Thursday, September 6, 2012

Making a place his for 20 years, still "homeless."

This recent Twitter exchange (preserved on Storify) echoed a lot that's depressingly carceral about advocacy for "supportive housing."

I hope I'm wrong about what a nonprofit rep meant to suggest -- the writer was speaking on the usually warmhearted @HomeForGoodLA Twitter feed -- but the argument seemed to be that a noted eccentric artist and gardener, recently found dead at his home, would have been better off "placed" in supportive housing but "given opportunities" to indulge in manageable creativity in a context arranged for him by benevolent keepers.

As I ended up kind of arguing back, nobody creates great art during the cultural opportunities provided on a cruise ship. Meaning, my objection isn't wholly about the arrogance of economic difference. It's as much about the arrogance of managerial mentality, whether the people to be managed are called customers, passengers, service clients, patients, inmates, or -- eh, you get the idea.

Of course the tragedy to discuss is that the artist, known as "Bamboo Charlie," refused medical treatment that might have extended his life. That kind of tragedy is grim and real all right, but it's orthogonal to whether the person refusing treatment has indoor plumbing.

Trust me, classifying people as objects to be managed, yanking them out of their familiar contexts and social networks, and installing them among strangers in buildings that have electricity and plumbing is not necessarily the best way to install a compliant attitude of receptivity to prudent health advice in the persons thus "placed."

I've known people who took good care of their health while classified as "homeless" and people who tragically, drastically didn't while classified as "housed."

Speaking at least for my own securely housed self, I'd say that one starts taking better care of oneself when it's for one's own sake, not when it's for one's own good. The idea, when it lasts, has to come from inside.

Meanwhile, it boggles me even more, on stepping back, that the LA Times, in its obituary for "Bamboo Charlie," defined him as "homeless." The same article reported that he had lived in the same simple home for much of the last 20 years of his life, tending his admired garden there, interrupting his time there with visits back to the Houston area where he had family. Sometimes working at jobs in Houston, but always returning to the same Los Angeles garden.

Is "homelessness" in America a lack of housing or a sumptuary status? Once the label is stuck on someone, how does it entitle a nonprofit to discuss where he ought to have been "placed"?

Underneath is there a belief that visible poverty should be enclosed in institutions?

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