In listening to the stories of Japanese whose homes and communities have been destroyed by earthquake and tsunami, I can empathize with their sense of the world being out of joint, of living in a nightmare. My own experience with homelessness derived from personal demons preying on my sense of self. Theirs has been created by a planet reacting to subtle internal shifts without regard for the living creatures scrabbling for meaning on its surface. Despite these differences in origin, when I heard the quote from a man in Miyagi Prefecture saying. This isn't a bad dream, this is real. I've lost my boat, everything. In the shelter, people are supporting each other," my heart was torn with understanding of the psychic damage afflicting the Japanese right now.
Beyond the immediate needs for a warm place to sleep and sustenance for the body, the Japanese may need caring and encouragement to sustain their souls for years to come. One encouraging aspect of the Japanese response to the series of successive disasters has been the manner in which their communitarian culture has helped to maintain order. I hope that as the situation stabilizes all of us can draw strength from the example set before us by the response of the Japanese people to the horrific events that they are forced to confront. I reflect on my own experiences though, and those reflections give me hope for the resilience of the human mind and body.
Back in 1993 when I was deep in my waking, walking nightmare of homelessness, the hardest part was the lack of a bit of personal space and sanctuary. I was adrift, unmoored, disconnected emotionally and mentally from the broader world in which I'd found such pain. I wandered through the urban landscape, collecting aluminum cans and scrap copper to sell. My days consisted of walking, endlessly walking. Early in the morning to Martin de Poore's for breakfast and the twice weekly shower. Then wandering through San Francisco collecting scrap. Ending late in the afternoon near the scrap metal recycler's to sell the day's haul, usually bringing in between $3 and $4.00. Next, to Sisters of Mercy for their dinner service, then back to my encampment in Warm Water Cove Park.
I survived there for a few weeks, then moved to Ocean Beach, then back to Warm Water Cove Park, and for several years survived with only brief, transitory spaces to call my own. In my first 3 week stint at Warm Water Cove Park, someone gave me a boat canvas and helped me to secure it to the railing of a fishing pier at the park. I found a mattress, a comforter and pillow. Another homeless person taught me how to keep mosquitos away with a bucket of water and damp rags. I had a sanctuary to which I could retreat until the evening I returned from the Sisters of Mercy dinner to find someone had thrown a large chunk of concrete into the canvas roof, collapsing my sanctuary. A few days later, the police rousted me, and I wandered out to Ocean Beach for about a week.
On my return to Warm Water Cove park, I took over one of the abandoned street cars in the old Muni yard across from my old fishing pier. This made an even better sanctuary. I found some BlackJack Roofing Tar leftovers from a construction site, climbed up on the roof and sealed the seams. I found a truck wheel rim, an air cleaner lid, a piece of sheet metal, and ducting. With these, I devised a wood burning stove, which I fed with hardwood scrap from a local furniture maker. I collected freegan fruits and vegetables from the Mission District, and chocolate from the manufacturing site of Jos. A. Schmidt Confections. I got my clothing from donations people left outside of thrift stores in the night. This may have been my favorite short term sanctuary.
A few weeks after I took up residence in the streetcar, some local friends offered me a couch to sleep on and I left my street car. Several weeks later, whoever took over my street car must have been less cautious than I with the homemade wood stove as the streetcar was destroyed by fire.
I hope and pray that the Japanese people are able to devise some personal sanctuary within the shelters and other spaces within which they find refuge. Nam myo renge kyo!
Next: I reflect on three days of involuntary commitment in a mental ward and the value of saying no.