Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Humpty Dumpty Lesson: Work to be Done

Most people I know are reeling following our national election. Me too.
Pundits have dissected—up, down and sideways—the reasons behind HRC’s failure to be president-elect. Their insights offer plenty to chew on, and I’ve found myself thinking about other power structures and (sort of) similar changes in what had been functional governance, a macro, micro parallel. 

Take NAEHCY (National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth). I’ve been a member for decades. Membership only required dues. Any involvement on my part was a bonus—for the organization and for the cause. I would go to the annual meeting, vote, feel good about the direction and structure, and then head out to not think much about it. Until this year.

I won’t go into the gory details. Trust me, it’s been gory. 

What had been a fairly functional organization, well-regarded in all circles from Washington DC to Washington State, has crumbled. From my viewpoint, the board shifted seismically in this past year, with a vacuum of leadership being filled by some with apparently limited abilities to guide in a democratic, transparent way. The struggles of this past year have caused many good board members to resign. It also resulted in the departures of 3 key contractors, aka staff, which bodes ill for our cause, at least for the time being. And the future of the organization is shaky. 

Some of us tried to rally and bolster the flagging board, but apparently it was too little, too late. And now, with most of us mired in our own challenges, the “leaders” are free to do as they please. 

“Leaders,” not really, because true leaders would try to be more communicative, inclusive, and process-oriented. As we are seeing on the national level, the dictator approach suits some better. Choices to fill key slots are made for self-interest, with an eager lineup of those willing to pursue selfish opportunities, or at least step in with a clueless disregard of legacy and responsibility. Power corrupts, and it’s a painful ride on the road to irreparable. 

I’ve spent too much time pondering how we got to this point—macro and micro. The crux of my rumination settled on the lack of capable, selfless people willing to do the work. 

Organizations, on every level, need worker-bees. Members need to pay attention. Speak up. Be kindly critical before it’s too late. 

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall, 
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall; 
All the king's horses and all the king's men 
Couldn't put Humpty together again.

Humpty’s fate notwithstanding, here are my “10 Commandments” of survival:
  1. Recognize, and challenge, dysfunction, before it’s too late.
  2. Protect the election process.
  3. Have, and adhere to, strong guidelines—constitution or by-laws.
  4. Hold feet to fire, before (preferably), during and after.
  5. Don’t let powerful self-interests infect your governing board. 
  6. Beware of those whose apparent mental impairments impede their ability to govern.
  7. Don’t be afraid to stand up to bullies. 
  8. Cultivate, nurture and communicate with your base of dissenters, before it’s too late.
  9. Shine an incessant bright light.
  10. Build leadership by encouraging and guiding potential leaders.
Once we find ourselves in the unenviable position of a broken country or organization, we are faced with painful decisions on how to survive, how much energy to put into revival, or whether to walk away.

I’ve committed to making changes that are good for me, and hopefully good for those causes for which I care deeply. In one case, it will mean a change of direction. The other, hunkering down and choosing when/how to contradict ugliness. Sitting on the wall is not an option. Just ask Humpty Dumpty.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Cranes Were There For Me!

Unbelievable! If I needed a sign, I sure got it, in triplicate!

Walking into the back door of the Hyatt hotel where our conference for the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth (NAEHCY) would be starting in a couple days, I was greeted by these 3 sandhill cranes.

They seemed less surprised to see me than I was them. In fact, they seemed Disney-like, posing for a few pics as I walked by.

My last visit to the Orlando area in 2012 gave me some great photo ops with cranes, and I was able to use a bit of the video footage I lucked out getting then in my newest short video, Yay Babies!  (Watch it--it's a 2-minute adorable and meaningful creation.)

This time I was going into a weekend mixture--great to see so many people I know because of my work with HEAR US Inc. Challenging/difficult because we had an organizational meeting that promised considerable angst. I was deeply involved with trying to work for solutions that would be--in the opinion of people I knew--best for the organization, but not popular.
What is right is not always popular. What is popular is not always right.           (Einstein)
I'm used to dealing with unpopular. I used to be a sports official. And for 3 decades I've worked on the side of homeless people, fighting to make things better. I've gone up against legislators, and stood strong when people with too much self interest were ignoring the common good.

