Thursday, September 22, 2011

Notes from Camp Obama, Homeless Edition

 By Anonymous

“What’s that?”
“Over there.”
“That? It’s the old Minuteman Missile Site.”
“The what?”
“Well, one of them.”
In my travels, I’ve been surprised to stumble over so many relics of the Cold War, former missile sites being among them. These entrails of our empire are no less stunning than the Assyrian walls reconstructed for our delectation at the New York Metropolitan Museum. The terrifying detail of the human-headed winged lion that was lamassu was designed to reinforce the power of the Assyrian state upon the visiting delegate. The smooth surfaces around the old missile sites are even more awesome than lamassu in their blandness and uniformity – all the power lies in their stunning technology, and not in the fearful imagination of the visitor to Assyria. 

I’ve been thinking about the Cold War, having come of age in its late evening shadow. The ICBM was first developed decades before I was born, but the arms race was raging as I entered high school. 
Camp Obama (the homeless, hitchhiking version of it®) has afforded me the opportunity to encounter no small number of Cold War missile system veterans, and I’m struck by how their work on these systems affected them spiritually and psychologically. Sitting in the cabs of their trucks, or huddling over cups of coffee at the modern-day equivalent of the diner (Starbucks), they’ve told me in whispered voices their accounts of the most banal tasks at various missile sites, and I’m no less skeptical than I was in hearing out MacNamara’s late-life confessions. 
They're sly, these men: they know that I know that they know what they're trying to do with these stories. ("What's a feint? What's a left hook off the jab? What's an opening? What's doing one thing and saying another?" -Jose Torres in Oates' On Boxing.)
But their hands have liver spots. They’re growing frail. For whatever meaningless reason, no one will call them the greatest generation. (And the greatest generation of what, Tom Brokaw? Of all historical time? What makes the sacrifice of U.S. WWII veterans greater than the abject misery endured by those miserable but fearless women soldiers at Stalingrad?)
Frailty. The other sin after poverty. I’ve been thinking about how much I’ve relied on my physical endurance, without realizing that such endurance is nearly a pure product of the Cold War itself. Even though most of us never even made it to State, let alone Nationals, there wasn’t a practice or coaching session that wasn’t in overbuilt reaction to what our jr. high and high school coaches thought the Soviets would send to the Olympics. 
(Coach: "how many lanes are there on the track?" You: "There's only one lane, coach. The winning lane." I was not in the winning lane. But as I later learned, neither were those who were in the winning lane.)
I’ve often regretted this time wasted. We could have been reading Flaubert. But the missile sites, and the men’s stories, jolt me back to the weird reality, and unreality, of all that occurred during the Cold War. The veterans have been explaining the technology of the war that I slumbered through in high school, exhausted from training.
Whatever became of our star athletes? Our soldiers? What happened to THEIR soldiers? I usually think of the Cold War as the “small wars” that took place outside our country, in which some of my family fought. Only through Camp Obama (the homeless, hitchhiking version of it®) have I begun to realize that the war was here, too, in smaller, less noticeable ways.
The veteran who once manned the data station for one of the early east coast missile systems told me he was terrified all through the cold war. He’s an old man now, unafraid to express his fears. In fact, I suspect he’s afraid NOT to express his fears. If his fears were irrational (which they weren’t) then the war was for naught. All of it. But the Soviet threat was, sadly, real. 
Still, was there another way we could have met the threat? Besides all this metal and radiation? (The birds, they tell me, would drop out of the sky because of the radiation emitted by our acquisition data systems. Proud raptors fried mid-air at thousands of times the radiation of your microwave.) 
There must have been. MacNamara says that we only survived the Cuban Missile Crisis because a former ambassador to the Soviet Union dropped by a critical Kennedy administration meeting. This ambassador stated that he didn’t believe Kruschev had any interest in ending the world, and that all we needed to do was to create a face-saving way out for him. 
We did. 
It’s a miracle. 
We did. 
What other miracles are we capable of?

