Thursday, June 7, 2012

Land of the Lost Souls

There are many reasons I enjoy working at the Lincoln Park Community Shelter, but I think they all stem from one of our founding philosophies: community. A lot of effort is put into creating community between guests, between guests and staff, between guests and volunteers, between staff and volunteers, and between staff. Sometimes this is facilitated very intentionally, through things such as Community Meetings, where all of the guests come together to talk about the shelter and what things they can do or change to help each other through this transitional time in their lives. Other times this is done more organically, through the informal conversations between people in the kitchen or community room throughout the day.

One of the intentional ways in which the staff not only works to build community with themselves, but also works to better their understandings of the guests and their varied situations, is through our staff Book Club. Beginning this year, we have read books focused on alcoholism, suicide, and homelessness.

The last book we read was Land of the Lost Souls: My Life on the Streets, by Cadillac Man, which chronicles some of his time experiencing homelessness in New York City. The book was interesting in almost an infinite number of ways, but there were some things that stood out most, and were a big part of the discussion we had.

One of the main questions we had was about Cadillac Man's transition from being housed to homeless. He tells readers that before "Cadillac Man" started living on the streets, he lived in a home with his wife and daughter. He had a steady job at a meat market, but when things went under, he was eventually let go. His wife started working, and was supporting them both. He believed that his wife was ashamed of him, and thus, he was ashamed of himself. He acknowledges that he could have gotten a part-time or low paying job, such as working at McDonald’s or Burger King, but that he felt it would have been equally shameful.  Eventually he decided he didn’t deserve to stay, and he left. Since the book is written entirely from his perspective, we all wondered what factors other than shame contributed to his leaving. Was he depressed or experiencing some other type of mental health issue? Did his wife want him to leave, or was that just his interpretation of the situation? It is hard to say what really happened.

We also discussed how intelligent and resourceful Cadillac Man is throughout the book. He talks about the ways he stays warm in the winter (by stuffing newspaper and napkins into his clothing, to create insulation), the various first aid items he has (bandages and antiseptic), and how he earns money (through canning – recycling cans and bottles) and keeps it safe.

A big question we had in relation to our work at LPCS was whether or not Cadillac Man would utilize any of the services we offer. In the book he mentions taking sandwiches from an organization outside of a church, and the importance and rarity of showers, so we think that maybe he would attend our Saturday morning Community Engagement Program (CEP), for a hot breakfast, laundry, and a shower. We do not, however, think he would be interested in moving into LPCS and looking for a stable housing solution. A common theme throughout the book is his belief that he deserves to live on the streets and does not deserve a real home. That belief is one of the reasons why we questioned whether or not he was dealing with a mental illness, such as depression.

Overall, we all really enjoyed the book and the opportunity it gave us to understand another person’s situation. No matter how many people you meet or how many stories you learn, each person’s experience with homelessness is different, and the more you hear, the more you understand that. I would definitely suggest this book for anyone looking to gain more perspectives on homelessness and for a new way to engage with the issue.

If you are interested in seeing what other books are on the staff book club list, check out our Cause Reading List board on Pinterest (Note: you do not have to have a Pinterest account to be able to view).

--Elli Krandel, Volunteer Coordinator

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