[Hpn] Homeless asked feelings on Attacks / Endless Choices article FWD

Tom Boland wgcp@earthlink.net
Mon, 8 Oct 2001 19:25:38 -0700 (PDT)

FWD - Endless Choices is the streetpaper in Dallas TX USA

From: "ENDLESS CHOICES" <endlesschoices@yahoo.com>
Date: Sun, 07 Oct 2001 23:46:20 -0000
Subject: [nasna] Homeless asked feelings on Attacks

Attached is the Lead Story in the Oct issue of Endless Choices
written by Gordon Hilgers. You may reprint it - if so send us a copy
of the publication.



By Gordon Hilgers

The evening after organized criminal attacks on New York's World
Trade Center and the Pentagon in Washington D.C., a homeless
acquaintance of mine was seen at downtown Dallas' Akard Street light
rail station making a spectacle of himself. Stumbling around, half-
crocked, sweating like a soaked sponge, rocking on his scuffed heels
and winding in and out of the rush hour train-bound crowd, he was
seen shouting, cursing, and flailing his arms.

 This spectacle, however typical in workaday downtown Dallas, had
been framed and reconfigured by a terrorist bombing. On that warm
afternoon, it seemed as if every little thing that happened was
somehow related to the shocking TV scenes from the previous day. Many
downtown workers were, hyper vigilant, angry, shocked and afraid.
Many who had been surprised into a confrontation with this man's
parade of emotion found it hard to decide what to make of his fierce
expression. Was he upset over the bombing like everyone else? Was he
just drunk or crazy?  And whom on earth was he berating?

 As the man perpetrated his public display of turmoil as if the world
had some sort of obligation to listen to him, most workers
disdainfully took the other road altogether and ignored the
suffering. He was, after all, behaving "outside the pale" on a day
when most people sorely needed routine and business as usual
activities to reassure them. It's also possible this upsetting slice
of life probably didn't seem particularly pertinent to their worried
concerns. It was just another nagging upset from beyond the cloister
of the "real world" which, after all, still reeled from attack by
criminal extremists. Even if his unsettling exhibition had seemed
significant to the anxieties that consumed most Americans - will more
terror descend on us? Most of us admit that downtown white collars
have long conditioned themselves to keep the disquiet of strangers
out of their worlds. That's the routine. We're all, to a degree,
oblivious to the often garish and sometimes inappropriate behavior of
outsiders who don't happen to look or dress exactly like we do. This,
though, wasn't a routine day.

 It wasn't too surprising that no one paused to ask this man if he
was all right, or if they could help. Despite admonitions by everyone
from local TV news anchors to the President of the United States that
Americans pull together and muster the courage to comfort one another
during this national tragedy, this man might as well have been
completely alone in an abandoned ruin of a once-great city. As this
homeless guy disappeared into the train and headed for the highway
underpass he calls home, for a moment I couldn't help but wonder
if "unity" and "pulling together during this crisis" were words and
phrases that apply only to the productive, respectable segments of
the city. The summary tone of apathy, in fact, suggested the powerful
pull that the slightest bit of suffering has on Americans. We don't
quite know how to react to it. Homeless people have known this about
the "real world" for a long time, but the rest of us are only now
learning to see how blind we can be.

 The man with the bad manners disturbing strangers with his emotional
turmoil is a Vietnam veteran. He's not one of those people holding a
sign-- "God Help Me - Homeless Vet" on wrinkled cardboard placards at
the edge of the freeway. He's only one of scores of homeless veterans
who have been affected by televised scenes of the terrorist attacks
in ways most of us can't even begin to imagine. The evening after the
trauma, he'd gone into what some have dubbed "survival mode."

      "US Vietnam veterans feel things in ways regular people don't,"
said a friend of mine, a former Marine who saw action in some of
Vietnam's fiercest fighting.

"When you see stuff like the WTC buildings crumbling, it throws you
right back to the moments you were traumatized. I've been dreaming I
was at Mead River for two whole weeks."