(Ed. Note:  The author, a professional writer, was evicted from her apartment this summer when the owners decided to rehab the building into condos for millionaires. She is among the increasing  middle class homeless population which doesn't fit the preconception of homeless people: alcoholics, drug addicts or the mentally ill. (See her comments under the Occupation of Wall Street post, below).   According to the National Law Center on Poverty and Homelessness, not only do many homeless people work --  very few of them rely on public assistance.  Not a few of them, like "Anonymous" belong to the transitionally homeless category  -- she has been "sleeping rough" for only a few months,  has a (dwindling) bank account, a cell phone,  continues to go on job interviews, and even has speaking engagements lined up.  Nobody in her immediate circle of professional colleagues or family members knows she is homeless.  I am only the third person she has told.  Knowing this woman, she will survive this.  Knowing this woman, I will no longer take for granted that the well-dressed people I meet necessarily have roofs over their heads).


"Cat" will do said...

Excellent post. And let us remember today that among the least fortunate of us was Troy Davis. I woke up so sad for the conscience of a nation that continues to murder people in the name of justice, clinging to some Old Testament notion of an eye for an eye, despite evidence that putting criminals (in this case, perhaps an innocent) to death has no deterrent effect on crime and that Christian belief forbids such emotional vengeance. Camp Obama: yet another manifestation of the social injustice wrought by the bigoted economic policies of the last thirty years.

“Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice can­not sleep for ever.”
Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia

My comments, respectfully submitted, are here:

Anne Lavoie said...


Good luck with your (hopefully) future book 'Camp Obama'. It sounds like it will be a winner. The book, not Obama.

I look forward to reading it someday. Then we will all know who you are, what it was like for all those in Camp Obama all over the country, and that you made it through the storm of this unnatural disaster.

Thanks for the insights.

dean said...


Thanks for the post and good luck!

You may be too young to remember the "Duck and Cover" we learned in grade school and the backyard or basement bomb/fallout shelters. I can't help but think that the plutocrats in their gated communities believe they are equally protected from the fallout of their economic war and destruction of american workers and the middle class.

John Farrish said...

The cold war goes on; the Russians are gone, but that doesn't really matter. The enemy is still same.

The Russians were, indeed, nefarious, but not so much so that we needed to countenance McCarthyism, J. Edgar Hoover, and the rise of the permanent military state. The true enemy is, and always has been, the rising power of the multi-national corporation. It operates without any sense of loyalty to anything other than Mammon, and answers to no rule of law.

The Russians may be gone, but the tactics the real enemy uses are the same: create a sense of fear in the people, and then play upon that fear to convinvce people they should forfeit basic liberites to stay safe.

And what are those liberties? The Declaration of Independence says that people have a G-d-given right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. In this day and age, can't we all agree that we have the not only the ability, but the obligation, to provide everyone - and I mean EVERYONE - with enough food not to starve to death, shelter enough not to die of exposure to the elements or violence, and access to medical care?

The Declaration also says that governments exist solely for the purpose of securing those rights, and that any government that fails in that regard loses all legitimacy. I leave you to draw your own conclusions about the legitimacy of our current government, but stories like those told by Anonymous shouldn't leave any doubt.

@ ""Cat" will do": Don't you think it would have been enough to say that your religious views have brought you to an understanding that the death penalty is wrong without having to bash someone else's beliefs? As a Jew, I am steadfastly opposed to capital punishment, and I find much of my justification for that opposition in the pages of the very "Old Testament" you decry. It ain't the Jews of Georgia who abandoned the "Christian" belief that rejects the sort of vengeance that the death penalty represents.

Kat said...

Thank you for caring what we think and taking the time to write your beautiful post.

Valerie said...


You have certainly done us all a service by bringing to our attention a group of Americans who are otherwise invisible. I will never drink a cup of coffee at Starbucks again without wondering if the person sitting alone, charging his/her phone and sipping the cheapest cup of drip coffee is homeless.

