“It’s fierce, an’ it’s not bothered about anybody, not even about me right. And that’s why it’s great.”
–Barry Hines, A Kestrel for a Knave
I think there is a natural beauty in a hawk, as Billy Casper makes clear in the novel A Kestrel for a Knave, a hawk for a gentle thief. One thing that I think is specifically beautiful is an inherent freedom found in allowing yourself to be free. For a hawk, this means not caring about hurting anyone’s feelings, being tough and wild and raw. For a human, this might be connecting on a deep level with others. Whatever the case may be, it’s important we keep these ideas of natural beauty in mind.
I got to take part in another awesome burrito outreach with The Legacy Initiative. This outreach was in February of 2016. I was particularly excited this time around because two of my best friends, Andrew and Jim, got to join me. I honestly hadn’t expected this to happen so suddenly and brilliantly, but it did, and it made me happy to spend time with them and allow them the chance to see the kind of work that I do, and why I am as passionate as I am about certain social issues.
I led a squad again, as the designated squad leader, and I was impressed at how confident I was. It seems I have gotten better at this, though one would certainly hope for this, when considering I’ve been doing this for quite a while and have actively engaged with texts on homelessness and the sociology of homelessness. There are simply things you start to understand intuitively. Things that make sense. You trust your gut, your trust your instincts: You trust yourself. And most importantly, you get it done.
Indeed, I’ve learned how to scale back my intensity when talking with the homeless. This is important, not just because I’m responsible for a group, but because we need to respect the will of the homeless themselves. It’s important. And it’s respectful.
I’ve gotten better at leading the group competently and in a way that will be most meaningful and have the most impact, which gives me a reason to feel happy and content. There was one person that we could tell wasn’t interested in getting a burrito, so we had to move back the troops, and continue along a different way. In retrospect, though, I’m sure it sounds strange, going to someone and being like, “Hey … do you want a burrito?” Social norms, I suppose, and the high level of fear we have in this culture in day-to-day life. But this is a good illustration of the lines that separate the homeless from the general population, and why: Indeed, the divide stems from the fact that we don’t know what’s going on in the lives of the people we serve. We don’t know what they might be going through in any given moment. And because the walls are so thick to begin with, it makes communication and interaction difficult. But I enjoy the challenge, of assessing situations, of thinking quickly, of making calculated and beneficial decisions. I’ve simply come to understand that I can’t reach all homeless folk, but how that isn’t a bad thing. As Travis has always made clear, we are a pebble in the water, making ripples, and we never know where those ripples are going.
I had some interesting conversations along the way, with some interesting implications. At one point, I remarked that the homeless get “funneled” into homelessness, and how the homeless get funneled in in the first place. To illustrate, I’ll discuss briefly one of my favorite books, A Kestrel for a Knave. The book is a good illustration of an important social theme, how kids in the UK were getting funneled into low-paying, dangerous, dead-end jobs, and consequently, being exploited and denied their dreams. Billy Casper, who is one such kid, being funneled into mining, rebels in his knave-like way, and steals a book on falconry, and learns how to train a hawk. He does all the work himself, using his intellect and heart as his guide. But the important thing to note in this book is that the story still ends in tragedy. The book is super realist, in the classic nineteenth century sense, and as such, the book doesn’t seek to have a fairy tale ending or paint things in a less than harsh light, but seeks to depict things honestly, like Zola or Tolstoy or Trollope. Sometimes, things don’t work the way we want them to. In the novel, there is no promise, even with the entire story illustrating Billy’s resourcefulness and intelligence, that he’s going to break out of the cycle and not go into a dead-end, dangerous job. Society has already decided for him, and his intelligence and resourcefulness doesn’t matter in the eyes of the state.