But I have to say that this election season cast a toxic cloud over my head, and over the heads of those I was allied with in this situation. Our democratic process on the association level reflected too much of the dysfunction on the national level.

The cranes. Their timing couldn't be more perfect. According to the website TurtleZen, sandhill cranes have a special mission.
They are high flyers, always announcing their presence with loud calls. Because of this they are often considered noble guardians, calling out loudly to forewarn. When the Sandhill Crane appears there is usually something in our life we need to watch out for and pay attention.
Those of us who echoed loud calls for change at the meeting did our best to stop the current potentially disastrous direction some on the board were heading. Without our unified efforts, a few people would be allowed to disregard the wishes of many and inflict harm to our organization.

I never saw the cranes again. Maybe they figured if I didn't pay attention the first time, I was beyond help. But I did pay attention. And I think things are better for it, thanks to courageous efforts of a small group of stalwart colleagues. For now. More work ahead...as always.

Friday, May 6, 2016

I’m Different, Deal With It!

Sister Paula Bingert, OSF, a long-time mentor, came
to celebrate my Mother Alfred Moes award
presented by the Joliet Franciscans last fall.
This Sunday, Mothers’ Day, I will spend time with a dozen women who influenced me at least as much as my beloved Mother who passed away 3 years ago May 9.

I’m back in Illinois for a few weeks, and that puts me in proximity of Joliet, where I spent my early - mid adult years. People often ask how the heck I landed in Joliet from Pompano Beach, FL, where I lived for most of my childhood. Their eyes want to roll when I say I was going to be a nun, specifically a Joliet Franciscan. You can read all about that and more in my book, Crossing the Line: Taking Steps to End Homelessness.

From the time I was in 3rd grade until I eked my way out of the College (now University) of St. Francisthe Joliet Franciscans were there to lend a hand in shaping my values. I guess they did a pretty good job considering they were working with a contrarian from early on who didn’t get too excited about academics.

Amazing to me, the Joliet Franciscans I’ll be hanging with on Mothers’ Day are all 80+, the oldest at 98, Sister Marie, my dreaded/respected high school principal. And I’m amazed they're excited about getting together with me.

I’ll share a bit of what I’ve been doing, maybe show them a couple of my short videos, the same ones I showed students at Cardinal Gibbons High School, my alma mater, a few weeks ago. And I’m pretty sure they’ll be proud of my HEAR US efforts, unique in the world of mainstream careers. Yeah, I’m different.

Differences seem to be an underlying theme in the news these days. Without rehashing the already hashed and smashed, I’d like to point out a few things that might cause some of you to squirm, and some of you to jump up and yell YES!

Anyone who knows me will agree that I’m not the paragon of fashion. Never have been. My wardrobe favors denim, cotton t-shirts and shoes that can tromp through mud with little damage. A few years ago, I figured out that my cell phone and wallet needed deeper pockets, so I explored men’s jeans. Viola! They look the same, and fit better, so that improved my simple life. 

Not one for frills, the unisex sweatshirts, tees, and mocs fit my preferences. With my big feet, size 11, I sometimes need to opt for innocuously styled men’s shoes. Whatever. 

It has a nothing to do with me wanting to be a man, but if it did, that’s my business. I’m sure people look at me and think I’m different. I am. And if that’s what people need to fret about, go ahead. I’ll try not to look at you and think you need to get a life. 

If nothing else, the HB 2 bathroom hoopla will edge us closer to the time we will not spend so much time focused on things we should have fixed decades ago when so many of our sisters and brothers are struggling to survive. 

My sister Sass, Mom in the middle, and me,
when the University of St. Francis bestowed an
award on me in 2006.
The underlying lesson my Mom and my many mentors have engraved in me: be yourself and use your gifts for good. They also encouraged me to not fear the naysayers in my quest for making a positive impact on our world. And woven through their influence, when you need to be a fierce warrior, don’t hold back.

I’m sure I’ll enjoy my visit with my mentors Sunday. They’re continuing to influence me, inspiring this missive and making me realize that I’ve been gifted more than I realize—a challenge to continually reflect on my journey to be my best self for the good of creation. I’m grateful for all who continue to touch my life, and hope that the next generations continues to sprout and nurture contrarians concerned with justice. We need you now more than ever!