     This friend, who jokingly said he's lucky not to be homeless
right now, exclaimed that he has no earthly idea how tough it must be
to be both homeless and a Veteran with Post-Traumatic Stress
Disorder. "You probably have two traumas to deal with: The war and
homelessness. That poor buddy of yours probably felt really
vulnerable after the terrorist attack. He probably just started
screaming. He's probably never been able to get past trying to drink
away his terror. If that's how he tried to deal with it 25 years ago,
when something like this terrorist attack occurs, he goes right back
to what worked. I wonder what he can't deal with. I wonder what's so
ungodly terrifying to him that its presence in his mind has destroyed
his ability to cope or strive or even get a little faith in his life.
No telling where he was inside his head. He probably wanted to hide
somewhere. Because he's homeless, he probably felt he had no place to

    Beyond the remembered terror of military duty in Vietnam, nearly
all of Dallas' homeless have also experienced that same sense of
vulnerability described by my friend. Many have been traumatized by
their experiences on the streets of Dallas. Downtown Dallas, of
course, is a far cry from the tinderbox of Vietnam's  fabled Mead
River Campaign, and there's no sense in even trying to make a
comparison between guerilla war and homelessness in a well-off
American city, despite the fact that some actually do try. Many of
Dallas' homeless have seen stabbings, drug overdoses, and robberies.
Some have been assaulted late at night while sleeping in hedges and
alleys. Others have gone hungry for days. Still others have suffered
mental and emotional relapses on Commerce Street. Most quivered in
the cold last Christmas Day.

When a frightening national trauma occurs many homeless Dallasites
are just plain vulnerable to the strong and often conflicting
emotions that open old wounds. Should that surprise us?  Many
homeless men women and children simply have no families left to hug,
no shoulders on which to cry. Most have learned to survive without
that. Living on the streets, you learn to steel yourself to
adversity. You get tough. You block out what used to make you afraid.
You avoid what puts you in danger.

The ultimate effect, according to psychologists interested in the
mental and emotional dimensions of the trauma of homelessness, is
that you step outside the "real world."  And sometimes you can't get
back into the "real world."  You disassociate yourself from the
conventional ways of responding to daily events. Your concerns turn
to orbit the need to survive. You learn the trick of convincing
yourself that you're simply too small to see.

"Man. I feel like I'm invisible or something," one man told Endless
Choices. "I mean we're always invisible when we're homeless anyway.
People don't even want to know what our lives are like. But this is
pretty scary. Who cares if you're homeless when 6,000 people are

This man's reactions to the WTC and Pentagon attacks aren't confined
to the individual responses of a few homeless people. Pamela Nelson,
an internationally known artist who also facilitates a Stewpot-
sponsored arts and crafts program for the homeless, told Endless
Choices that she was a little shocked at the number of her homeless
art students who told her they felt "their lives didn't really matter
that much anyway."

"Several told me that nobody would care if they were killed in a
terrorist attack," Nelson said. Her comments were echoed by one
homeless man who asked, "If some terrorists killed 6,000 homeless
people, do you really think it'd make it to the evening news?"
According to Dennis Strickland, Stewpot caseworker, homeless people
see the disaster in terms of their own set of experiences. If
homeless men and women have coped with the trauma of homelessness by
drinking or drug abuse, they more than likely used the same means to
deal with news of the bombing. As extremists from the world's dark
side salt old wounds, Dallas' homeless, most of whom seem to know
that they, too, are children of oppression and intolerance, tell
Endless Choices that they've lately felt especially vulnerable. Some
talk of being invisible, or bereft of love and understanding. Others
recoil into the same old rage:  the familiar friends of anger,
rebelliousness, and contempt for a world that they see as having
abandoned them.

"I've been working with one person who was very upset about the
bombing," Strickland said. "He thought the bombing was the end of the
world. As I talked to him, I concluded fundamentalist preachers have
heavily influenced him. He was worried about his soul. He was afraid
that, because he has sexual thoughts, he was going to Hell."

Indeed, the golem of the so-called End-Times has been one hot topic
on the homeless talk show scene. Violent tragedy is impossible to
understand because the range of feelings that rushes up to meet it is
too wide for the reasoning mind. Experts and theologians have spent
thousands of years trying to explain suffering and pointless
violence, but of course no answers are ever completely certain. Many
homeless men and women already have learned to cope with the psychic
violence of what homelessness does to the mind, and many rationalize
it all in terms of sin and redemption. Many have been taught to see
their situations in terms of fundamentalist Christian teachings
mainly because fundamentalists and evangelicals run several missions
and shelters in Dallas. These well-meaning people, as clients of
shelters  indicate, teach their worldview to a relatively captive
audience whose only other recourse is to live on the streets.

