Justice Soul

Are You Home Yet?

Written by Sven Eberlein

I live in the Mission District in San Francisco, where I see and interact with homeless folks every day. While there is much to be said about the social, economic and political causes of homelessness (lack of health care, unemployment, depression, physical abuse, alcoholism, etc), I think that one of the biggest obstacles to getting people off the streets is the mental and psychological rift that occurs between those of us with a roof over our head and those without.

There is a huge temptation to look at “homeless” as the overarching characteristic of a person who is forced to live in the street, and once you have that label stamped on your forehead people easily forget that behind each of these “homeless” facades there is a unique and complex human being with a heart and a soul, just like the rest of us. As if it weren’t hard enough to find a safe shelter each and every night, once you are evicted from your home you have to contend with the prejudice and suspicion that comes attached with being called “homeless.” I’d like to share some photos and reflections that will perhaps evoke the part within all of us that is homeless and move our souls a little closer together.

How do we get to where we are? Is it all a grand lottery with random directions drawn for each soul? Or did our deep yearning to belong somewhere propel us exactly to where we are right now? Do you feel like you have arrived in this story on purpose? Is there enough comfort for you to forget about where you were going to go next? Imagine giving up what's dearest to your heart. Would you be willing to love whatever is given to you?

How do we get to where we are? Is it all a grand lottery with random directions drawn for each soul? Or did our deep yearning to belong somewhere propel us exactly to where we are right now? Do you feel like you have arrived in this story on purpose? Is there enough comfort for you to forget about where you were going to go next? Imagine giving up what's dearest to your heart. Would you be willing to love whatever is given to you?

What is home? Is it a nice house at the end of the block? A cozy trailer along the roadside? Is it the town you grew up in with its distinct tastes and smells, or the meadow where you used to chase after balls and Frisbees with your friends? Is it an actual physical location or more of a feeling? Does it always stay the same or does it shift depending on your mood? Can you be at home without a roof over your head? Do you ever look up at the stars and feel at home?

What is home? Is it a nice house at the end of the block? A cozy trailer along the roadside? Is it the town you grew up in with its distinct tastes and smells, or the meadow where you used to chase after balls and Frisbees with your friends? Is it an actual physical location or more of a feeling? Does it always stay the same or does it shift depending on your mood? Can you be at home without a roof over your head? Do you ever look up at the stars and feel at home?

While the door shuts safely behind a home owner or an apartment resident, there are no locks to secure the sidewalk dweller. There is the constant fear of harassment and mugging, of being cold and lonely on a rainy night. With physical walls removed the heart is exposed, yet its tender core longs to be protected. Will you still show your tender core even after it's been hurt?

While the door shuts safely behind a home owner or an apartment resident, there are no locks to secure the sidewalk dweller. There is the constant fear of harassment and mugging, of being cold and lonely on a rainy night. With physical walls removed the heart is exposed, yet its tender core longs to be protected. Will you still show your tender core even after it's been hurt?

Life is a carousel, a grand wheel on the cosmic fairgrounds. Every now and then, the carousel slows down just enough to catch a glimpse of what it must be like to have arrived. In these moments there seems to be an air of calm, as if the operator of the carousel were giving us a chance to hop off. Do you ever wish you could get off and take a break? Find a soft place to rest your tired bones? Maybe even get to the end of the ride and finally discover your destination, the feeling of being home?

Life is a carousel, a grand wheel on the cosmic fairgrounds. Every now and then, the carousel slows down just enough to catch a glimpse of what it must be like to have arrived. In these moments there seems to be an air of calm, as if the operator of the carousel were giving us a chance to hop off. Do you ever wish you could get off and take a break? Find a soft place to rest your tired bones? Maybe even get to the end of the ride and finally discover your destination, the feeling of being home?

The biggest walls on Shotwell Street aren't the walls of the houses that keep some on the dry and others on the wet side. They also aren't the walls that keep some of its residents rich and others poor. No, the biggest walls on Shotwell and so many other streets in this world are the walls of the mind that keep us from seeing our common human longing for love and understanding. Because they are invisible they are so hard to see, keeping us cowering at our own vantage point. And yet, since these biggest of all walls are invisible, they are also easy to see through, if only we overcome our fear to get up and look. Have you ever climbed your own walls?

