Thoughts On Becoming Self-Sufficient and Defeating Personal Homelessness

A friend had recently asked me what it took for me to become self-sufficient and no longer be homeless.

Lets define the word ‘homeless’ first. There were times in my life, in the early 90s, when I found myself sleeping on the Frankford El, in a train station, on a bus, or in an illegal squat. I had a choice to go to a shelter. I did not. Mostly out of fear and ignorance. Today, I wouldn’t hesitate. For me, the state of homelessness is defined by not having a reliable single place to hang your coat, to be with friends, family, to receive mail, and to sleep at night. If you are in this boat – you are homeless.

There were a few reasons for me ending up in this situation. Some of which are outlined in older posts on my blog, others I have not shared and am not comfortable sharing. Maybe someday I will write more. I find it difficult to talk about and do so in bursts.

Here is a quick outline of some steps took for me to earn self-sufficiency:

  • A friend: Someone who will be a good reference. You will need this to find a job. I was blessed with a few great ones. Teachers and counselors would vouch for me too. Being on the honor roll counted for something in high school.
  • A virtual-home: A place to sleep and shower, a place to register on work applications. I wasn’t about to go to a shelter, or have a shelter listed as my residence. I slept on trains and in squats. I “showered” in fast food restaurant bathrooms or in showers without hot water (the absolute worst – I hate cold water). You will need someone to say you live at an address for work applications and to get phone messages. Again it was friends to the rescue. By lieing and saying I was living at their address, even though I wasn’t, I appeared “normal” to employeers.
  • Skills: Almost anything helps. 7-11 in a bad neighborhood was my ticket. They required little in the way of skills, and were willing to train. That helped for my next job.
  • Something to eat: A job at 7-11 midnight shift. Guess where my primary source of food came from?
  • Saving for your place: A huge obstacle to overcome. At near minimum wage it can take months to save for an apartment. Again, for me, it was friends to the rescue. Someone vouched for me to a landlord, and I made a deal to spread out paying my security deposit amongst several rent payments.
  • Transportation: Without it you will never hold or find a job. One of my priorities each month was to buy a SEPTA transpass. This was very important. You needed transportation to look for a job and hold one. You needed transportation to maintain contact with your friends. Sometimes you needed a transpass just to find a place to sleep. This was a higher priority then food. You can always “find” food. You gotta *buy* transportation.
  • Clean Clothes: You may have few clothes – but keep them clean no matter what. Shoddy clothes make it harder for people to trust you as responsible.
  • Realizing the road is incremental: You need to take things one step at a time. If you can only get an apartment, and not afford utilities, that is better then not having an apartment. Having the apartment will help you find a job that will pay enough for utilities. This is really difficult. I know a lot of people who get overwhelmed by expecting their goal to be achieved in one step. My experience tells me that’s a fairy tale. Things happen incrementally. Sometimes with the smallest of steps.
  • Use the Internet: While the Internet didn’t help me end my homelessness, it did help me work my way to a middle class career and has been a tool in maintaining it. Friends I met online helped get my resume to where I needed it seen, and countless web site and forum helped me learn the basics of computer programming. These days it is your doorway to many resources, including connecting with others working through the same issues you are facing. This last matter is most important. Knowing you are not alone and connecting helps face the day to day. This is emphasized in my next point.
  • People matter: I don’t think I would have had any progress without mentors, friends, and faith. When I speak of faith, I don’t speak of faith in the stereotypical sense. When I say faith… I mean faith that things can get better and that I *do* have a role in my outcome. I have freewill. As it says in ‘Seven Habits’, between stimulus and response I have the freedom to choose. That counts for something. When I say friends and mentors – well I would not be here today if it wasn’t for them. From Richelle, who has always believed in me, to my mothers at Sears (Mary, Joan, Paula), to various bosses along the way who became mentors and friends, Debbie, Sarah, Joe, Pat, Rajiv, to my brother Steve and my brother Dante, to Richelle’s parents whom I eventually won over. To all those who took a chance on me I owe so much thanks.
  • Try and be a ‘good person’ – don’t be an asshole: I do not believe that life is fair. Instant karma is bullshit. Bad things happen to good people and good things happen to bad people every day. So trying to ‘be good’ for some kind of reward is fruitless (at least in this world). What I *do* believe is that if you try to always do the right thing, if you work at being a good person everyday (you will fail sometimes, just *try* every day) – well you might find yourself with friends and family where you didn’t think you had any. In “All I Really Need to Know I Learned In Kindergarten” it says “When you go out into the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands, and stick together.”. That says it all really.