When you're homeless and grasping at straws, you tend to identify
with the beliefs of the people willing to help you, Strickland said.
Consequently, he adds, many clients of shelters and missions embrace
an interpretation of their life situations as signs of coming
tribulation and apocalypse, symptoms of an individual's
shortcoming and the personal results of supernatural events they
cannot control. When tragic world events actually do come calling,
critics of this tactic agree with Strickland: homeless people
quickly grasp for the ideological explanations that seem to make
sense to them, no matter how far from reality or reason they actually

"Many of these people live in circumstances that are almost a bombing
situation. They're familiar with despair and with things not being as
they ought to be. We all share similar feelings at one time or
another. We've got to remember that so I tried to reassure that
man," Strickland continued, "that God loves him. I told him you
couldn't do anything to make God love you more - or less. That man
suffers from mental illness. Yet, I couldn't help but think that it
was religious teaching that had really upset him. Though a lot of us
have some fears of widespread violence right now, I don't see any of
this in terms of signs from God. I also don't think it does any good
right now to dwell on the end of the world. That's a horrible way to
look at your life."

Bill Thompson, Director of Union Gospel Mission, said that since the
attacks he has seen "the full range of emotions and opinions," but
adds that anger and fear seem to predominate the mission's
clientele. "We always make ourselves available to our clients,
especially those who need to vent," he said. "When you talk about
wars, about people losing their lives, it causes you to try to reason
it out. Many of our clients have had religious upbringing, and some
do try to explain these circumstances in terms of what they've been

Thompson adds that many visiting church groups that conduct nightly
church services at Union Gospel have focused on issues surrounding
The Book of Revelations, but that it is the mission's policy not to
control what is said by preachers and laypersons that witness to
clients. "In our discipleship classes, we have been teaching that
when there are people in the world who are controlled by sin, they
are going to do sinful things. Specifically, we try to explain to our
students here at the mission that, because of their religious bent,
the extremists who committed these terrorist acts thought they were
doing God a favor."

But unconscionable episodes such as what is coming to be known in
some circles as the 9-11 bombings have also caused confusing
rationalizations of their own. Here's how one homeless man, an Air
Force alumni of the Korean War, reacted:  "Thinking of this, I
thought the world was coming to an end. That kind of played into my
insane thinking. I'd been clean off drugs for seven months, but my
head started telling me, `If the world's coming to an end, why not
get high?  What'd I have to lose?'  I went out and used cocaine," he

He adds: "I mean, you're out there and you know something's about to
come down. You feel like you have to just get some kind of shelter
somewhere immediately, even if it's in the form of checking out
emotionally. Now, of course, I could just kick myself. I lost seven
months of clean time off drugs, man."

 Jay Dunn, Stewpot Volunteer Coordinator, tells Endless Choices that
clients asked him if they could watch the news on September 11. "Our
clients had a real interest in what was going on," he said. He knows
of no violent incidents among the homeless that were triggered by the
recent attacks. However, he said, since September 11 the Stewpot has
been rife with what he calls "anxious energy."

 "Particularly later in the day of the bombings, there was a real
buzz," says Dunn. "You could just feel it. Everyone was talking about
it. Especially when the buildings downtown closed and workers began
going home early, I noticed that a lot of our clients were visibly
upset. Helicopters were flying over downtown. The homeless who were
caught downtown were really scared."

 "We have the same feelings about this as everybody else," said one
homeless man who identifies himself as Eric. Sitting at a table at
the Stewpot, he said he is anxious about the bombings, and is afraid
we're about to start a "seriously bad" war. "I think people are still
in shock. Because of me being homeless, this hasn't really
registered. I used to live in New York. When I think of New York, I
can't see the place without those landmarks. I've also got a friend
who works in the Garment District. I can't get in touch with him."

Like many people in Dallas, there is little those in the Dallas
homeless community can do right now other than keep their spirits up.
But at this time, however, it is the little things that count.

"I sent a needlepoint cross I made to the President's wife," one
homeless man tells Endless Choices. Because Stewpot arts coordinator
Pamela Nelson was travelling to Washington D.C. to firm up plans for
a new job working for the Bush Administration, all he had to do was
give it to her. "Pam's a former classmate of the President's wife.
And that little cross?  I did this out of kindness. I think the
President and his wife must be under a lot of stress. I hope they'll
appreciate my gift."

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