Today, Feathered Quill reviewer Anita Lock is talking with Christina Nordstrom, author of Park Street Angels: A Chronicle of Hope
FQ: You mention the awkwardness you felt in trying to start a conversation with Bob, even though you’ve had your own taste of poverty. Do you think xenophobia (“fear and hatred of strangers or foreigners or of anything that is strange or foreign”—Merriam-Webster) may have played a part in your awkwardness? If not, what did?
NORDSTROM: The awkwardness I felt in starting a conversation with Bob had less to do with “fear of strangers” and more to do with what I refer to as a case of “terminal self-consciousness” that’s plagued me all my life. (I’m the dorky kid with the new, blue metallic cat’s eye glasses in Mrs. Niven’s fifth grade class who, in the late 50’s, sits frozen at her desk and starts crying when called upon in class to answer a question out loud, dreading that everyone will laugh at her if she gives the wrong answer.) In most every social situation when I’m with people I don’t know or don’t know well, I’m not the one that starts the conversation. And I’m not good at keeping a conversation going. I don’t think well on my feet; I’m more of a listener. (Maybe that’s why I prefer writing!) But, that said, I will say I was surprised when I came up with the words, “I’m sorry for your trouble” when I first started visiting with Bob.
FQ: Do you feel that xenophobia plays a major role in creating a great divide between society and the homeless?
NORDSTROM: I don’t think that fear of strangers – in this case people who are homeless – is what contributes to the division between the “haves” and “have nots.” In my experience it’s more about society making assumptions that someone who is found “wanting” lacks character, or they abuse alcohol or other substances, or it’s his or her own fault for being where they are. It has been said that we have a tendency to blame others so that we will look good. The lack of compassion and empathy are a few of the reasons why society asks: “Why don’t they just pull themselves up by their bootstraps?” Well, the answer is that it’s hard when you don’t have a pair of boots. It’s hard when life deals you a hand that negatively impacts your mental or physical health, or causes you to lose your job and you’re in your late 50’s and no one will hire you because you lack the skills to survive in today’s marketplace, or when a serious illness or accident leaves you bankrupt. Maybe if we were able to reframe our approach to life as living “out of abundance,” as one of the pastors at “Common Cathedral” (an outdoor ministry for people and friends of those who are unhoused) noted, we’d realize there’s enough to go around, there’s actually enough for everyone.
FQ: During your first visits with Bob, he makes rather interesting comments: “I’m afraid of people like you. You’re here one day and then gone the next.” He repeats this line of thinking much later in your relationship, which actually was a symptom of his dysfunctional background. At what point did you realize that his comments reflected his background? Explain.
NORDSTROM: I recognized his distrust of people (and the world) early on since my own upbringing was within a very dysfunctional family system. There are different degrees of neglect and abuse, and my experience wasn’t as extreme as Bob’s was, but I could still connect at some level with his experience.
FQ: Do you feel there is hope for people who have had horrific dysfunctional backgrounds to someday amalgamate with society? Explain.
NORDSTROM: There’s always hope, but I won’t say that it can happen to everyone; and it never happens in a straight line if it does. And as I implied before, not everyone who is considered “homeless” is in that situation because of a dysfunctional past; sometimes “life happens.” But people who have suffered serious neglect and abuse in their lives have been able to turn their lives around given enough support and resources. (And, if I knew more about it, I would talk about how “resiliency” figures in to one’s chances of success, but I’m a novice on this subject and am still learning about it myself.)
One successful resource, the former Boston Committee to End Elder Homelessness, which is now a non-profit organization named “Hearth,” has “ending elder homelessness” as its mission; it targets and provides outreach to frail elders who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless and has provided secure, supportive housing for thousands of seniors in the Boston area. Bob Wright was housed in Hearth’s assisted living facility where he and many others seniors like him received supportive health and social services in their beautiful facility in Roxbury.
As another example, health care practitioners will tell you that “Housing First” initiatives have shown that an individual, who is homeless and is living with an addiction or who has a mental health issue, has a better chance at being treated successfully if he or she first has a consistent place to live, safe from the challenges of living on the street. And programs such as Ecclesia Ministries, which was founded over 20 years ago in Boston and now has affiliates throughout the country, provides a supportive community with weekly activities for people who are homeless, including “Boston Warm,” “Common Art,” AA groups and a Sunday afternoon out-door worship service on Boston Common 52 weeks a year where some amazing life-changing stories are shared.
It’s my belief that we’re supposed to live “in relationship” to other people – to live as “neighbors,” using our hands to share our “time, talent and treasure.” I’m still working on being better at doing that. One place to start is by “tuning in” to our neighbor’s needs.
FQ: You mention that in your decision to build a relationship with Bob, for you “it was more important to be consistent, to show up one day at a time.” Explain.
NORDSTROM: My decision had to do with the importance of, and need to build trust in our developing friendship. In Bob’s experience, “people like you” are those that couldn’t really be trusted – all good intentions notwithstanding, they’d show up for a few days and help out some, but that would be the end of it. He’d never see them again. He learned that early in his life as he and his brother were neglected and abandoned by their parents as children, living in and out of foster homes.