Monday, April 18, 2016

Profound Disappointment, aka Funk

Coming off a wonderful vacation (except for the last morning when a terrible truck collision occurred right at our campground, causing 1 fatality and several serious injuries), I was happy. 

I even was happy after speaking at Cardinal Gibbons HS in Ft. Lauderdale, where I had graduated almost 50 years (gulp!) previously. And I maintained my balanced and peaceful state of mind despite having to buy 2 new tires and get TillieToo TheTurtle’s alignment fixed--again--another story.

What set me off, gradually, was my pal Pat LaMarche’s post about her funk. It’s contagious, I guess:

so i spent the better part of my week off with Chad, relaxing and except for a little work via email and phone, letting my mind wander. yesterday, when our little five day run-away-from-home ended, chad asked me if i was happy.

i told him that i have a wonderful life and i'm the most fortunate person i know, but at times i'm profoundly sad. the difference between my life and the lives of the people i work with is such a stark one, it's hard to be as happy as i should be.

i grieve daily for one tragedy or another. and i stare at them all the time at work, and think of them when i'm not working.
my buddist therapist of yore would have told me to shed the sadness, it's not every enlightened of me. oh anurag, i miss talking to you. i guess i'll go buy his book. http://www.rebelsatoripress.com/awakening-anurag-shantam/

Well, that just added to my discontent. I had been driving around the richest county in Florida, Palm Beach. I bounced between ultra-rich and ultra-poor. I shook my head at the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial where homeless people slept under “his” gaze. 

I drove along the famed A1A, by estates hidden by hedges and fences. I bristled at the mega mansions and high-end high-rises that blocked my view of the ocean. 

I wove through narrow streets on the other side of the tracks that reflected the polar opposite of the beach drive. I saw despair on the faces of workers waiting for the bus. I saw exhausted defiance in the eyes of those holding signs on the street corner across from Trump’s colossal establishment.

The clincher, though, was going to Our Lord’s Place UMC. John, the director of St. Ann’s Place, suggested I stop by OLP because they were holding their homelessness Sleep Out. I’d suspect this church is one of the wealthiest UMC I’ve seen. 

And they’re into this event. I wandered around, noticing that they at least seemed to have invited a few homeless adults. But the event had the feeling of a carnival on steroids. Card tricks, entertainment, auction...all the things that will raise money. And I suspect the money will be well used. But...

But this county has no emergency shelter. So, weather being what it is, other perils being what they are, hundreds? thousands? of homeless people have no place to sleep in one of the wealthiest counties in America. 

It’s not tricky to explain my funk. It reflects Pat’s. My life is wonderful. Comfortable. And I know so many more who have nothing. 

I’m grateful for those who do what they can do to alleviate the sufferings of kids and adults without homes. I just wish the contrast wasn’t skyrocketing so much. 

And that those who have so much would join those of us who are trying to ease the abject discomfort of homelessness. And that Congress would buy a clue and get HUD to revamp their policies...and...yeah...funk.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Keeping 'God' Out Of It. Brave Leap of Faith!

Everything we have comes from someone else. Nothing we do is solely the work of our own hands. 

I’m leaving “God” out of this discussion. Your personal belief system, or lack thereof, doesn’t need to interfere in my little observation. 

Get all the way down to the raw materials of anything surrounding you—from the innards of your smartphone or computer that started out raw minerals under the ground, that someone had to extract, and someone else transported to the factory; to the coffee in the cup on your kitchen table—the bean that started out a growing on a bush that was planted by someone who may or may not have picked the beans, packed them up to be sent to the place that ground and packaged them…you get the drift. 

Pick one thing. Think it through from its raw beginning to your use. Who was responsible? How did it get to you? How many hands touched it—the extractors, the pickers, the packers, the shippers, the stackers, the pricers, the sellers, the baggers? Picture their faces. 

Congratulations—your involvement in and appreciation of these processes allows survival for all those who brought your stuff to you! 

You see—it’s a circle. A thread that connects us all. 

