In the Spring of 1990 my business partner and myself stopped at People's Park in Berkeley, California. We sat on a log among the homeless people. Some where cooking their food. Others rolling around in the grass with their loved ones. Some smoked weed and drank booze. They dressed in rags, tie-dye shirts, jeans, long hair, short hair, leather jackets, and bare chests.
And, we, two businessmen, would-be land developers and housing manufacturers where sitting there. Such was the power of People's Park to attract all kinds of folks. A long-time looking patron of the Park came up to us and said, "What are you guys doing here? You don't belong here!"
My partner responded, "We're people too!" We kept sitting. The obviously long- term Park resident, shrugged his shoulders and indicated that we were "okay". Thus, we had established our "turf" on a log. Land title had its own rules here.
At the time dozens upon dozens of "homeless" people lived in the Park. The University had yet to build a volleyball court to push out these people unto the streets of downtown Berkeley. For over 20 years People's Park had become a symbol and a home to people who did not or could not live "the American dream" in any form or shape whatsoever --except, for some, the dream of total freedom from rent, responsibility, sanity, and basic human connection with family and larger community. I am not trying to sound unkind -- this is an option, too.
Some of my radical, liberal friends from 15 years back where becoming disgusted with the Park. One of my more noble liberals preferred to work for social justice from his antiseptic non-profit offices, while still taking offense at these people. He now wanted to get those dope smoking bums out. He was once the chic radical fighting the establishment - - now, he and his associates are the establishment, only he did not know it.
There's freedom here of a kind that most Americans have forgotten. It is a freedom akin to crossing the Frontier in a covered wagon. "Home, home on the range." It is dangerous, lonely, and often alienating. But space and time are your own in a fundamental sense that no mortgage payer or common renter now know.
Some Park people refuse live in shelters. They want the street. This is their home. Yet, others, where in complete misery. They were there because they fell off the edge of the housing market. Not enough money from odd jobs, too few friends and family, a mind slipping away from the stress of life itself, and a housing market that is losing low cost units overall. A formula for coming to the street as home.
I've had my moments close to that edge. Only my friends kept me from the Street. My business partner had similiar experiences. The only people who can be arrogant about it are those who never have looked down the abyss of no money in a culture that worships money.
Thankfully, this current recession is reminding many more people of what that edge is like. I think, that once you return to financial solvency, you owe it to yourself and society, to visit, and even hang out with the dispossessed. So as not to forget that very, very little separates us all from the street except a few bytes of information in a bank's computer.