I have thought a lot about age and physical endurance since reading your comment and post. How will older people forced out of their homes cope? Will they too, take to camping or living in their van? The expectation is relatives or friends will take them in but that is not always the case. I worry for the 99ers who have, or will, run out of unemployment. There is a very sad reality that the longer a person is unemployed, the less attractive that person seems to an employer - and age makes this situation far worse. Will we finally then, after your ranks are full of formerly productive, Middle Class citizens recognise that the homeless people of ten or fifteen years ago – most mentally ill or from violent and dysfunctional homes – are not the same homeless people of today.

VLT said...

I hope it is OK, Karen, but I want to put in a little plug for those wonderful, beleaguered Attorneys General trying to take on the big banks and hold them accountable despite the fact that Obama is working against them. Go to and find Jack Conway to give a show of support.

Anne Lavoie said...


Re: camping

I was surprised to learn this summer that Glacier National Park adopted a new rule restricting the time people could spend camping in the Park to 14 days from July 4 to Labor Day and 30 days total for the off-season in spring and fall. When I asked about it, I was told this was due to the increasing number of people who were spending the entire summer in the campgrounds.

Glacier was the only national park I went to this summer, so I am not sure if this new rule applies to all the national parks or not, but it could indicate the increasing number of people who are homeless and choosing national parks as their home bases.

There are also the national forest campgrounds which are even cheaper than the Parks, but I have not been to one recently so I don't know if the number of long-term campers has increased. The Forest Service personnel probably have a really good idea of that situation. I believe they have had a 14 day stay limit for a long time but who knows if it is being enforced.

Those who are over 62 or who have a permanent disability can acquire a Pass which entitles them to pay 1/2 price for camping and free entry to the national parks. I am pretty sure, in hindsight, that I spent a lot of time talking with a older homeless man from Albuquerque in Glacier when I camped there for a week in July. A month later when I returned, he was still there (I go once a month to scope grizzly bears). He seemed quite upset about the new rule. Now, due to your situation and comments, I think I get the picture. Boy, the times they are a changin'.

Valerie said...


I agree with you - we should be dividing ourselves along the lines of Fundamentalists and Progressives people of faith. I have no doubt that I, a Progressive Christian, have a lot more in common with you, a Progressive Jew, than I do with any Fundamentalist Christian.

Anonymous said...


Thanks for your kind words, these are questions I'm thinking about, too.

I agree that the homeless of today are different, and yet...I used to tend to homeless in a medical setting. It was pretty intimate work - the cleaning and dressing of wounds, other skin problems they developed, pain complaints, etc. I had some darling homeless patients with great manners and some who were barely functioning. But all in a day's work, I guess.

Still, I was always glad to be free of them at the end of the day - their plight frightened me. I didn't earn that much money, and I was in school. I knew I was 'one paycheck' away, just like a lot of us were. I was pretty terrified during that time, in retrospect.

Now that I am in these circumstances, I have begun to understand these former patients in a different way. Not that I look at them more compassionately (compassion was our business, so to speak), but that I "get" now how their manners and posture degenerated out of fatigue.

Granted, my situation is different because I am obliged to meet with potential clients, and friends who don't know my situation. So of necessity, I am really trying to stay "neat." But a few weeks ago I had a slight ankle sprain, not a biggie, and I found that the combo of fatigue and pain affected my sense of physical decorum in a public space - I ended up putting my ankle up on the chair next to me in order to elevate it temporarily. It wasn't so bad that I did that, but I was struck by the manner in which I did it. There was something in my movement that was just... different, unthoughtful of the fact that I was in a public space. Something in the immediacy and rudeness of the action that I wouldn't have normally done.

