Midnight at the Oasis: A Place of Rest, yes, Feel Sustained, and yes, A Refuge from the Storm Within
By Randle Loeb on Feb 1, 2011 | In Caring and Surviving, Citizenship and Stewards By Randle Loeb
Midnight at the Oasis: A Place to Rest, Yes, Feel Sustained, and Yes, a Refuge from the Storm Within
by Randle Loeb on Tuesday, February 1, 2011 at 4:37am
The presence of St. Paul United Methodist Church at 16th Ave and Ogden Streets has been a gift and a safe haven in my life over the last several years, an oasis and a refuge in a time when I struggled to define my course, making it possible for me to be free to do what was necessary to change people's perceptions of reality with respect to being "homeless." Being homeless is not a special class of undesirables. It is not a stigma of a group who have given up and are worthless. Homeless people are like me and in many ways like the mental illness that I have, distinct, unique and inseparable from any other person.
As I sit here in the stymieing cold with a terrible headache that appears to have come from stress from lack of order and an inability to calm down the skeletal-muscular system, I feel a throbbing of expectancy in my body that I have to go out in the bitter cold and fortify myself for the ordeal. I am concerned because I could hardly walk across the wasteland to get to DenUM (Denver Urban Ministries), to shovel the walks and the back alley. Looking out the window of the room, with the doors open and no heat I have lived here at St. Paul under harsh conditions of deprivation and simplicity. This scenario is about to come to an end, hopefully.
I came to St. Paul to be the security, maintenance, caretaker, grounds keeper, special events person, office and on site shelter manager in exchange for a place off the street. At that time, in 2004, I was managing the Denver Homeless Voice newspaper. My work was, and still is, keeping me alive not because of earning an income but by virtue of focus on anything that makes sense to do to feel worthy. Most “homeless people” have no intention of being helpless, shiftless and co-dependent on social services. What we're seeking is a way to harness our interests and skills that would lead to employment. One day a woman with whom I had worked as a member of the research team at Iliff School of Theology came into my office and offered me a place to live in exchange for a role as a caretaker or sextant. I was delighted and when I was interviewed it became obvious that my background as a chaplain with a Masters Degree in Divinity and also in Education would finally be utilized. I never dreamed that eventually I would be working across the community in Capitol Hill, the Colorado General Assembly and the City and County of Denver on human relations with policy makers and advocates even though I already had been doing public speaking, testifying and writing on these matters for more than a decade. Denver's Road Home, the ten year plan to end homelessness in the City and County of Denver, was my calling to direct my interests and hone my skills. I was able to cross two worlds, one of poverty and loss of spirit and the other of being one of the decision and policy makers for change as to how policy makers integrate homeless citizens in all aspects of the government. We became partners and are not a public nuisance, as some neighbors complain .
I am filled with grace but I am also conscious of what sacrifices that I have made on behalf of my personal life, and practice of the day to day discipline of earning a living. Simply stated, I would not have done what I did and I would never have taken the time to work in these endeavors with those who are cut off, and cared for myself without the social service providers and the programs that persevered in providing a mantle of safety, after I had abandoned sense and wisdom, forgetting my heritage and my spirit.
I literally went from one cauldron to the next, raw and eviscerated from the turmoil in my mind. I have lived with bipolar disorder for more than five decades and in that time I have adapted, as the first psychiatrist observed, “by being able to accept the tumultuous dark clouds and storms, as well as the reckless driving demands of a life that rose, flowed, ebbed and crashed on the breakers of the beach like a marooned starfish.” There was no one upstream to throw me back in and I felt urgently a need to turn and gut out the vulnerable and desperate situation in the terror of the cacophony of the crying gulls in my head.
When I attended Iliff School of Theology in 1979 it was noted that I had already earned a Masters Degree in Guidance and Counseling from Bank Street College of Education, three years earlier and that I had worked in the prestigious street pad of Covenant House, for nomadic and wayward youth in Greenwich Village, New York City. I graduated from Bank Street College of Education in 1976, by writing a thesis on what it was like for a middle class white male from a suburb of Philadelphia to create a dynamic relationship with someone who, for example, would come to the door of the house, in the middle of the night when I was the house manager and threaten to stab me if I did not let the person in.
