Thursday, August 30, 2007

Homelessness - Thinking About It Differently

Years ago, I attempted to write my first novel about a bored, naïve woman who befriends a group of homeless men. In the process, she finds friendship with an old man I called Geezer and falls in love with another who is “not your typical homeless person.”

The result, like most first novels, was not my best work. I finally understand how my concept of the homeless was even more naïve than the protagonist I created. It’s just not that simple and the stereotypes, like all stereotypes, don’t hold up under scrutiny.

I found a truer depiction of homelessness in the memoir The Glass Castle. Jeannette Walls unabashedly lays before the reader a map of her family, one that many times chose poverty over comfort. Her parents, unconventional, artist types, lived on the edge of society and modeled their quirky values for their children.

But were they? Is it really quirky to find good in the most absurd situations? When her mother tried to pull a piano into the house using a truck and she floored the gas, sending the piano flying into the back yard, her reaction was crazy with adaptability. Instead of cursing and crying Jeannette’s mother said – isn’t it wonderful that the neighbors will be able to enjoy the music when I play.

After squatting in an abandoned building for many years, Jeannette’s parents organized a squatters association and bought the building for a very small price. They were proud people, unwilling and unable to be pigeonholed by society.

I wasn’t sure about this portrayal, until yesterday, when I researched Kevin Barbieux, aka The Homeless Guy. He’s become an internet celebrity with his blog about homelessness. Kevin lives on, in, and around the streets of Nashville, Tennessee. He blogs from a donated laptop with the help of free Wi-fi at coffee shops.

Kevin’s insights have again honed my ideas about people that live on the streets. He most closely resembles the “not so typical homeless man” in my novel. He keeps clean the best he can. Intelligent and thoughtful, he contributes to society by doing projects at the local community church. He writes with a lucidity I still aspire to. He’s not a druggie or an alcoholic.

Why is he homeless? He doesn’t really understand it either. Kevin feels he has social anxiety. He is a square peg in the round hole of a capitalist machine. He doesn’t fit well into the mold. So, for the past 20 odd years he’s done the best he knows how.

If I ever decide to resurrect my manuscript, I’ll do three things first – pull out my copy of The Glass Castle. I’ll open Kevin’s blog and read all the entries I can find. Then I’ll curl up in my warm house with a bowl of popcorn and watch The Pursuit of Happyness with Will Smith (the story of a homeless father working his hardest to get off the street).

I’ll pull myself out of my privileged life and see the homeless clearly, with all their diversity, individual needs, struggles, and complexity. And only when I’ve achieved that clarity, will I attempt again to write about them.


Anna Lozyk Romeo said...

I will be first to comment that this was an excellent article, I never knew about the homeless person and his blog. It is sad story...thanks for sharing with us, and also thanks for sharing your thoughts. anna :)

Lisa McGlaun said...

Hi Anna,

I heard about The Homeless Guy Blog through one of the discussions on Blog Catalog. I went to his site and checked it out then Googled his name for more details. I found out that he's been interviewed by Salon Magazine, USA Today and several others. It seems he's had his blog since 2002.

It's quite a story. I plan to keep reading. If you like to read, pick up The Glass Castle. It's a remarkable book. I highly recommend it.


thewishfulwriter said...

I'd heard about this homeless guy with a blog, but hadn't taken the time to find him yet - so thanks for doing it for me! I will check it out.

I had a friend who worked at a men's shelter and i'd be shocked at some of his stories about people who walked through the doors. People who were once rich. Who had loving families. Who a year ago were driving Jags.

Circumstances can change reality for any one of us. Compassion for those who need it is key.

Thank you for reminding us of that every day!

Lisa McGlaun said...


It's an interesting read. He lives in Nashville, a city I know something about. His story is inspirational and at the same time disheartening. I don't know how to explain it.


DrowseyMonkey said...

I love this book! I tell everyone I know to read it. I could identify with many of the characters (perhaps I've had a quirky life too). Great post!

Lisa McGlaun said...


I really loved it. As soon as I finished my daughter picked it up, then I passed it on to my mother in law.

Walls has a great way of telling the story. I wanted to be mad at her parents but it was difficult to stay angry at them..I guess that's how she felt about her upbringing, too.

Come back any time Drowsey..:)


Nature Nut /JJ Loch said...

Beautiful post, Lisa!!! The book sounds great. It takes great courage to face a day to day existence when you don't know what will happen in your next step.

DH and I ended up living in a woodshed one summer when I had to give up my job because of carpal tunnel surgery that went a muck. We had been living on our two incomes and mine had been the larger one. Living in the woodshed gave us a chance to catch up on the bills and showed us how tough it is to exist outside of four solid walls. The ants, the spiders, the mice, the scratching skunks, the whip-poor-whil who wouldn't allow us to sleep - all of this made sleeping hard.

{{{HUGS!!!}}} to the homeless. A necessity like water becomes a major challenge.


Lisa McGlaun said...


Wow, thanks for sharing that. It must have been hard on the two of you and things are better now, thank god.

I can't tell you what it means to me that you would share some of your own personal story here. Big Hug.


Anna said...

Thanks Lisa, I will check it out. Anna :)

Nature Nut /JJ Loch said...

Thanks, Lisa. I want people to know it's hard out there when you don't have the basics of life. We decided to live like that that so we wouldn't go into debt as we adjusted to a waaay smaller income. It was an eye opening experience. At first it felt like an adventure but then as the days dragged on and heated up unbearably it was harder than heck. I found myself thinking, "when this bottle of dish soap is gone we'll be in a apartment". The bottle was full. I was never happier when September rolled around and we had everything straightened out. :D

Hugs, JJ

Nature Nut /JJ Loch said... apartment.


Kali said...

There's a homeless couple that hangs out at the Strawberry Fields memorial for John Lennon in Central Park. Every morning, I see him, dressing the memorials with flowers (where they get the $$ for flowers I don't know) and deceiving tourists into thinking that they must pay him for stopping at the memorial. Why he hasn't gotten arrested yet by a New York cop is beyond me. They are a competent, nicely groomed couple who have the ability to function in society instead of robbing society. In this particular case, they infuriate me.

Kali said...

As a follow-up to my earlier remark, the man is the one who is out there deceiving tourists of their dollars. The woman sits back and watches. I have some compassion for her, yet there are enough social services in this city to help her get back on her feet. I'm assuming she just doesn't want the help and would rather stay with him.

Lisa McGlaun said...


I understand what you are saying. No matter where I am, living in the street or a mansion, I will be honest. I think the quality you see in the couple is what infuriates you more than the fact they are homeless or living a different kind of lifestyle, right?

If he was selling flowers for the memorial and not scamming people that would be okay.

I don't know what it takes to help people in those situations..some people say it's not a hand out and they are probably right. Empowerment, to do for themselves as they wish..but I certainly don't know exactly how to give that to another person either. If there is a formula I wish someone would tell me..:)

Thanks so much for your comment. I love your blog and value your contributions to mine..:)