It spooked me because I remembered all the odd positions in which I'd find homeless patients in the waiting room. Back then I never "got" why they were sitting all bent up, or maybe I just never thought about it (we had a busy department, and we were ourselves always run down.) I just thought those patients had always been that way. But now... I get it. This fatigue affects you if you're not careful. I just wish I didn't have to go through this to get that level of understanding!

Similarly, while I always understood intellectually that being homeless would wear you down psychologically and physically ("if they're not crazy or drug-addicted to begin with, being homeless would sure make them so" as one co-worker put it) I never had quite this level of insight.

So I am looking at these older homeless people on the street when I am back in the city, and it is like I have an entirely new perspective on them... and on the rest of the culture. So strange!

Anyway, thanks, Val, for your kind words. And to Karen for good, strong, reality-check advice in confidentiality. And to everyone for good wishes. Writing in was hard, but it also put this in a different and necessary perspective.

Denis Neville said...

What other miracles are we capable of?

"The greatest challenge of the day is: how to bring about a revolution of the heart, a revolution which has to start with each one of us?" - Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker Movement

“What we would like to do is change the world - make it a little simpler for people to feed, clothe, and shelter themselves as God intended them to do. And, by fighting for better conditions, by crying out unceasingly for the rights of the workers, the poor, of the destitute - the rights of the worthy and the unworthy poor, in other words - we can, to a certain extent, change the world; we can work for the oasis, the little cell of joy and peace in a harried world. We can throw our pebble in the pond and be confident that its ever widening circle will reach around the world. We repeat, there is nothing we can do but love, and, dear God, please enlarge our hearts to love each other, to love our neighbor, to love our enemy as our friend.” - Dorothy Day

“Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.” - Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

Fred Drumlevitch said...


Thanks for sharing your situation with the audience at Sardonicky. (And good luck). Your posts and the comments by others and yourself remind me that no matter how progressive many of us think ourselves, we in our daily routines can't even begin to truly understand the problems faced by someone less fortunate, and the accumulated toll that those problems take. Multiply that burden by the tens of millions of Americans (and more than a billion in the Third World) facing serious daily tribulations, and it would not be an exaggeration to say that the world is awash in misery --- as well as a considerable amount of dignity in the face of adversity. But unlike the result of some natural cataclysm, it is an inexcusable misery, the failure of our political, economic, and social systems to set proper, moral priorities, and then adequately allocate both financial and human resources towards the fulfillment of those priorities.

If many progressives can't fully understand the situation, the degree of disconnect from reality by most of those in office, or with wealth, must be beyond belief. For starters, perhaps a bit of enforced empathy-increasing experience by those in power is in order. Like some criminals serving their sentence in weekend installments, perhaps politicians, aspiring politicians, and corporate chiefs should be required to spend their weekends, for at least a year, in the deteriorating portions of the inner-city, either camped-out in an aging auto, or better yet, with some of the local residents. Then when they arrive at work Monday mornings, perhaps they might begin to behave properly towards those over whom they hold so much power.

But a change of their values and actions alone, even if it should occur, would still be insufficient. As admirable as empathy, decency, and charity are, the fulfillment of basic human needs shouldn't be dependent on the good will of others. The human condition won't truly improve until human needs are elevated to genuine rights enshrined in law, rather than the mere slogans that they currently are.

DreamsAmelia said...

Dear Anne Lavoie,

Yes, that policy applies to ALL the national parks--I was saddened to learn about it when we went to Catoctin Mountain and Assateague National seashore this summer--because, no joke, I was planning to live in parks exclusively during my retirement, because I had such fun hiking the Appalachian Trail for a year when I was 20 (where I also met many homeless people in 1988).

Worse, the parks have used a private company, ReserveAmerica, that adds a $10 per night service charge to all reservations--and the only way you can get a reservation is through this service, even if you call in to the ranger office. So, for example, it is now $55 per night to stay in a primitive cabin built by the WPA in the 1930s--a cabin with screens, no running water, no toilet, and a camp ring for cooking where you must haul your water from a well (spigot) down a mountain. With one bathroom for the whole camp. It's about the same price as a 1 star hotel-- thus, the camp was utterly deserted when we visited. It was really sad. And yet, there were 3 park rangers on days, and 1 park ranger stayed over night.

