Wednesday, August 24, 2016

“Out There: The Homeless Years” by Denise Blue. Giving a human face and name to those living on the streets

Homelessness in America has become so pervasive and chronic it is tempting
to ignore homeless people as we pass them by on the street. We may even come to see them as a permanent and disturbing fixtures in the cityscape, like litter and graffiti.  We are told by city officials not to give them money, and we may be too busy or too anxious to give them our attention. It is easy to forget that those living on the street are people like us. Instead, they are seen as a social problem or as a statistic. We are told there has been a 16% increase in homelessness in LA in the past two years,
44,359 people sleep on the streets and in shelters every night, and chronic homelessness has risen 54% since 2013. These statistics are alarming, but they can also be numbing and can make us forget that each homeless person is unique, made in God’s image, with a name and a story. That’s why advocates for homeless people often bristle at the collective term “the homeless.” 

One book that gives a vivid sense of what it’s like to be a homeless person is Out There, The Homeless Years (2009) by Denise Blue, the pseudonym of Denise Williams, a college professor who currently lives in South Pasadena. Her website provides a synopsis of this courageously honest book: “Based on a true story, Out There is a work of documentary fiction that begins by tracing Dr. Dee’s descent into homelessness. We are with her as she discovers the Rules of the Street: how to panhandle, how to feed herself from dumpsters, how to run from fights, how to find places to sleep. We meet her cohorts and come to understand the world as viewed by street people. After chronicling her various adventures, the book shows her miraculous re-emergence as a professional woman who is able to reunite with family and friends and to cope with mental illness and alcoholism.”
What makes this book so powerful is Dr. Dee’s ability to convey what it feels like to go from being a professional woman—a writer, editor, and college professor—to a street person. Because she is a white middle class professional, it is easy for us to identify with her thought processes and feelings. Her story begins in 1979 when she was living in Sausalito and enjoying the good life there, teaching part-time and editing books. She became so addicted to alcohol and casual sex that she began missing her rent payments and is evicted. In shock, she realized that she had sought help from family and friends for so long that she has no longer has anyone to turn to. At the suggestion of a friend, she moved into a van near the waterfront. At first, she treated this move as an adventure. “This was a good life, I’d tell myself. Who needed to scramble for rent, the need to impress others? I was free of my burdens, with no responsibilities. This was real living” (p. 15).
Thus begins a pattern of denial and rationalization as Dee becomes more and more enmeshed in the homeless life, and in her alcoholism. Through realistic dialogue, Dee vividly portrays the people she encounters in her new life, people who teach her how to survive as a homeless person.
Dee quickly learns it is no picnic being homeless. To survive on the street, people lie and steal from each other, especially when they have drug and alcohol issues; and Dee learns to be constantly on guard. On the other hand, homeless people form friendships and communities to help each other. At the end of the book she writes: “I miss the people. They were wild, often destructive, rude and crude. Yet, I loved them. Despite the rough and tumble, they were capable of much kindness to me and to one another—small things like making sure there was water in the camp, like sharing food….” (p. 337).
We learn a lot in this book about the complex social networks that homeless people create. We also see how Dee’s alcoholism leads her into denial about the realities of her life, and how resistant she is to real change. We see how well-intentioned efforts to help this segment of the homeless population often fail. We come to appreciate how important it is for those with addiction issues to find a safe place, a home, where they can begin the recovery process.  
This fictionalized autobiography explores the spiritual as well as social life of those living on the street. Interspersed throughout the book are biblical quotes and moments in which Dee reveals her spiritual condition, her yearning for Christ and God. These little epiphanies are sometimes funny. At a Christian recovery center, she reads a comic book about Jesus and has a fantasy about dancing with him that upset those in charge. On a more serious note, we see how some of the religious people she encounters are unable to understand or relate to her because of their preconceived ideas and agendas. Some are exasperatingly insensitive. They are unable to see how many homeless people already has a relationship with God and Christ by virtue of being homeless. While living in a recovery center with strict rules, Dee writes:
“Funny. Jesus had chosen the same way of life that I had. Street person. Both of us would walk miles in a day—would hunt for a place to sleep each night. Well, such a life has its advantages, I agreed. No rent, no house rules, no job pressures. Out of doors and always on the move. A certain freedom. It pleased me that we were alike in this way. We could even maybe be friends?” (p. 175).
Unfortunately, these momentary glimpses into God’s grace do not prevent Dee from continuing to make bad decisions. As her alcoholism worsens, she finds herself drawn to a group of homeless people who pride themselves on being rowdy and reckless and call themselves the “Dalton gang.” She becomes entangled in a relationship so abusive she is beaten on an almost daily basis. Bruised and broken, hopelessly addicted to alcohol, she ceases to speak and is referred to as a “zombie” by her boyfriend and his cohorts. When a woman sees her bruises and tells her about a home for battered women, Dee goes to this shelter and finally realizes how desperately she needs help. Yet she is once again drawn back to her abusive boyfriend and the Dalton Gang, but on the way she encounters a black woman silently praying for her in the park. Moved by this woman’s concern, Dee prays for God’s help, and realizes she doesn’t have to stay in this destructive life. Like the prodigal son, she can go home.
Fortunately, unlike many homeless people, Dee had a loving family who welcomed her back and gave her the space she needed to heal. Her step father gently encouraged her to join AA, which became a crucial part of her recovery. She found a church and a volunteer program that helped her to find meaningful work and gain self-confidence. A college hired her in spite of being homeless for ten years. During her period of sobriety she realized that she suffered from mental illness (like many people on the street) and found helpful treatment. Through recovery, therapy, meds and a loving family, Dee was able to heal and find a new and fulfilling life. Writing this book was part of her recovery process—a testimony to her commitment to share the good news that there is hope. At the end of the book, she recalls the line of a song: “As low as you go, that’s how high you can fly.” She writes: “I think that’s true. I went about a slow as you can get. Now it’s time for flying. Flying for me is experiencing the flood of joy that sometimes overcomes me in worship. Flying to me is having my normal state be a calm, content and peaceful life” (p. 337).
This book is a testimony to God’s amazing grace and to the resilience of the human spirit. Step by step, Dee shows us what draws people into the homeless life, what keeps them there, and what helps them find the road to recovery. Her book is a “must read” for anyone who wants to understand what it’s like to live on the street. It also provides insights about how we can help our homeless neighbors to find not only a home, but a new way of life. To solve the homelessness crisis, we need policies, like Housing First, that provide homeless people with decent, affordable housing. Equally important, we need to offer services tailored to the unique needs of each individual. The government, churches, families and individuals all have important roles to play. There are no quick and easy fixes, but the good news is that there is hope.

For more about Denise Williams, see

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