Charlie is the Minnesota Author of the month for January and he has written a guest post about homelessness. He volunteers at a family shelter and his latest book, Inhabited, does a great job covering many of the issues surrounding homelessness. Read on to learn more.
Since 2009 I’ve been a volunteer with organizations serving people who are unsheltered or in danger of slipping back into homelessness. In the process, I’ve met hundreds of homeless adults and children in two states.
My blog reports stories and observations from this involvement, but it’s limited in scope. To explore homelessness in a larger social context, inside minds and away from the shelters, I turned to fiction.
My novel Inhabited follows two characters whose lives become disrupted by a developer’s proposal to transform a boom-and-bust Colorado town. The plans to reclaim a forsaken riverfront dislodge a homeless camp, sending an unstable man in search of shelter and unsettling an upscale realtor’s seemingly perfect life. The book asks readers to consider the border between doing the right thing for yourself or for others.
Since Inhabited came out last fall, some readers have told me: “I’m not sure I want to read that much about homelessness.”
Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised.
The term “homelessness” pushes a shopping cart full of stereotypes. The insistent panhandler. The pathetic
This visible presence of the poor in our communities challenges our assumptions about society’s safety net and our own compassion and generosity.
We tend to look away from such figures on the street, and in popular entertainment, view them through the comforting filter of stereotypes, where they deliver comedy, menace or pathos in walk-on roles. They appear as anonymous victims of serial killers and wilding teens. They share scraps with pigeons and sleep in cardboard squalor. They are scary and dangerous or noble and wise. They are fallen angels or agents of redemption.
Rarely are they presented as fully realized human beings, so these stereotypes reinforce our distanced perceptions.
We know that reading literature encourages empathy. Fiction grants a safe entre to the perceptions and experiences of others and helps us appreciate people very different from ourselves.
A novel doesn’t have to be “about homelessness” to illuminate some of its many dimensions. Consider the rebels and wanderers in Huckleberry Finn, On the Road, Train Dreams, American Rust and The Unnamed. Their protagonists seek independence, fun, meaning, justice and healing—all essential pursuits of the uprooted in America.
In dystopian novels, entire populations are upended by catastrophe. Wiping out the old rules and systems dampens personal culpability for being down-and-out and casts light on the importance of society. Characters in The Road, Station Eleven and The Dog Stars must toil individually, question morality and try to reestablish community. These are also very real struggles of homeless individuals.
It can be revealing to see how people who share a place experience it very differently. A key reality of homeless life is the sense of exclusion from the mainstream, of being simultaneously untouchable, unworthy and dangerous. In Inhabited, they are compared to the invasive tamarisk that has overgrown the riverbank.
A venerable strain of American literature shows readers the economic, social, family and personal dimensions of poverty’s shadow world. Think of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, William Kennedy’s Ironweed, Colum McCann’s This Side of Brightness, Russell Banks’ The Lost Memory of Skin, Peter Hoffmeister’s Graphic the Valley, Jess Walter’s We Live in Water and Smith Henderson’s Fourth of July Creek.
Non-fiction offers other, safe ways into places we might fear. Big city shelters (Jonathan Kozol’s Rachel and Her Children and Nick Flynn’s Another Bullshit Night in Suck City); fragile families (the Jeannette Walls memoir The Glass Castle); mental illness on Skid Row (Steve Lopez’s The Soloist); and the conscious rejection of material culture (Mark Sundeen’s The Man Who Quit Money).
Exposure to such lives has made me less judgmental and more attuned to my privilege. Most acutely, I’m aware that what we define as a struggle between right and wrong most often plays out in choices between self and others.
You can visit Charlie's blog at http://greatdivide.typepad.com/
Enter to win a copy of Charlie's book, Inhabited here: Inhabited Giveaway