Dear Anonymous,
Thank you for your story. Alas, I guess a comment about visiting Occupy Wall St. in NYC would be unhelpful, since you are trying to keep up your current network and contacts--and it is hard to camp out in a park. Your body does start to ache for a comfy bed, clean sheets, room, and silence, in a "room of one's own."
But yes, we should all understand as you have, that the "slovenly" homeless are so only because they are devoid of the haven of a home and friends to renew themselves. I think many of us tend to look like homeless people in our own homes because it is comfiest, and freshen up to go out in the world...

best of luck, you are in our prayers....

Alice said...

Interesting. Thanks for sharing.

I have a few questions though. The condo was sold but you didn't want to just move somewhere else? Maybe you could tell us more about that. It seems there are tons of rentals out there. Did you lose your job at the same time?

Driving cross country must have been fun. With the cold nights, if you run the engine to stay warm at night, be careful to leave the window open a crack to avoid carbon monoxide. The mountain lions can't get you in the car either and you can lock the doors.

Your might be surprised how eager your friends might be eager to share a room with you, if your family isn't. Don't suffer if you don't have to. Accept help from friends.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Alice,

I didn't have a condo, rather, as Karen noted, an apartment.

You mention "tons of rentals." I suppose if you have the cash... But if you can't meet the higher rents (yes, rents have NOT come down anywhere in this area and in many other urban areas where we can find work, then "tons of rentals" is just a tease, isn't it?)

Moreover, I didn't drive cross-country. I lack the luxury of a car. For longer trips, I hitch-hiked, as I plainly stated. I do know that your assumption that a car is safer is somewhat along the lines of someone else who naively suggested a homeless shelter - it was well-intentioned, but under-informed. Sleeping in one's car is legally a little more complicated than you might think. And not safe for an extended period. And that's if... you have a car and can pay for gas.

What interests me about your questions is the underlying implication that "this can't happen here" - that someone like me - educated, middle class - would not slip through the cracks. 

But as I've learned in my travels, there are a lot of us. 

A lot of us, Alice.

And with real unemployment at 20%, no job creation, and UI maxing out at 99 weeks, more are coming.

More are coming, Alice. You'll have questions, no doubt for each of those middle-class people. But it won't protect you from having this happen to you. You're not safe. Until we are.

Alice said...


I'm sorry, I spaced out the part about hitchhiking. That is very dangerous too, come to think of it, especially for a woman.

I wasn't questioning how you came to fall through the cracks. I think many of us are simply trying to encourage you to take advantage of resources, such as connections with family and friends, former co-workers, shelters, social services, etc. As a woman especially, those connections provide nurturing and support that is so vital to our health and well-being.

I am sorry that your people are not there for you in your time of need, in your own home turf where you have spent years making connections, and are now forced to travel to distant lands where you know no one. It must be twice as difficult to establish oneself.

How do you even apply for a job, a bank account, a post office box, or even a library card without a physical address? Due to the Patriot Act, that is not allowed anymore. They check credit histories to apply jobs as well as renting apartments. The deck is stacked against the homeless, and the mentally ill are the worst off.

I hesitate to mention this, and it is undoubtedly due to your stress, but there is a tone of scolding towards some of us who are offering suggestions in an effort to be supportive and helpful.

Choosing to hitchhike across the country as a woman alone, instead of simply moving to another location where you already have connections and friends, is a risky adventure that not many of us would recommend even for a man.

It might even come as a surprise to you, but a lot of us have lost jobs, spouses, homes, deaths of loved ones, and suffered severe hardship, not due to The Great Depression Part I or II, just in the course of life. We have not all had it cushy. Live long enough and almost everyone suffers some serious major difficulties in the course of their lives. Wisdom does come from these setbacks.

