Alicia Sterling Beach: My Experience with Homelessness
November 16, 2016 10:34
From November 12th-20th, Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week will take place. This week is meant to bring awareness to people across the country who face hunger and homelessness each day. The facts are staggering: 578,000 Americans are homeless on a typical night, 49 million are at risk of suffering from hunger, and 1 in 5 children live in poverty, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless. For many of these people, being without a home can be heart-wrenching. But for some, art allows them to find a home within themselves.
Of all the spiritual lessons I’ve tried to embody, the most challenging has been being a ‘human being, rather than a human doing’. The problem is, my family preferred me as a caregiver and a martyr, cleaning up a mess left behind by a deceased loved one, taking care of my aging grandmother, listening to and caring for the more disenfranchised members of my extended family, paying the visits, making the phone calls, etc. My efforts and time spent were rarely reciprocated, particularly, in hindsight, financially.
When my disability caught up with me, I had to learn how to put myself first and say ‘no’ more often. But as a common saying goes: ‘when people-pleasers stop pleasing people, people aren’t pleased.’ My company preferred me on their enabling terms. At a certain point, I simply didn’t have it in me anymore. Then, a seemingly endless string of bad luck happenings befell me.
While my family rarely called me anyway, when it came my turn to ask for help, the line really went, well, dead. I became homeless. Compounding my abandonment, disability assistance, social services, and our so-called safety net proved to be, by and large, a non-existent, energy-sucking, hall of mirrors. I attained some assistance at times, but only after years of repeated attempts — sometimes riding my bike across pot-holey streets for hours to do so, even enduring horrible, physical pain throughout. Did I mention that I often didn’t even have money for the bus?
From my vantage point, it seems that many people have stigmas about those of us who find ourselves unexpectedly needing help, and assume that I am someone who has somehow fallen into an hopeless abyss of mental illness, that I am unrecoverable, don’t exercise enough faith, or am somehow manipulating the system. As if I had the energy for the latter.
Just to be really clear, nothing could be further from the truth. I’ve never even received unemployment benefits. Ever. Even through a string of countless gig-economy jobs I’ve slaved through. I’ve watched numerous employers make my life a daily living hell, so that they could get out of paying me or the IRS what they were supposed to. Of course my track record of honesty should be enough to clear my name among the critical, condemning and suspicious, but guilt is a funny thing; it makes people rationalize their own indifference, their punishing attitudes and behavior…
Through it all, I’ve learned that my time is better spent working on my own attitude of forgiveness and keeping the focus on my solutions, not their problems. I look for the positive way forward for me. I do believe that I have everything that I need to take the next indicated step, without wasting time perpetuating a cycle of hurt and stirring up old grievances. I sincerely believe that in this regard, where there is a will, there is a way. God shows me when I ask, but I have to remember to ask first. There’s nothing like being homeless, hungry and penniless to work that faith muscle, and then actually walk the walk.
When I’ve operated out of faith, I never had to lie, cheat or steal. Not once. I had to summon the faith to get out the door and believe. That was often hard enough. I’ve had to believe that something good may happen, like finding a five dollar bill on the ground when I didn’t have the energy to go to the food pantry on my bike, it’s cold, I’m in pain, and I’m hungry. And yes, that did happen.
As far as my family of origin goes…I practice ‘Letting Go and Letting God’. My heart aches often due to their hurtful negligence, but my journey is hard enough without their judgment and persistent harshness. Thankfully, I have found abundant, supportive, spiritual resources and healing communities elsewhere. Among them, ArtLifting recently has given me a revenue stream that I had all but given up every last hope of ever attaining. I am so grateful. What a wonderful way to go. What a gift. I’ve gotten to enjoy eating pomegranates more often. I joined the YMCA and work-out to keep the pain at bay. I am studying acting again.
I also received community help along the way from a time-banking network here in Los Angeles. Using time as currency, that is — no money! — I’ve rented a bike for months when I needed one, I’ve received well-women visits and blood labs when I couldn’t pay to see a doctor, I’ve received rides when I’ve had to move countless times, and I even used a car when I had to take my poor dog far away for an operation early one morning at a Sam Simon Foundation veterinarian trailer.
Best of all, I experienced the dignity of participating in a community that valued my gifts and talents when I was broke, when I felt achingly isolated and vulnerable. I’ve earned time dollars by cutting hair, and I even sold a work of art for a whopping time dollar amount. Where other resources failed, the time-bank always came through, proving that money is not as important at the end of the day as the real sharing, giving and receiving economy.
Irregardless, after scraping up money month after month to save my art and my belongings in storage — despite chronically rising fees — even receiving emergency artist grants twice from the New York-based, Artist’s Fellowship Inc. — ArtLifting has finally come through in such a lovely and unexpected way. And I get the added bonus of participating in a larger community of ‘wounded-warriors’. I get to sell beautiful works as prints at affordable prices to everyday people…most galleries don’t do that. ArtLifting is truly exceptional.
More on Alicia and her art