The world of homelessness and street life in downtown San Diego is like an alternative society with a culture of its own. Like any other culture, it has its own slang, social hierarchy, norms for behavior, values, and taboos. Maybe this will turn into a series of posts, but for now, here are just a few notable features that I’ve noticed so far about “street culture”:
1) Homeless folks have an eye for the usefulness in things that most people ignore.
Resourcefulness is highly valued in street culture. People at the Ladle are constantly showing me things they’ve made from other objects: a belt of shoe strings woven together, a flute made from a metal pipe, an entire bicycle made out of miscellaneous objects. One time a guy showed me a picture of the makeshift “shower” he had constructed on the edge of the freeway, using the sprinkler system and lots of creativity.
2) People often form family-like bonds with the friends that they “camp” with every night.
Sleeping alone outside at night in a big city is dangerous for anyone. While there are many “loners” who sleep in hidden alleys or canyons, there are also many pseudo-families of people who sleep next to each other every night. These groups are often highly loyal, and they take care of each other. If someone has to be somewhere during the day, someone else will watch their stuff for them while they’re gone. Or if someone is given food by a passerby, they’ll bring it back for the whole group. They’ll share other resources too, such as blankets, clothes, tarps, cardboard…as well as cigarettes, drugs, and alcohol. Sleeping in groups provides protection at night and companionship during the day. For some people, this is why it’s so hard to transition back into “normal” society after being on the streets for a while; because their group of friends under the I-5 bridge or on the corner of 16th & Island was the closest thing to family they had ever experienced.
3) Those with severe delusions and other forms of severe mental illness are taken care of, not shunned.
I’m often amazed at how tolerant the homeless community is of its members who suffer from severe delusions or paranoia. Those who are neurotypical, as well as those with less severe mental illnesses, are often highly conscientious of these folks, making sure they stay fed, clothed, and protected from danger. People are valued for their personalities, their companionship, their stories and insights, even if their perception of the world is highly distorted by brain diseases. Many times I’ve seen homeless folks exhibit levels of patience and compassion toward their mentally ill friends that would trump that of even the most experienced nurse or social worker. If only our larger society could learn to treat the severely mentally ill with that same level of understanding and care!