There is no glory in roughing it if there are people who need your help. Like Anne Lavoie said in a previous post, there are people with their own homes with spare rooms, such as the elderly or those with handicaps that need help. You can even be paid for it.

It might not be the dangerous adventure of hitchhiking and living outdoors with mountain lions, which is your choice, but the fact is that there is no shame in helping others when you need help. It's a mutual rescue operation.

As a woman, I would encourage you to reconsider your options of how you want to survive this ordeal, and give an attentive ear to your elders who have been there.

Prescott, Arizona

Valerie said...


The point that @Anonymous is trying to share with us is not her own experience per se. It is to shed light on a whole segment of our American population that is invisible and falling through the cracks. I get the impression from your comments that you think most of these homeless people have more options than they do.

Perhaps you have family and friends who you could turn to - who would put you up in their homes for an indefinite period of time (and that is the key word here - indefinite) but not everyone is so blessed. Not everyone is born into a loving family. Plus, as @Anonymous pointed out, there is a great deal of shame surrounding homelessness. I’ll give you an example. There are people who took equity out of their homes during the good times and have had to sell due to unemployment. Due to falling house prices and selling costs, they are walking away from their homes with very little if any cash. Should they have been more prudent? Of course - but I sure know a lot of good, hard-working Americans who did it, assuming they would be employed until they retired. Yet these people, in their fifties and sixties, find themselves in very precarious financial circumstances with very little savings to fall back on. I imagine, being of this same age myself and knowing people in this situation, that I would feel to ashamed to ask friends and family for help if I were to lose my home.

There are a whole host of legitimate reasons why people don't feel they can foist themselves on family and friends - especially since their job prospects are poor and their chances of changing that situation are not great. Are you ready to take an older friend in for a few years? I would be willing to do it for a month or two - but years? And years are what we are talking about with people in their late forties, fifties and older. As we have discussed on this blog previously, many of us are in our fifties or older with good college degrees and good work histories and no one will touch us because of our age.

As for shelters, I believe that people have to move on after seven days. Furthermore, those churches and non-profits who are trying to help the homeless are overstretched beyond belief. They are forced to turn people away simply because they don’t have the resources to help everyone who asks.

As for just getting a job at WalMart or McDonalds to get by - these jobs do not pay a liveable wage or health benefits which become more necessary as you age and last time I checked, there are five applicants for every position advertised. Yes, people could move to less expensive areas to survive – but these are the very areas where unemployment is highest. And who do you think locals are going to hire? A stranger or someone who grew up in their town?

Homelessness is a very complicated issue that can’t be solved by shelters or moving in with friends. For people like @Anonymous and many long term unemployed it is a bi-product of there not being enough decent jobs out there. My concern, is that as more formerly Middle Class people use up their unemployment and have exhausted their savings and assets, the ranks of the homeless will continue to swell.

Anonymous said...

Thanks. You're right, but I think Alice doesn't want to get it. So you're wasting your typing energy. Fred Drumlevitch said it well, too, but some people are in severe denial.
This is what 20% real unemployment looks like.
THIS is what Bloomberg is warning about.
Forget whether you'll get benefits at "Wal-Mart" or its equivalent; the issue is job scarcity. The issue is that you CAN'T get a job there.
Forget about loving families - at 20% real unemployment, the most loving family may not be able to assist.
20% real unemployment and no job creation; do the math, Alice.

Valerie said...


I can't even begin to do justice to your comment. Every single paragraph was a pearl of wisdom. Thank you.

You are so right. "As admirable as empathy, decency, and charity are, the fulfilment of basic human needs shouldn't be dependent on the good will of others." This seems to be the Republican attitude these days - that friends, family and churches and synagogues, will care for those who fall on bad times. But it is our responsibility as a civilised society to provide a helping hand for the most vulnerable members of our society.

As Denis quoted Dorothy Day, we desperately "need a revolution of the heart" in this country.