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My Journey through Homelessness Part Five: Learning to Live Outside the Box


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My Journey through Homelessness Part Five: Learning to Live Outside the Box

Commentary by Andy Pope | FāVS News

Once I had decided to identify as “homeless by choice,” and once I started hanging around others who made the same identification, I noticed something quite surprising.

Every person who had made this identification in Berkeley, California, in the year 2011 claimed to have had a unique spiritual experience that had motivated them to abandon what they called the Mainstream. Following the spiritual experience, every one of them adopted an entirely new set of social values and expectations in an intentional homeless community.

It was then that I realized why I fit in so well. I had already had this experience, and yet I denied myself the greater benefits of its beauty for five more years.

It was Aug. 8, 2006. The sun was shining on a beautiful day in Berkeley. How I had even arrived in Berkeley — of all places — was somewhat odd. I had been working a summer job as a singing teacher at Children’s Musical Theatre San Jose. They had put me up in a staff apartment, and none of them knew I was homeless.

When I left the job, I received what seemed a fairly enormous severance check of $1,400. Hoping I could use it to further better myself, I soon found most of the money to be extinguished in motel rooms, in an insane quest to hang onto indoor living.

I don’t remember the exact date I left San Jose, but I believe it was toward the end of July 2006. By the morning of Aug. 8, all of that money had gone toward food, shelter and transportation. I kept roaming from one Bay Area city to another, trying to determine where exactly I would land. And I awoke that morning in Berkeley — with two dollars to my name.

So — naturally — I went to the Royal Grounds Cafe in Berkeley, and spent it on a caffeine beverage.

Then I left the cafe and began to walk north.

Then I paused.

“Where am I going?” I asked myself.

I turned around and began waking south. Then I asked myself once again: “Where am I going?”

I walked back and forth for a few minutes before finding myself sitting down at a bus stop on Shattuck Avenue. At that moment, I came to a fairly stark realization: “I have nowhere left to go!”

Realizing I had spent my entire severance check, I expected to find myself breaking into tears.

Instead, I found myself bursting into laughter.

“Nothing and Nobody!” I cried. “I have nothing — and I am nobody!”

People turned their heads, but no one approached or registered concern. So I stood up and shouted: “I have no public image left to maintain! I have nothing to prove anymore! I have nothing to own, nothing to horde, nothing to hang onto …”

I straightened my posture and spoke with new conviction: “In having nothing, I have everything! In hitting bottom, I have reached the very top! Here I stand, hands outstretched to the cosmos, freely receiving everything the Universe has to offer me at this moment! At this moment, I am Buddha!”

At that, I found myself immersed in indescrible bliss. For at least 20 minutes, my consciousness was consumed in a joyful passivity. It was as though every barrier toward soaking in all the many blessings of the Universe had at once been removed.

I couldn’t believe how happy I was! I got up and started to walk up the hill toward People’s Park, intent on doing nothing other than enjoying God’s beautiful day.

Without capsulizing exactly what the next three days entailed, I can tell you I awoke in Lodi, California, on the morning of Aug. 14, checked in with San Joaquin County Mental Health and put myself on a psychiatric drug.

How soon we forget!

The next five years included a struggle with hanging onto cheaply gained living situations, in and out of shelters and residence hotels and occasionally landing a rental with roommates, who a few months later, invariably got to where they didn’t want me around anymore.

And I didn’t really care to live with them either. It only added stress to stress. The upshot was that five years went by before on April 15, 2011, I made an intentional decision to become homeless by choice.

So I took 40 bucks, told my landlord to feel free to rent the room and got on a train back to Berkeley, California. I soon learned that people from all around the country had done the same thing. We saw Berkeley as a mecca for intentional homelessness — and there I met some of the finest, most colorful people I have ever met in my life.

As I reminisce, I realize how close I can come to making that same choice today — even though the details of a homeless life in Spokane today are a far cry from those of Berkeley in times past.
The value of my homeless experience lies not so much in having learned how to live outside — at least not in the geographical sense. The value of my homeless experience lies in having learned how to live outside the box.

And that right there is one of the most supreme values I have ever discovered in this life.

“Be not conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what is the good, pleasing, and perfect will of God.” Romans 12:2

If you’re interested in the other parts of the series, here’s “Part One: Turnstiles and the Night Sky,” “Part Two: A Prayer that Released Me from Shame,” “Part Three: A New Pair of Glasses” and “Part Four: Body Armor.”

The views expressed in this opinion column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of FāVS News. FāVS News values diverse perspectives and thoughtful analysis on matters of faith and spirituality.

Andy Pope
Andy Popehttps://edeninbabylon.com
Andy Pope is a freelance writer currently residing in Moscow, Idaho, where he is a member of Moscow First Presbyterian Church. His work on social justice has appeared in Classism Exposed in Boston, Berkeleyside in Berkeley, California, and also in the Bay Area newspaper Street Spirit, where his regular column, Homeless No More, encourages those making the transition from homelessness to housing. An accomplished pianist and lifelong musical theatre person, Andy is also the author of "Eden in Babylon," a musical about youth homelessness in urban America. He recently started a new YouTube Channel, which you can find here.

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Walter A Hesford
Walter A Hesford
24 days ago

Thanks as always for these powerful accounts of your homelessness….together they would make a good book. One reservation, when homelessness is not a choice, might it not also be a box, that which is created by our economy?

Andy Pope
Andy Pope
24 days ago

You have a good point there, Walter. In a way, non-intentional homelessness is a box created by socio-economic restraints. I think people like me found ourselves attracted to the “by choice” aspect, because we don’t like to be locked into any kind of box.

Of course, the challenge is to attain and sustain indoor living in such a way that one will not be drawn back into THAT box. I still struggle with this today.

Would love your thoughts, please comment.x