No vision haunts America’s conscience more than the sight of street people… the irrational and anguish that grip so many of those individuals leap out during any encounter, whether in Washington or Albuquerque.
Pete Domenici, Former Senator (R-NM)
It was the night before Christmas. I heard multiple loud sirens outside my window. I barely opened the blinds as flashing lights of police cruisers and ambulances blinded me. As the noise faded away, a few blocks down the road, I wondered what kind of event would call for this sort of spectacle? Did someone fail a sobriety test? Did a customer at Walmart punch another over the last toy on the big-sale shelf? Or maybe it was a case of another teenager walking down the street while black, causing a frightened police officer to mistake a candy cane for a gun.
I threw on my jacket, hat and rolled a scarf around my neck. When I walked outside, a flurry of snow began to fall and a chill crawled down my spine. It wasn’t the cold; I was warm in my puffy jacket, but I sensed that something heartrending had happened. It didn’t take much intuition to deduce this because as I walked down the street, the movement of the silhouettes in front of the lights suggested that something was seriously wrong. One of my new neighbors with a horrific look on her face told me that someone had died on Christmas eve.
A homeless man, known to be schizophrenic, was just struck and killed by an automobile. No one on the scene knew the dead man’s name. They only knew that he was a regular on Cerrillos Road; always seen walking up and down that street talking to the voices inside his head. One person thought the man might have been from Albuquerque, but no one really knew. As I hypnotically walked toward the bright flashing lights, I felt a sense of sadness engulfing me when I saw the anonymous person zipped in a body bag. I wondered about this man whose journey of life had ended so abruptly on Christmas Eve.
Across the street, there was a door with a glowing neon sign that said, “Open.” Out of that door came a large man bundled in a long coat and stocking hat and white sneakers. He had a pint bottle wrapped in a brown paper bag in his hand. He headed straight toward the back alley behind the liquor store and I guessed, for him it was time to celebrate with his lover. Because on this side of town with used car lots, economy hotels, discount outlets and pawnshops, the holidays carry a different meaning.
Later that evening I rode my bike a few miles north toward a more affluent part of town. Passing by small casitas decorated with snowmen and elves, I crossed the railroad tracks where the homes were less modest. As I felt ice sickles forming down my beard, I envisioned what was happening inside these homes displayed eloquently with holiday garland and farolitos. I could hear my bike tires make their way through the snow as I drifted into a fantasy of families and friends sharing eggnog, exchanging gifts and telling stories of the past year. I sensed the soft ambient light coming off the fire and the aroma of frankincense and pinon filling the cozy space. I thought I heard them singing carols, “Peace on earth, good will towards men” when I was abruptly stopped by a couple who stepped in front of me on a sheet of ice. Although I slid sideways, I skidded to a halt and was able to recover. They asked for directions to Canyon Road where thousands were expected to gather for the Santa Fe Farolito Walk. After I gave them what I thought was sufficiently adequate information they disappeared in the shadow off the ridge.
It was then that I was feeling an overwhelming sense of grief for the lonely victim, who did not get to enjoy Christmas this year. I imagined how this anonymous person frozen still on Cerrillos Road could have died so suddenly. I started to see myself in that person. It was frightening how quickly his life vanished, the kind of life I was familiar with, one of displacement, bane and utter estrangement.
There are conflicting reports on the percentages of the psychiatrically ill that are also homeless. Just as there are as many conflicting studies of the homeless population in general. This is something I discovered as a graduate student doing an enumeration study of the homeless in Baltimore. What is problematic with most of these studies is that researchers make the mistake of relying on quantitative methodology to count each and every person that fits into our research’s operational criteria. Chronic homeless populations are difficult to operationalize and quantify because many are elusive and they do not use traditional support services.
However for the purpose of illustrating the magnitude of the problem, I’m going to use the rather conservative numbers used by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). According to report released in January 2014 report, there are 578,424 people homeless on any given night in America. It is estimated that 216,000 are families and 362,000 are individuals; and children are out pacing adults in actual growth. In a 2012 HUD study, nearly 40 percent of the homeless population had serious mental illness or conditions related to substance abuse. Since the Reagan years (1980s) there has been a national trend of removing the mentally ill from institutions and dumping then on the streets (called de-institutionalization); the underlying logic is that this will save money by creating a diminished mental health delivery system. However, overall costs have actually burdened tax payers more by warehousing the deinstitutionalized in more expensive for-profit jails and prisons, a numbing concept called transinstitutionalization.
I felt an odd kinship with this anonymous person who died on Christmas Eve. If it wasn’t for a compassionate group of people I could have been very easily sleeping out on the streets right now. Since the beginning of last year, I was couch surfing, but there were several nights I did sleep outside. In October, I ran out of places; I was also in a deep state of melancholy at the time. The despair was so heavy, I wasn’t sure I would survive. It appeared inevitable that I would be sleeping outside for the winter, however at least initially; it didn’t seem like a bad idea. I figured I could go on a long camping trip. I could even ride buses, hitch hike and hop trains across the country like I did in my youth.
It seemed like a romantic idea until I recalled some of those experiences – of waking up to torrential rains in the middle of the night in a drenched sleeping bag and experiencing hypothermia. Once when I was hitchhiking across the United States, I was forced to hunker down during a Colorado blizzard that dropped 48 inches of snow in twenty four hours. It is not just the weather that bothers a homeless man.
