Working with the Homeless Made Me a Better Person—and Artist

The Street Kid: A Beautiful Journey
Phoenix Rises.

13891827_648788195277646_6466477065443768833_nThe street kid has been a prominent metaphor throughout my fiction, and there is a reason for this. In fact one could argue, I am The Street Kid. I go by Phoenix, Phoenix The Street Kid, and this is because of the way that I have attached meaning to the idea of a street kid just trying to make it in the world, expressing their innocence and resourcefulness, just trying to survive. I have a very picaresque idea of the young homeless kid, and this has no doubt influenced my perception of the homeless and my writing. Serving those experiencing homelessness has also influenced my writing and vice versa. My writing and my life would be very different if I didn’t serve the homeless population.I am proud of my association, of associating the study of homelessness with my writing. My first real foray into trying to understand homelessness, as well as alienation and detachment from society, can be seen in my third book, The Street Kid. It follows myself, Phoenix The Street Kid, imagined as a homeless kid just trying to survive, but with a troubled past and a heavy disposition towards sadness. While the plot is dictated by certain delusions and flights of fancy that I was having at certain periods of my life, the metaphor of the street kid is still very apt. Especially when considering that we know that homeless people suffer from mental illness and that my depiction, while fictional (I was never homeless myself, though I almost came close twice), is still true in its own, highly symbolic way.

I feel like that book would not have been the same if I had used another metaphor or another archetype. It would have been limiting, in fact, because it wouldn’t have captured the innocence and desperation that I imagine street kids to feel. Unfortunately, in my day-to-day life and work, I have rarely worked with street kids, but the metaphor is still alive and well in my mind and imagination. To me, it certainly represents innocence, as well as hope: the desire of the street kid to push through his or her barriers, and dare I say I, perhaps like John Clare, the Romantic peasant poet, romanticize the poor and the marginalized.

What is going on here? Well, it is difficult to say. I am not sure why the street kid hasClifford_Hall,_Homeless,_1940. been such a prominent metaphor in my life and in my work, where even I myself adopt the identity of a street kid. But I suppose there is a very real sense in which I romanticize homelessness, I see it as a more pure state of being, one that goes against the dominant system of our time and of the West, capitalism and consumerism, as well as hierarchy and power. I see homeless people as living on less, perhaps like the Jains or Buddhists, and perhaps I don’t understand the suffering of these poor folk as much as I should.

Real life, indeed, shows something wildly different from my intuitive, immediate perspectives, or at least not the same way as my vision and romanticization. Real life, which I have processed since I have been serving the homeless, for about three to four years now, is much more brutal, and certainly, less forgiving. There is a loss there for me. Those who are homeless suffer from a variety of diseases and sicknesses, some of which could be prevented if they had access to medical care. They are hungry, as well, emaciated and starved, and there is a sense in which, when I think about the shelters where I work downtown, there is actual destitution, as well as prostitution, and desperation. But I have learned not to judge this, as I do my work to serve the homeless. This is because it is uncaring citizens of the city who have put these people here because they have no other place to go. The way I understand it because we seek to put a bandage over the bleeding problem of societal greed and excess apathy, simply brushing over these people and sweeping them away, the problem of homelessness is not solved; essentially, our lack of compassion kills people, and forces them in unwanted and unbearable situations. Many people want to see this scene I describe as a waste, as squalor and destitution, as people that don’t want to do work and just want to do drugs. It is amazing how the poor are vilified by wealthy people, as well as political leaders and even the middle class. Even the poor hate themselves and the population at times. Maybe there is some degree of truth to what people think, and there are certain things that I have had to acknowledge for myself and my understanding of the homeless, but we must also give the benefit of the doubt. I have learned that we don’t necessarily know what is going on in their lives, and it is not our place to judge.

This is a deep observation, one that took time to formulate, and I have been hard-pressed to incorporate this vision into my writing. There is a sense that when I write, I still focus on innocence and the roots of rebellion, my idealized understanding of homelessness. I don’t necessarily talk about drug addiction, or the demands of society and work, or the destitution that comes itself from poverty, or the pains of starvation. I feel that for me, these things have been more symbolic, for me personally, as I work through the difficult truths of the people that I serve. I acknowledge it is far from black and white.


And yet, I would still say that working with those who suffer from extreme poverty still impacts my writing on a daily basis, besides writing about innocence. This is because my writing tends to be imbued with a sense of compassion, compassion of which I have learned by way of serving the homeless, and have cultivated. The compassion is an important point, I would say, because it teaches me things about human nature and humanity itself. Indeed, we don’t always understand the plight of people, and definitely, depicting the poor is not necessarily as simple as what you may find in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables (fantastic book though it was). I was actually really surprised when I learned this, and this is because I thought that Les Miserables was the perfect representation of the poor, at least until I started serving the population myself. This, however, makes the book that much more valuable and meaningful, and important. I could never write a book like Les Miserables, with its complexity and its beautiful characterization of hard-luck characters. But the truth is much more complicated.