There are times when I feel like I am about to lose it all and end up back where I started. Sometimes, I look at a bench and want to curl up into a ball and sleep. There are times when I look at those I associate with, work with, hang out with, and feel… alien. These feelings are irrational, and thank goodness I can recognize them as such. It’s been over 15 years now – a half a life a way.

Most time I feel like the most blessed man on Earth, with a job and family that I need to pinch myself to believe I have. I am very, very blessed and thankful.

2009 is coming to a close. It’s been a big decade. Lots of ups, lots of change, lots of terrible horror. My history informs me that there can be light in the darkness, and hope can triumph over over the cold. So contrary to what you may think, I would not trade my experience for anything. It gives me valuable perspective. When I let it – it fuels my optimism. But its hard for those with tragedies so great and for many ongoing. My thoughts are with those who are fighting on and for those unable to fight.

Update: I’ve posted a followup to this detailing why this road is getting harder.

Jack Rose, 38, recently passed away from a heart attack

News and tributes to him have been posted across the Web.

YouTube: Jack Rose Kensington

The past few years I’ve been not paying attention to the awesome music around me and somehow I missed him entirely. He was too young. He and his music was well loved by many.

video via Susie Madrak.

I have some recordings I need to buy.

News and content based business models online links for thought

Both sides of the fence represented in the following links:

Tech Crunch: The End of Hand Crafted Content

Daily Patricia Daily Patricia – Dumb Things Media 2.0 Loves To Say

Doc Searls: The Revolution Will Not Be Intermediated

Jeff Jarvis: Content farms v. curating farmers

Paul Kedrosky: Dishwashers, and How Google Eats Its Own Tail

What is ETL and CMS?

You’re a programmer with a task to retrieve information from some source, manipulate and message it, and to deploy it somewhere.

Like all things in programming, there is an acronym for that: “ETL”.

ETL stands for Extract, Transform, and Load. The Wikipedia page is pretty thorough in its summary of the topic and reviews many of the typical functions an ETL process needs to take to accomplish its task.

The problem is ETL doesn’t roll off the tongue so easy. The acronym provides a weak set of metaphors for programmers to map familiar concepts to.

Rafe Colburn provides a great mental model to apply when developing ETL scripts and applications. It’s one I follow, but have lacked the words to describe. Go read his post.

Here’s a thought to challenge you if you are a CMS developer, now that you have read the above – are whatever forms you build to enable people to contribute and manage content in a CMS a kind of ETL process? Does the Wikipedia description for “Extract, Transform, and Load” contain functions there that you would expect a CMS to encompass?

And speaking of CMS, Gadgetopia has a terrific article on what a CMS system is. It is difficult to be clarifying in a world where hype and acronyms get thrown about so much (like this very post!) – but the Gadgetopia piece certainly is. It helps outline the functionality you should expect from a CMS implementation.

Emma’s first poem

My friend Howard Hall is a gifted poet who can coalesce a lot of truth in a few syllables. He’s been featuring among his poems handwritten pieces from others under the tag “secondhand haiku” on his blog (non-breaking space).

Emma has a way with words and stories which is just natural – all children have greater insight into the truth of our existence than we do I think. Over time, we simply forget, or we lose touch with it. I wondered if I could scribble down some sentences of hers, could they could be constructed into a haiku we could send? I had collected a pretty good list of sentences and phrases, but the eureka moment happened when I tried to share with Emma what a poem was. I don’t remember what I said, but when Emma explained it back to me, “When you draw with pictures and draw words, it’s a poem”, it was far better put then I had put it – I felt like I learned something from her. I retrieved “Color with crayons” from her list of sentences and phrases and read it back to her. I told Emma we were going to send it to Howard, that the two sentences were a certain kind of poem. She was pretty excited.

The next challenge was finding a way for her to write it. Emma can’t spell (except for a few words like her name, mommy and daddy) yet of course. She’s just 3 and 3/4 years old! But she can write each letter independently well. Richelle is very talented with visuals and Emma listens to her whenever they work on a project together, so she instructed Emma to write each letter of each word, reading them out as they went. Having her switch markers so that each line could be indicated by color was a smart idea. Emma drew some of her trademark characters (you gotta see the art all over the house!), and we scanned it in and sent it to Howard.

He featured it November 18th!

Emma's First Poem

Howard calls non-breaking space “a digital expression of an analog impulse”.

What better way to describe the core that drives so much of blogging, social networking, twittering, and just reaching out online? I can’t think of one.