Richest Poverty

This one goes out to all the characters I met in that Bay called Byron.

I believe that everyone should be homeless for a time. Go without a kitchen, a bedroom, a living room behind four walls and a locked door. Go without comfortable security, tidy sanctuary, convenient amenity. These things ensnare with the ease they provide. Learn to live without, then consciously bring them back as wanted. A valuable sense of freedom is gained for a few months rugged living.

While homeless, rub shoulder with the homeless. Glimpse the currents that have pushed them where they’ve come. Everyone should get ankle-deep in the swampy waters of poverty and peer into the murk that frightens them so. They should taste poverty firsthand, instead of guessing at it from behind the safe screens of media depiction.

For one, it is liberating to probe the boundaries of want and need. I learned that I can live commodiously in the gap between the two. I became free from the trivial pursuits of material comforts, and thus the nagging pressures to ensure them. And that freedom unlocks a lot of doors.

Before righteously indignant responses peep up, let me qualify by saying that by ‘homeless’ I mean a foregoing of residential infrastructure. Also, my advice supposes an environment that provides substitute accommodation; i.e. nature. There is scarcity of it in large urban cities which is why the homeless there appear so destitute. ¬†Quality of life is vastly higher to one who has scratched out a bush nook than to someone lying on a stoop.

I posit that those who find the nerve to rub shoulders with the disenfranchised, discarded, and down-on-their-luck will confront a dissonance they never knew they had.

Mine was this:

Society raised me to believe that society was just. If that sounds like an obvious indoctrination, it’s probably because it was.

In order to reconcile the destitution that the poor endure, their condition needs to be attributed to a wretchedness of character, a defect of soul, a royal fuck-up for which they alone are responsible. Without ever speaking with any homeless people, that’s easy to assume. Maligning the poor is a national pastime in America. And it’s a comfortable way to preserve the integrity of the social structure.

But then I lived beside them and learned of their defining nuance. I realized how easily my own life could have diverted down the avenues they walk had it not been for a few blessed circumstances beyond my control. Thank you Mom, for the station you brought me to.

After my course in homeless studies, I was forced to reconcile that large portions of the populace wallow in poverty as a consequence of a flawed society, and NOT because of their own inherent odious natures.

Most people’s experience of the poor is limited to the exaggerated picture painted by the media. An image plastered with the most extreme cases, always depicted alongside inflaming statistics to rouse ire. I shared this manufactured sentiment until I spent a few months living with the homeless.

The reality is that the majority are regular people, just insufficiently funded. And they register a level of decency, humor, sharing, and compassion that would be difficult for any smug suburbanite to match.

Most of them could hardly be identified as homeless. They didn’t exude clouds of noxious stench, nor lay in pools of filth whilst flies whirled overhead. They didn’t prowl the streets in ravenous pursuit of an incurable vice. They didn’t even sit on street corners behind rusted tin cans, wearing looks of abject misery and waving soggy cardboard signs.

Many are people simply born into poverty struggling to improve their lives. Many are caring and thrifty, good-humored and wise. They wash their bodies, do laundry, eat at picnic tables in the park. They are normal people hidden in plain sight. You don’t see that side of homelessness because it is invisible.

So here’s to Kimmie with a voice like a diamond drill and a heart of gold.

To Ricardo with level-head and sound perspective. I admired your bush competence. I valued your calm rationality in that den of intangibility.

To you Andrew, and the depth of insight that sang past your Cheshire smile. You are in tune brother. I see in you an appreciation of the threads that weave people together heart-to-heart. And more, you’ve seized your empathetic role to righteous effect.

Here’s to Izzy, the Fire-spinner who ran the silent DJ each night. And the bright-eyed, spark-haired, crooked smiled, Fairy. Your guys’ aloof style and playful cynicism was a welcome neighbor. You two would be sickeningly sweet if you weren’t so cool.

And J-lo, the Tinkerer. Why were you always carrying two tons of gear? Thanks for the witty quips, the quipy wits, and the off track beats.

I hope to see you all again.

And then yes, of course there were the addicts.

I witnessed the muffled soul of a heroin addict in the first days of recovery. His every movement was a feeble struggle. His words were barely audible. We sat in the bush each morning and smoked cigarettes. He drank his in as if each wispy, grey breath was all that tethered him to life. His manner was like that of a ghost crawling back from perdition.

And I witnessed the mania of an ice addict. The violent aggression. The unprovoked anger, and erratic hate. Though beneath it, no will to act on all that rage.

I lived homeless in Byron Bay, which is a far, far cry from the harsh concrete of a major city. I was only a visitor, a tourist, just passing through, having a taste of the easiest form of homelessness. Being stuck in that lifestyle is a curse I am thankful to not have to dispel.

But the experience taught me valuable lessons on all three levels of experience.

Of myself I cultivated a detached ruggedness, a comfort with scarcity, and a confidence of well-being. A night of rough sleep is no concern. I know food can be scrounged up or foregone without detriment. Water is abundant, as is safety. Four walls and a ceiling are optional, gratifying luxuries. Laundry can be done simply and for little expense. Keeping clean does not require a porcelain and glass cubicle. And all other amenities are frivolous, to be pursued as enrichment to life, NOT as necessity.

Of people I learned that socioeconomic class does not determine character. Poverty does not guarantee vileness, nor incompetence, nor malice, nor laze. In fact it can seed noble qualities. Poverty can inspire in people great compassion, empathy, and generosity. Perhaps that’s because the poor understand real need so intimately.

Lastly, I’ve learned of society. Since no society is perfect there will always be a portion of the population that is disenfranchised. There will always be those who don’t, won’t, or can’t fit the mold. It doesn’t matter the mold. The spectrum of human variance guarantees it.

If the burden of supporting those who’ve fallen through the cracks is too great, then that indicates a structural defectiveness that needs to be changed. Society in that case is broken.

On the other hand, if supporting the fallen is not an untenable burden, then a civilized society must do so. It must devote resources to alleviate the poor in acknowledgment of its own unavoidable flaws. Deriding the nature of the poor as individuals, in an attempt to justify its own defunct policies, is a heinous offense.

The integrity of a society is measured by how it accommodates the inevitably downtrodden. And society today, as a whole, is a cruel disappointment in that regard. Especially considering the period of abundance in which we live.

My experience in Byron Bay planted a seed, watered it, and saw it bloom. My travels thereafter nurtured that sapling into a towering tree.

Thank you for reading.


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