In those eventful, fitful days I was perceived as a vulnerable, precocious child who sat for my thesis in the first semester of graduate school in the Department of Education. I was riding my bicycle from one end of Manhattan or running, from the work I did at night to the bookstore where I was a clerk on a scholarship and work study. I was studying group process and sociology with the best that New York had to offer and working with the most troubled youth in the nation, and with the most able street out reach workers in the business. My thesis was about being quiet and listening. When a young person wanted to trust you this required listening to the bizarre swings, the sexual dependency, the use of substances and the quality of their precarious lives. In fact, most of the young people who came to the programs frightened me because they reminded me of how terrifyied I felt about being an adult.
On the last day I was in New York City, I peddled my bicycle100 miles back to Philadelphia to the protective environment, not of my family, but of the camp I would come to manage called Woodrock, Inc. I worked forty miles northwest of the city on Fellowship Farm's ten acres of woods in a program on platforms and with a lodge that was the meeting ground for the leadership training and anti-violence and racism program of North Philadelphia. Ten years later I became the director after completing the program at Iliff, and working as a chaplain in Tucson, Arizona at St. Mary's Hospice.
When I first strolled into the lodge at the camp I was a boy learning to navigate with my sense of wonder and enthusiasm and at the same time I was scared that I would fail. My assigned campers were far more sophisticated and aware than I ever have been and they were almost the same age. All three of my children would come to participate in the camp program along with most of the cousins of my wife's Latina family. We were a symbol of the "mestizo" culture of Jewish suburban and Puerto Rican heritage. Many people flocked to us because we were young and naive. They witnessed the sense of desire and elan that marked my manic states and the ambition to provide a safe place in the woods an hour from the urban landscape to learn and gain insight into human relations, "that we are all the same, when I look into the mirror I see you and when you look back there I am staring back at you, smiling." We had an obligation to be fully engaged and developed a peaceful and responsible role as citizens no matter what, how hard and how we had to stand and be counted.
Most of those children and their families, who were never out of the city, came to see that at Woodrock there was a place where everyone belonged. Still there are members of the staff and community who feel that this was the best and most challenging place that they have ever lived. On New Year's Eve for years we took a group to Rickett's Glenn and stayed on the crystal palace of the fjords that graced the miles of flumes from years of glaciers and eroding rock. We slept on the edge of Lake Jean on the frozen wilderness much the same as it is outside at this moment. We fought the urge to give in and remained because we believed that this was the way to say thank you for the finite responsibility of being alive and of making a difference as a clan. Many of these same wayward young people came years and years later pleading with me that we return. Ironically it was one of the most dangerous trips that we ever embarked on. For a bipolar person it meant a chance to test the limits of my endurance. It was no accident that in dealing with my education and fear that I overcame both in order to cross the line to tell people in charge, “that unless you listen to the views and expectations of the impoverished that your programs were all doomed to fail.”
It became crystal clear that we need to make an alliance among the homeless to define our solutions and that in all cases that the homeless do more than half of the work that makes Denver's Road Home and all of the Governor's expectations real. I said this to the Policy Academy of the Federal Inter-Agency Council on Chronic Homelessness and in testifying before the "Housing First," eleven grantees in Washington D.C. on the benefits of evaluation that includes and lifts up their perspective as to whether this makes sense. I became the president of the board of the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative, the seven county Metro Denver continuum of care, which brings fourteen million dollars here from Congress. I also have had a stake in a grass roots movement to create a safe place for people to live outside and a council of homeless people and providers to change the nature of reality for others because we dare to say, “We can.”
No one can minimize the threats and values of encompassing those who are marginally treated by the whole of the nation and lifting their situation up to be counted on to define what matters most in the quality of their lives. I spend as much time now as ever before in one simple mantra, listening to people. I continue to be trusted and valued as I once was as a peach fuzz boy, not because I know anything, but because I respond to the humanity of the person who is in front of me as an equal partner, a member of the Talking Circle, a person who practices the Red Road Way, with love and awakened consciousness, with serenity and loving kindness.
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