FQ: Were you surprised when Bob provided an answer to those who don’t know how to help the homeless by giving food, gift cards, make a sandwich, or bring leftovers from dinner, warm socks and underwear during the winter? If so, why?
NORDSTROM: Yes, Bob’s answer did surprise me. He knew that people were hesitant to give money to someone on the street because they thought (assumed) that the person would only spend it on drugs or booze. His practical solution provided a way for people to help support another’s basic material needs. So many people I talk to about giving money to those who are homeless say they would like to but don’t because, as Bob explained, they don’t want it to go to drugs and alcohol. But they are always grateful to hear about his suggestions for giving gift cards, making sandwiches, etc., and feel empowered to do something.
FQ: On a scale from one to ten—one being the lowest and ten the highest—how far and wide would you say his answer targets the needs of the homeless today?
NORDSTROM: Insofar as this “material giving” targets one of “the needs of the homeless today” – which is to be seen or acknowledged as people (not ignored) – it’s a 10. So many times Bob would say that he didn’t care if you gave him anything; all he asked for was to be recognized as a person, like any other person. “Just say hello.” His sign, “SMILE: It’s the Law,” was his clever way of engaging people, to see him and acknowledge him with a smile instead of just walking by and ignoring him. He often talked sadly about how homeless people were invisible to society.
FQ: Bob mentions during one of your visits that he can’t vote because he’s homeless. Is this still an issue today? If so, how do you feel the government should address voting with the homeless?
NORDSTROM: A little Internet research shows that there are ways for people without a consistent address to register to vote. Some states are very creative, but according to the National Coalition for the Homeless (nationalhomelesss.org/campaigns/voting/): “Although it has been established that homeless individuals do not need to live in a traditional residence to register to vote, many homeless and low income individuals may not have the appropriate identification documents required by some states to register or to vote. Furthermore, many individuals who are experiencing homelessness may lack the resources to educate themselves about candidates or may not be able to get to the polls on Election Day. To overcome these obstacles and encourage greater voter participation among low income and homeless citizens, the National Coalition for the Homeless and other national advocacy groups co-sponsor National Homeless and Low Income Voter Registration initiatives, such as the “You Don’t Need a Home to Vote Campaign.”
FQ: Bob inspired you to create songs. Do you find that troubling issues of today, such as poverty, still inspire you to create music? If so, have you found ways to share that with the rest of the world in the hope of inspiring others?
NORDSTROM: Yes, troubling and challenging issues have always inspired my songs. In fact, through the writing of these songs, I’m able to interpret and “give voice” to a situation or issue that needs attention. In addition to illustrating an issue, such as the need for us to be heroes for our children in the song, “Sand Castles,” folk music in the traditional sense enables us to tell our stories, documenting and sharing the history and culture of “the people” that one wouldn’t otherwise find in a textbook. The actual singing of this history – the music – has the added advantage of enhancing the message to expand its meaning, and can inspire others to act. One of my songs, “Henry Berg,” recounts my father’s true World War II story of how he and his two cousins met in the Mariana Islands in August of 1945 (they were all in the armed forces). His cousin, Henry, had just gotten back from the sortie that dropped the first A-bomb on Japan. For me, the war became more of a reality after hearing my father recount the terror that Henry felt when he got back to base after experiencing this horror, and knowing my father was there hearing the first-hand account. The final lines are: “On the 6th day of August, the year ’45, just one bomb was dropped, not one soul stayed alive. The mushroom cloud loomed overhead in the sky, as shockwaves and fire consumed every cry! Never this way again should one life have to die!” Another song I wrote told the story of Mafeja, a young campesino youth in El Salvador, who was killed as the result of gang violence in that country, and how the community responded. I am a volunteer with the Salvadoran Association for Rural Health, and have participated in five work-study trips to El Salvador to learn about the people there and to experience living “in relationship” with the campesinos, the families in that country.
I’m trying to share these stories through performances in local coffeehouses and through recordings. I perform as a solo artist or with my folk group, Earth Harmony (www.earthharmonyband.com). Some of my original songs can be heard at that website or at www.christinanordstrom.bandcamp.com)
FQ: In retrospect, what things would you have done differently with Bob?
NORDSTROM: I would have collaborated sooner with my friends, Jonathan Margolis and Suzanne Straley, to help find supportive housing for Bob. During our time together visiting with him on his corner at Park Street Church, it was obvious that his health was deteriorating. I wish I had known about the resources available in Greater Boston to help people living on (and off and on) the streets, and that I had been more of an advocate. Now I’m trying to use my book to spread awareness of the crisis of elder homelessness. I’ve spoken to a few local congregations, participated in a couple of book discussion groups and presented at one of Curry College’s community health promotion classes to share the story and message that there is a solution (one of which is Hearth, Inc.’s housing program). And I have created a website (www.theparkstreetangels.com) to share more information about the story and resources for people who may be interested in becoming involved. I also have a dream that this story might be produced as a documentary, or docudrama, and used in schools, such as schools of public health and social work, and with community organizations and area faith communities in the hope that they would not “neglect to show hospitality to strangers” because, by doing that, they might have a chance to “entertain angels” themselves...and “SMILE: It’s the Law.”
To learn more about Park Street Angels: A Chronicle of Hope please read the review.