Making sure the persons at the beginning, middle and end of this thread have what they need to survive is good for us, and good for them.  

You’re good, but don’t be silly enough to think you’ve done it all on your own. 

Our challenge is to connect with the invisible—those who are connected to us by the work of their hands—and to be grateful. 

The trick—translate gratitude into action. Ripple effects that make the world a better place will eventually touch those in our circles, much like the flutter of a butterfly’s wing impacts all of creation.

Our belief systems—religious, agnostic, heathen, or points in between—need not clash with our connectivity with our sisters and brothers of our circle. In fact, if this does conflict, I’d question the wholesomeness of such faith. 

May we be stopped in our tracks long enough to ponder our connections. And then may we step gently and confidently forward, knowing that we are connected, responsible for and helped by, people far and wide. 

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Bogus Ass-freezing Exercise in Futility: HUD's Point in Time Count

[This post is longer than usual, and contains an informative link to NLCHP's similar comments. I’ve tried not to offend the good people who volunteer to do the HUD Point-in-Time count. But I’m sure I’ll step on a bunch of toes.] 

Frank. One of millions. He counts.
During the last week of January, since I’m part of the Carlisle, PA community for the time being, I volunteered to be one of the good souls that would go out and try to find and interview unsheltered homeless people in the Cumberland County jurisdiction. It was more curiosity than benevolence on my part.

Feeling somewhat guilty, I layered up, grabbing my seldom-used silk long undies, my extra warm socks, lined jeans, hooded sweatshirt, windproof jacket, waterproof gloves and shoes. All set to tromp in Snowzilla.

Pat and I met up with the band of volunteers at the chain grocery store cafe. This wasn’t my event to organize, so I could just hang back and nod in agreement. We signed our liability and confidentiality forms and headed out.

We hopped into the purpose-filled Element SUV driven by Ross, aka the Bike Guy. He retired from the railroad and is now, among other things, involved in providing those without bucks the opportunity to get bikes. 

I was in the back seat, and didn’t feel the need to know anything more than I did know, which is that HUD requires communities to conduct this count at least every other January so HUD can report the numbers to Congress. It’s a process that’s become more organized in the past 10 years or so. When I ran a shelter we just endured the Census Bureau and their awkward and annoying efforts every 10 years. 

Our train expert/guide was adept at finding places to drive along train property. His 4-wheel-drive vehicle made easy work of the ice and snow. And, I’ve got to say in sincere awe, he sure knows how to back up adeptly! 
The End of January Snow in Carlisle, PA, 
We wove in and out of Harrisburg, PA’s train yards on the NW side of the city. With 2’ of snow on the ground, we were spared the chilly drudgery of tromping aimlessly through the woods. If we didn’t see a trail of footsteps through the snow, our zealous guide astutely decided that no one was living in that area.

We only had to get out once, and stood as Ross tromped down a hillside to follow the possible hot trail. It was. A 50-ish white male was camping in a remote spot, polite but not interested in the questions we were supposed to ask, so Ross decided to give us the details which Pat dutifully chronicled, and we returned to the warmth of the car to continue what was a futile venture.
Homeless people in these neighborhoods wouldn’t be on sidewalks in front of buildings, they’d be in alleyways or the parks. But the training materials explicitly stated "No parks, alleys, abandoned buildings, etc." out of concern for the volunteers’ safety. My team saw not a single homeless person. That does not mean they don't exist in the zip codes we covered, but that all the likeliest places where they would have been, we were not supposed to go. Eric Tars, Staff Attorney, NLCHP "Personal Reflections"
As I sat quietly in the back, I couldn’t help but remember an interview I did with a group of homeless youth in Harrisburg back in 2006 for a documentary I was working on. They took me around the downtown, sharing their challenges and showing me where they slept (alongside the train tracks, under a clump of bushes), where they got food, and where they hung out. They spoke of staying in abandoned buildings (Harrisburg has plenty) and their struggles to stay warm and dry.

