The Five Things I Learned – Melody Nixon

In Melody Nixon, nonfiction on July 20, 2011 at 10:13 pm

Well, fortunately the temperature was a lot cooler today. My bottles of iced water weren’t needed. Perhaps tomorrow.



I have made some progress in my requests for interviews and volunteer work in the City. I will be working tomorrow and on Friday with the New York City Rescue Mission; serving dinner and working in the office. The Mission maintains a food pantry, houses a shelter for 100 men (29 of whom are in a long-term Residential Recovery program, meaning their beds are assured and they work for the Mission), and provides hot meals. The staff member I talked with early on in the week was incredibly helpful, and has since followed up with me to check make sure I did found volunteer work with the organization.

I have no idea what to expect, and I am looking forward to it.



Writing about people who I perceive to be disenfranchised (and who say they are disenfranchised) everyday is making me a little depressed. The stories I read about homelessness are depressing. The people I talk to on the streets about their own lack of home don’t act bubbly and happy and nuanced, you know what, they seem sad. I think I can tell sadness apart from a nuanced expression of one’s own personality that happens to take the form of melancholy at the time of speaking. Their lives are shitty, that’s what they say; at least those on the street. At least those on Invisible TV. I get a fleeting glimpse of a moment in a person’s life, and I certainly don’t understand a mite of the issues surrounding their selves. But I still think their stories are sad. Is this a problem? Maybe it’s dis-empowering for the storytellers, or maybe it’s just empathy.


Today I gave myself the task of learning five things about home and the opposite of home, and I promised myself that one, at least one, of these would be uplifting.



Five Things I Learned Today:


1. That when you’re a homeless mother, living in an van with two children, and working two jobs, most of the money you make goes on gas and your children’s food and clothing. But sometimes you get to stay with friends for long periods.


2. People like to offer help to others, even if they aren’t really in a position to give real help. Or even if they are actually getting in the way by giving it. Is this a local cultural trait (the Philanthropist-Martyr Complex?), or is it a timeless aspect of the human condition? Reading many homeless people’s stories online, I find comments like these:

Your strength is encouraging and very impressive. Your daughters are lucky to have a mother as strong and caring as you. I have a feeling things are about to start looking up for you. Please give me your contact information, I would like to do whatever I can to help you.

but then, what happens? Carey Fuller remains homeless, despite offers of kindness and incredible industry on her own part (Fuller wrote and self-published a book about her homelessness to try to earn funds). In the land where dreams are occasionally, spectacularly made good, lots of people want to be BFGs.



3. The term ‘homeless people’ is no longer politically correct, according to some social service workers here in New York City. Does the term ‘homeless’ bother those who are actually without shelter? (Something to add to my list of interview questions.)


4. Economists may be well-versed in the ‘Silver Tsunami’ of impending, baby boomer retirees, but what about the ‘silver tsunami’ of homeless older folks, who, on reaching retirement find themselves in difficulty because their pension funds have been devastated by the Great Recession or a housing foreclosure? This story about Bob is pretty sad. Sometimes I wonder whether telling sad story after sad story is really all that effective. I mean, stereotypes about homeless people need to be counteracted right?


5. And still, that old question, what does home really mean? Today I learned that, for some, the feeling of ‘home’ could be an association with a group-identity. A group- identity that feels real and right. In my wacko political-science lectures at university, we learned that people who belong to a strong group (any group) live longer. But, this Yale study also says that people who are sad live longer. That’s, unfortunately, more sad news for sad people. If all the sad people congregate into one giant, well-formed, sad group, with an excellent sense of group-identity, they might all live forever.



(Maybe not uplifting, but at somehow, ironically funny.)

  1. melody i just read this and thought of your work:

    by Stuart Dischell

    The governor will give
    Homeless people sleeping bags,
    Let them stay the night

    On windswept porticos
    Outside his buildings
    Instead of your doorstep.

    I am talking to myself
    With empty rooms
    I cannot bear to live in.

    • Beautiful, thanks Marina. This really captures the inequality of the situation & difficult emotion without being overbearing… simple, sparse, effective…

  2. i spent a lot of time thinking about number 4 today. Aren’t the varied reactions to the homeless sometimes an extension of the fear of becoming homeless? or is it simply class snobbery? the bully in the playground – happy to laugh at another’s misfortune, and the masses complying, afraid to step outside of the “loudest” opinion. maybe fighting the stereotype is exactly what you are doing – writing sad story after sad story, because after all –

    that could be me on that street corner one day, with the sad story.

    • Oh no Aditi, no!! That’s too sad to contemplate. I mean that’s when it gets really heart-breaking, right? Imagining people you know on the streets. But everyone on the streets or in shelter is known by someone else.

      Yes I agree that there’s class snobbery, and fear of the unknown, and fear of finding yourself in the same situation. I think there’s a lot of just not knowing how to act as well… I wish the default option for most people was to be open to a new and unknown culture or experience…. just a small shift in mindset like that would have such a big impact…

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