The biggest walls on Shotwell Street aren't the walls of the houses that keep some on the dry and others on the wet side. They also aren't the walls that keep some of its residents rich and others poor. No, the biggest walls on Shotwell and so many other streets in this world are the walls of the mind that keep us from seeing our common human longing for love and understanding. Because they are invisible they are so hard to see, keeping us cowering at our own vantage point. And yet, since these biggest of all walls are invisible, they are also easy to see through, if only we overcome our fear to get up and look. Have you ever climbed your own walls?

Life in the streets in many ways is not that different from life in a suburban neighborhood. There are daily struggles and decisions that affect the course it is going to take. There are those neighbors we gravitate toward, and those we try to avoid. The things that bring happiness to a person living in the streets are the same things that light up a tenant or homeowner: A smile from a stranger, a hot cup of tea on a cold winter night, the sounds and sights of playing children. What makes you happy?

Life in the streets in many ways is not that different from life in a suburban neighborhood. There are daily struggles and decisions that affect the course it is going to take. There are those neighbors we gravitate toward, and those we try to avoid. The things that bring happiness to a person living in the streets are the same things that light up a tenant or homeowner: A smile from a stranger, a hot cup of tea on a cold winter night, the sounds and sights of playing children. What makes you happy?

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I’ll leave you with a song I wrote about facing the other side…

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Clear

The first thing she said was so clear, that we’re all seeking harmony here
from the man on the street with the cane to the king on the hill

If you listen to the signs of the sage
together we’re coming of age
the Buddha and Gandhi and John, they all come along

clearAnd we’re all on the edge of the earth
and we’re facing the other side’s worth
we’re turning around

There are those who will lead us to war
because they say we’re not safe anymore
and then bullets fly, people die, and our spirits are sore

So I’m trying to balance the fall
cause I know that if you listen to them all
that there are two sides to every coin, but the coin is the same

There are those who will say it’s too late
with mountains dividing our fates
it’s easy to give up when you can’t touch the wall

But the wall is inside of our heart
you know we’re not so far apart
let me hear your cries, we all got it hard

And the ones that we thought we should hate
standing there pulling our weight
they’re all just looking for love to set themselves free

When it all comes to pass in the end
then you know you can lean on a friend
an ally, a lover, your star, to bring you along

And the last thing that’s so crystal clear
we’re all seeking harmony here
from the man on the street with the cane to the king on the hill

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photos by Sven Eberlein; Shotwell photo by Debra Baida
Reflections are excerpted from Swimming with Turtles, one of twelve short stories in my book Dancing on the Brink of the World. The song Clear is also part of this multimedia journey to our big home in the sky.

About the author

Sven Eberlein

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4 Comments

  • Sven,

    This is such a searingly moving story. I have always had a pain in my heart about homeless people, maybe because a few times when I was a kid we had to live in my mom’s car. You never forget that the world doesn’t seem to be set up to include you.
    It’s freezing overnight here now, but people are still sleeping on the streets. Churches and non-profits are helping, but this year the problem is too big. You are my hero for sharing your pictures and reflections.

    Pam

  • Pam, it really is a tough life out there. Thing is, we often don’t notice some of the comforts and privileges that are built into having a roof and an address. When you don’t have a home, everything else in life becomes exponentially more difficult. And the challenge here in SF is not only getting shelter but treatment for some of the mental diseases that some people in the streets have. It’s a testament to the failure of the “pick yourself up by the bootstraps” mentality in this country. Some people just can’t take care of themselves for various reason, so when you cut the funding for institutions that treat these underlying causes, you are left looking at the shadow side of our own collective lack of care and compassion.

  • When the new world is born, everyone will be a part of life, whatever part they can play. We won’t turn away from hurting people because we want more of everything. Compassion will be the rule of the day. It is coming–we’ve knocked everything so far off-kilter, it is coming.

    Is there a national news organization where you could submit this piece? It is so moving, especially with the photos and comments under them, and should be read far and wide.

    • I heard a talk by Alan Watts on the radio today. I really love the part where he says that our minds are like radar that focuses intensely on all the potential obstacles in our way, but very little on the vast landscape of beauty that is all around us. We zoom in on the negative because that’s often what’s of interest to us, but all the while we forget all that is good.

      I’m not sure where I would submit the piece, but if you can think of a good match let me know.

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