Homelessness, I have come to realize, is like this. I think the reference to this novel is a good analogy to how this funneling works, and I’ll illustrate further: Indeed, as we were doing the outreach, I saw some homeless folk I’d seen before, in past outreaches or past encounters. But they looked worse instead of better. It’s easy for us to say, this is because of the choices they have made, and while some might say this because of certain beliefs and standards they may have, it doesn’t do justice to the complex situation and the complex social factors at play. Why are homeless folk looking worse instead of better? This is the million dollar question, but regardless, it’s heartbreaking and staggering. As my friend Andrew remarked, he worked with homeless folk at a shelter for a while, and saw the same homeless folk for years. But I imagine that this “looking worse” factor comes from constantly feeling tired and hungry on the streets, from not having your basic needs met, from the fear that is indoctrinated in you by our culture, and by such factors as addiction and mental illness. All of this paints a complex portrait that is difficult to understand, cubist and crazy in nature.
Indeed, that is what I’ve come to realize: There is a lot of confusion surrounding homelessness: That is, point-blank, straight-up, confusion. It is not a black and white issue, and it never has been. This is why The Legacy Initiative strives to not pass judgement. Homelessness is a confusing social issue, and I must confess, despite all of my research, my reading, my experience and observation, homelessness is still a confusing phenomenon to me. It doesn’t make sense. As such, I’ve realized I don’t need to “solve” it, because in all honesty, I’m not going to. There are too many problems involved, too many variables and factors that are difficult to comprehend. But as a side note, to try to bring some clarity, I think we can think of labeling theory, a useful sociological concept: The idea that people, in a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, become exactly what society has labeled them relentlessly. A homeless person is labeled as homeless, and he consequently starts to embody this, because this is who he is according to society, and he doesn’t have a way out. As my friend Jim said, it would be nice if homelessness was just temporary for some people, to keep the suffering minimal: But alas, it is not, I’ve come to realize, at least in some cases, and this make sense when thinking about how traumatic becoming homeless and being homeless can be. It seems that once you’re homeless, it just gets harder and harder to get off the streets, and an unaccommodating society obviously does not make things easier.
Indeed, the suffering is real, and we must be cognizant of this, at the very least. These people, to come back to A Kestrel for a Knave, are “funneled.” Why would they congregate around a place that is clearly unhealthy, like the shelter? Because that is where the resources are, I explained to an inquisitive mind. Because they don’t have a choice. Because we are not homeless, we are privileged, and we can choose not to be around the shelter. But the homeless themselves are funneled into an environment that is not suitable for healing and growth. As such, it’s easy to stagnate, and lose all drive, with your energy sapped from being mobile on the streets all the time: As was made clear, you can’t waste energy on the streets, because you’re mobile all the time, and so, staying by the shelter makes the most sense. Indeed, we do not know what the homeless are going through, we do not know what is going on in their lives, as I have iterated before—but the suffering is apparent. I choose to focus on alleviating this suffering, however, rather than stereotyping and passing judgement, and consequently choosing not to help others. This is why I devote my life to what many consider a perplexing cause. It is a grey area, but I move to the side of compassion and loyalty, and helping people regardless of what I may be thinking. If a person is hungry, I feed them. If they are not or don’t care about our gifts, then we simply move on. It’s nothing to get hurt over.
To close, I’d like to come back full circle to the reference to hawks. Yes, hawks: They don’t care, because they are fierce and beautiful creatures, and they know it. And people: what makes them free? I’d say, as I said before, connection. Connection can be hard, but that’s why I’d focus on the kestrel: I’d rather focus on the beauty. There is a lot, there is more than we could ever possibly realize, and choosing to see the beauty and hope in everything is where I put my energy. No, I do not understand why such rampant suffering exists, why the homeless are forgotten, why we treat our own so terribly. But if we are fierce and wild and don’t care what others think, we can do good work: We can tear through all of the ugliness, and see the beauty.
We can see the kestrel for all he really is: We can see the world for what it really is: And we can see ourselves for who we really are.
And that’s where the beauty is, the wonder.