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First-Person Homeless

18 MonthsPeople often ask Lars Eighner whether he became homeless in order to have something to write about. After all, he wouldn’t be the first aspiring wordsmith to have launched himself into the world in search of material. But no. The author of Travels with Lizbeth says,

I cannot imagine deliberately exchanging a gentleman’s attire for rags, sleeping on a bench when I had a good bed of my own, or doing any of the other things the other authors are said to have done merely to get a book. Whenever I had the opportunity of improving my situation, I took it, and if I had found the chance to get off the streets, my book would not now exist.

The thing about writers is, they are unable to not write, and they will continue to write any time, anywhere. So, naturally, Eighner wrote letters to a friend, knowing he would hold onto them. This stratagem is commonly employed by impoverished artists in shaky circumstances. The friend, historical novelist Steven Saylor, thought there was a book in it.

Eighner recounts the long, excruciatingly difficult process of squeezing out a publishable manuscript on a $10 manual typewriter, in a building without heat, water, or electricity. He sometimes had trouble endorsing the project himself, because being homeless was simply his everyday life. If he could have done so, he would have swapped it for a different one, preferably with a better class of accommodations.

Picaresque memoirs inhabit a long and honorable tradition. Sometimes, a wanderer sets out to roam the world and endure hardships for a greater purpose. Sometimes, a person who was perfectly all right where he or she was is plucked up by the hand of fate and set down on a road. Either way, might as well get some good copy out of it.

We live in a time when the minimum wage won’t house an individual, let alone a family. No longer can a living wage be lived on. An awful lot of people are in dire straits, and the more their individual voices can be heard the better it is for everybody.

The book we often mention, Richard R. Troxell’s Looking Up at the Bottom Line, is not just a history of his own activities in the cause of social justice, and it’s not merely a history of social phenomena in Austin, Texas. (Where, incidentally, Eighner also lives.) Nor is it only an activist how-to manual. It is also the repository of the individual stories of many, many of the people experiencing homelessness.

We have mentioned the Ace Backwords’ classic Surviving on the Streets in relation to the Thermal Underwear Drive that is currently underway in Austin. (Yes, there is a connection.) Backwords has played the role of a recording angel on behalf of many stories other than his own. His profiles of the street people of Berkeley, California, are valuable documents in the story of our millennia-straddling era.

The very vocal, eloquent and noticeable personality of Eric Sheptock is penetrating the nation’s consciousness as he keeps his promise to “enlighten, empower, engage, enrage, entertain, and explain.” Here’s a man who is unlikely to shop online, is probably not many women’s idea of a dream date, and can’t help anybody find job. Yet, nearly 5,000 people have signed up to be his Facebook friends. Why do you suppose that is? Could it be because he has something to say? The “homeless homeless advocate” in our nation’s capital could become a man to reckon with. In fact, he is already, as Nathan Rott demonstrates in his Washington Post profile of Sheptock.

Alexandra Jarrin is making news at this very moment by encouraging people across the country to write letters about what it’s like to run out of unemployment benefits and stare the specter of homelessness in the face, if they’re not already experiencing homelessness. She prints out their individual stories and delivers them to the office of Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who is one of the good guys.

Photo Note: Photographer Aaron M says,

This guy used to be an industrial painter (bridges, that sort of thing). He lost his job 18 months ago, and hasn’t found anything since. Once he went through his unemployment benefits and then his savings, his home was foreclosed and his vehicle repossessed. So now he panhandles in suburban Seattle.

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Source: “About Travels with Lizbeth,” LarsEighner.com
Source: “DC’s ‘homeless homeless’ advocate,” The Washington Post, 12/13/10
Source: “Alexandra Jarrin, Homeless Unemployed Woman, Writes To Bernie Sanders for Help,” The Huffington Post, 12/12/10
Image by Seven_Null7 (Aaron M), used under its Creative Commons license.