Maull and others run bug me. They seem like just another round of rich Buddhist exotica vacations. You can read my comments on all that, here.