I looked out the window as we zoomed through bedraggled neighborhoods, wondering how you’d be able to conduct a decent census of those harbored illegally in this ghettoized city. I glanced at 24-hour laundromats and fast food joints, places of refuge as I’ve been told by those I’ve interviewed over my past 3 decades. We didn’t look there. We haphazardly zipped through a few parking lots, but tonight’s 10 degree temps might discourage the average car-sleeper. 

And we had no way of gauging the number of individuals and families who have desperately turned to a friend, relative or acquaintance to couch surf or sleep in a corner of the basement, without a doubt the most common way for families to survive their homelessness. (WOWM)

As we bounced over ice ruts, I tried to calculate the vast amount of resources being expended nationwide for this sacrosanct PIT count. Incalculable. 

Is it a testosterone-fueled “search and count” expedition? Maybe, in part. Is it a do-gooder’s mission? Also in part. Is it futile? The numbers speak for themselves.

HUD reports to Congress yearly, part of the ritual of proving that the meager $2.25 billion they get to address homelessness is being well-spent. The declining numbers of “chronically homeless” people, including vets, might be seen as a sign that things are working. And for some lucky street-escapees, it has.

I know lots of dedicated people expend tremendous efforts to alleviate homelessness in their communities. And I know lots of people are grateful to get their own home, humble as it might be. But…

My big issue is with HUD and opponents of our grassroots, bipartisan efforts to expand the definition of homelessness to include those who double up with others due to lack of options, or seek shelter in no-tell-motels, or camp in dilapidated rigs or in the many other permutations that I’ve heard about and seen. 

The vulnerability of these arrangements is talked about in my HEAR US documentary Worn Out Welcome Mat - Kansas. To deny the vulnerable and fragile existence of millions of families, youth and single adults in these circumstances; to exclude them from qualifying for HUD services, including emergency shelter; to keep Congress in the dark about the abysmal and dangerous lack of decent housing for those most vulnerable…well, it’s appalling for starters.

We exert impressive efforts to pursue the impossible task of “counting angels on the head of a pin” as my friend and fierce advocate Mitch Snyder was fond of saying, but we can’t find the wherewithal to make sure babies, toddlers, kids, parents and adults have a safe place to call home. I call that bogus. 

Monday, February 1, 2016

Thawed, Just In Time for the Next Blast

Tillie2 after Snowzilla 2016
In mid-January I parked Tillie2, my home on wheels, without electrical hookup for a couple nights as I scooted into NYC for a conference. The weather was moderately cold, and I was not surprised when I returned to find that my systems (water and sewer) had frozen in that period.

Not a good situation since now I’m living in this little van and will be filming and speaking in Pennsylvania for a few weeks. Without going into gross detail, let me say that being frozen presented monumental challenges. 

A friend made a call to the local fire station. They agreed to let me park in their heated garage for a short time. I could not have been treated nicer, including some over the top help from one of the firefighters who has a camper and knows the issues I was facing. 

My water thawed. The black tank didn’t, despite heroic efforts. I was bummed but understood that I couldn't stay there all night, and I ventured back to the below-freezing world, stymied. 

After another day of frustration, I went into the big box home improvement store, resolved to buy the equivalent of dynamite if it would help. I ended up with a $10 plumbing snake. And amazingly it worked! 

In all my 10 years of full-time camping, this was the most vexing issue. Of course, I’m camping in a part of the country during the time of year that no one in their right mind would be camping. Which got me to thinking…

The treatment I got at the FD was extraordinary. They’re used to rescuing people, so maybe that’s why they agreed to help. They rescue many people, including homeless folks I know, and often have to do it time and time again, often for recurring poverty-related reasons. I’m sure these rescuers get frustrated with repeated calls for the same old thing.

It was clear that I was given a break, and that future rescues would not be possible. I had the wherewithal and determination to attack this challenge, and got lucky finding the tool I needed to fix things. But my impoverished and otherwise challenged friends don’t often have what they need to get out of the situations they end up in. 

No easy answers, other than pointing out the obvious—that resources and ability matter. Those without the means to solve problems often find themselves in deeper ones. And the rescue process is expensive. 

My luck—having what I need—is just that, luck. I’m glad I’m lucky, but I don’t feel a sense of entitlement. I do have a deep sense of appreciation, especially since we got hit with Snowzilla 2016 just a few days after I thawed. 