Police, junkies, prostitutes and vigilantes have all harassed me while homeless. At least on one occasion I had everything stolen and had to defend myself against a brutal attack. For food, I would mark select restaurants and wait for them to throw food out at the end of the shift. I would attempt to panhandle with creative signs, but I wasn’t very good at it. Neither was I in the best mental state at the time. I recall having hallucinations, and also the delusion that I could predict the future.
After recollecting my dismal state of being during long stretches of homelessness it was obvious that I had to come up with another plan this time around. My situation seemed daunting. Going into a shelter wasn’t an option because I knew it would trigger the dehumanizing experience I had in psychiatric hospitals. The same reason I refused to go to the emergency room, even though I was in the middle of a crisis. I knew I could be hauled off to a psychiatric wing somewhere, sedated and treated like an animal by incompetent and heartless psychiatric support staff.
After receiving Medicaid, I was assigned a new therapist and when faced with my new dilemma, she asked if I would consider living in a supportive housing community. I agreed to explore the idea. She contacted my case manager and asked me to visit the facility. An appointment was made; I met the staff, along with some of the residents. It appeared to be a good fit. I was admitted and moved in two weeks later.
My crisis turned out to be a silver lining. I am one of the recipients of a grant supported by HUD that offers a stipend for housing. The support team is very compassionate and I am able to engage in a variety of therapeutic programs. Initially I had moments of self-deprecation, wondering how I managed to end up in this situation, but each day I began to have more appreciation that I wasn’t out on the street.
After being here only a month, I had my first art opening in three years. When I moved in, I immediately noticed the beautiful wall space in the studio. Instantaneously, it gave me the idea to host a salon style opening. As expected, once hung, the paintings showed particularly well in the space, so I pitched the idea to the powers that be. They were very supportive of the idea and agreed that it would be a good thing for the community. I had less then three weeks to plan, so I worked like a “maniac” to assure a successful event.
I thought the show should also include performance and should provoke. I wanted to challenge the art establishment on some of its basic cultural conventions. In my edited Dilettante Statement, I critiqued the cultural assumptions of what is considered outsider art and I use their language to create a faux thesis:
Also, I wanted the show to be wholly accessible. Art openings are generally elitist events. Although I wanted the gatekeepers of the art world to see my work and performance, I also wanted the therapeutic community to know that the show was for them as well.
The food I served was also a commentary on the reactionary discourse that would only allow the indigent to consume food out of a can or dried packaged foods. Therefore, I served an assortment of food found in poor neighborhoods. Usually in corner bodegas, gas stations and convenience stores. No fresh produce can be found in these places, only products that could survive a nuclear blast. The food is ghastly and if eaten on a daily basis would most certainly cause heart disease, diabetes or cancer.
Yet, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) approves these packaged items that one would have difficulty calling food. A hot cup of soup or fresh steamed vegetables at the hot food bar are not on the approved list. However for people who get their information from conservative media, recipients of food stamps are living high on filet mignon, Swiss truffles and caviar.
I have attended many art openings over the years and one of the things that would always prompt my curiosity is the predictable gastronomic staple of wine, cheese and hor d’oeuvres. I thought it would be an interesting experiment to change it up a bit. In lieu of the highbrow offerings that one commonly finds at bourgeois openings, I’ve decided to present a palette that is more typical of the habitus of “the other cultural”.
The main performance addressed recognition, vulnerability and stigma. Specifically, I wanted the public to have a chance to gaze into the soul of the marginalized. Given my experience as “the other “ I wanted to push people out of their comfort zones and have them face their vulnerability. People are often afraid of someone they meet living on the streets or in shelters. My hope in Gazing into your Brother’s Eyes is to incite more awareness that our most vulnerable members in our community are connected to us all. I wanted the participants to leave with more empathy and maybe see the people they encounter each day with more empathetic understanding.
Gaze into your Brother’s Eyes
In America a whole class of people has been thrown away like tattered bundles along with broken TV’s, toaster ovens and cheap plastic toys from China. They are disposed, stigmatized and devalued in a society that places a price tag on everything.
The person in front of you has experienced enough trauma and dislocation to find safety and compassion in this therapeutic community. The specifics are unimportant, but know this; mental illness doesn’t discriminate even though the people who suffer from it are often discriminated.
If you are reading this I am going to assume that you are sitting in front of me. You may feel vulnerable, but when you are done reading, look into my eyes and take a moment to gaze straight into me as long as you are comfortable. For the demographic for whom, I am among, gazing into the eyes of another can be a rare occurrence due to a general culture of fear.
I would encourage you to participate in this without a word. It is through our vulnerability that we can share in a human experience. Take as much time as you need, but be aware that others might want to participate.
I don’t know what to expect from this or how long I’ll endure, but I am hoping that this experience will help us make better eye contact with the person that we see every day that may not be functioning as well; yet we see them not as another used commodity to be thrown away, but as someone that is an extension of our collective selves.
For me, the gaze was powerful yet emotionally exhausting. I had people cry and showed me that they understood. At moments I felt my own tears forming. In their eyes I could see anguish, loss and trauma, but I could also see joy, appreciation and love. I had a sense that I had an impact on most people who risked sitting in front of me. It seemed to enable what I was looking for.
As far as the nameless man (John Doe), who died on Christmas Eve, it is most likely that no one looked into his eyes. He was invisible for most and a health hazard to others, but like all of us he had a story. Like us, he was once young. Like us he had dreams. Like us, he experienced pain. And like us he was once loved.
He seemed like us, because he was one of us.
© Dennis Dodson, 2015