The moral of the story for me is appreciate what's flowing when it's flowing. Yeah. 

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

The Secret To Survival

Winter offers challenges for my nomadic lifestyle in my little van that make me question my sanity. By no means am I comparing my situation—one of choice, with resources and options—to my homeless sisters and brothers. I share these observations for my therapy, and because some of you might be curious.

A brief recap: for the past 10+ years I’ve lived in a relatively small motorhome, for 9 years in Tillie 1, a 27’ Gulfstream Class C, one of those unwieldy rigs with everything contained on a 6-wheel chassis. After over 200,000 miles I downsized to Tillie2, a 24’ Mercedes Benz Sprinter van, a sleek and efficient house on wheels. (FYI personal purchases.)

When I started my nonprofit HEAR US Inc., a unique effort to chronicle the plight and promise of homeless families and youth, I was a newbie at both filmmaking and RVing. That was then. I’m still at it, with much knowledge based on experience. I still am learning, often the hard way.

I was sensible back in the early days. I tried to stay warm during winter by hanging in parts of the country that typically could be counted on for above-freezing temps. I was filming and  giving talks in places like Florida, Louisiana, New Mexico, Arizona and California. My Own Four Walls, my first documentary, was a product of that first trip.

Now I sit in frickin’ freezin’ Pennsylvania. I’m plugged into the outlet of a kind (and anonymous) soul, as I’m sure living in a van is probably frowned upon in this and most communities. It’s the anti-homelessness thing for the most part. I try to maintain a low profile for all sorts of reasons, this being one of them.

I’ve been way out of my van’s suggested geographic range for many years now, asking for trouble, I guess.

My spartan lifestyle, while I have the basics for a reasonably comfortable existence, has a few vulnerable essentials. Water, for example. Already this month I’ve had my water supply freeze twice. Think of what you need water for…flushing, washing, dishes. Yeah. 

I work in my van, mostly on a computer. Sometimes I look like a pathetic Arctic traveler, wrapped in blankets and shrouded with a hood to hold body heat in. Hard to type, and think, when I get too cold. Yeah. 

I’ve also had a really gross issue. I won't go into details, but let me just say septic-related. Yeah. 

I don’t always have a place to plug in. The longer I sit, the quicker the above afflictions can take hold. So I’ve been honing techniques to avoid getting into trouble, which I can assure you is life disrupting. 

And, life lessons are screaming at me in these learning opportunities, if I pay attention. 
  • Don’t let it get too bad before taking steps to avoid problems. 
Prevention won’t always work, but ignoring problems doesn’t make them go away, and can often make them worse. Facing my challenges is usually the only way to deal with them. Not always easy. 
  • Know how to fix what will ail you if you’re going to persist at tempting fate. 
I learned electrical stuff decades ago and it has come in really handy. And I’m constantly learning about the workings of my rig. Learning, having tools, and being able to troubleshoot are vital.
  • Do what you gotta do, but don’t do stupid, aka life-threatening, things. 
Risks are good to a certain level, and those levels are never clearly marked. Listen to one’s gut. 
  • Ask for help, in whatever form is necessary.
Swallowing pride is not easy for me. And asking for help is something I’ve never done well. But sometimes ya need to. And sometimes people say no. Ouch!
  • Be well-equipped given the limited space, having at least the basics. 
This requires thoughtfulness. What’s really important? Space is limited. 
  • Be grateful for what you have. 
Taking things for granted is easy. Being grateful, mindful, not so much. But it helps reduce the angst for not having stuff.
  • Share.
Not hanging onto things is a hard habit to overcome. But letting go makes room. And giving to someone who needs something makes the world a better place.

Would I trade what I do for anything? Well, truth be told, I’d love to be in warmer climes at times, but I would miss the opportunities that come my way to do my dream job, giving voice and visibility to homeless children and youth. 

Don’t feel sorry for me. I have the best of all worlds, and I get the deepest appreciation from those whose lives are impacted by having nowhere to call home. When I wimp out, as I do too often, I think of those who endure way worse. They give me courage and warm my heart. That makes it possible to survive. The least I can do is endure a modicum of discomfort.