Actually, the books that help me understand poverty are books that take on the subject not by trying to make it literary and grand, but rather, by trying to film it, as it were, and depict it with a modern realism, inspired to a degree by Naturalism (I think of Zola, for instance). Even though the book A Kestrel for a Knave romanticized the poor to a degree, there is a sense in which what you are seeing is how poverty operates as a system, and as a problem of the system. This book changed my perspective on the poor because it showed how class actually operates. While the main character Billy Caspers is not homeless, he is systematically pushed out of any hopeful future, by way of the ignorant powers that be. People don’t realize how smart and resourceful a poor person can be, especially a child: and yet, these people are continually denied opportunities, because we live in a system that rewards the rich and punishes the poor.

I have written an entire collection of essays that focus on just this topic, called The12790452674_d46b12265f_b Crumbling Mansions. My goal with this project was to write a straightforward account of what it is like to serve the poor, on the streets, in the heat of the moment. The interesting thing about the narrative arc of these essays is that the journey starts out with a lot of doubt, with me doing experimental things, like going down by the shelter just to hang out with the poor. As time goes by, and I get hooked up with those who want to serve the homeless as well, this quest is a little bit easier and more streamlined, but there is always still that strong level of detachment from the population that I am serving. And this, of course, has to be addressed. I have often thought of the ways that serving the homeless has kept me at a distance from the homeless, and this is because of the pernicious existence of class.

Karl Marx, the great political philosopher, economist, and socialist, is one of my favorite philosophers precisely for this reason. He was writing about the damaging effects of class and class structures, and how there is so much that we heap on to the poor as a society, without even being aware of it. I recall referencing Karl Marx in some of these essays. He offers an insight into my work with the homeless that is both philosophical and practical. And it certainly gets me to think.

The important thing about writing these essays was that, unlike my early fiction like The Street Kid, it didn’t seek to romanticize the homeless population, but rather, see this population on their own terms and record it almost biographically. I wouldn’t be surprised if some people have an internalized romanticization of homeless people, simply because they assume that the poor are free in certain ways, because they are not chained down by a job, and in a sense, are vagabonding and don’t answer to the same social demands as a person with money. I still nonetheless would not criticize this perspective, however, and that is because we don’t understand things just by focusing on a certain degree of realism. We understand things by starting to create a myth and a narrative, and this helps us avoid stereotypes because it means it is our own perception of the poor, one that we are constantly working through, to make more accurate and more correct. It is the tension between idealism and realism, and those two concepts are in tension in my own work and art, and I also think in the minds of those who think about the poor.

But this process for me is always evolving, as I learn more and accumulate more data, and articulate more. In my experience personally, I seem to have moved on from a more romanticized version of homelessness to one that included the ugly and unpleasant complexities and show that being homeless is more than just a black-and-white issue. I feel like I can see this element and transition at work in my much later mythology of Phoenix, my short story collection The Firebird Flies over Arizona. I feel one of the strengths of this collection is that it shows the pain of those experiencing homelessness without seeking to filter it through a lens of innocence, it shows that life is not easy if you’re homeless, though this is certainly what some people think. But they couldn’t be any more wrong. As I said before, the plight of the homeless is not black and white. It is nuanced and complex, taking a lifetime to understand, and we must keep this in mind.

I have become a better writer because of my work with the poor, I have advocated for them in a variety of ways, taken notes on the situation in Salt Lake City; I have served directly with them, I have served them meals, and I am more compassionate towards them as well. It is a cliché, but people deserve to be treated like people, with humanity and dignity. It is really disappointing because, in Salt Lake City, we are praised for treating our homeless population well. But through my observations of working down on the ground floor of the homeless themselves, I see the pernicious and damaging tactics that are used against them, quite honestly in a way that is reminiscent of war tactics. We think that we can just shove the homeless away from us, away from the city, and somehow or another, “solve” the problem of homelessness. But stuff like this is just another reinforcement of class structures, the idea that without money, you are useless to society, and a burden. I have learned to criticize these beliefs both externally and internally, and while I would acknowledge that I don’t have it all figured out, that I don’t know what all of the details are, I believe I am a better person because of it. And something like that gives me a lot of hope, to think that I am on the side of justice and equality and that I don’t stereotype and stigmatize the homeless the way so many people do, which happens so often in our society. Often times we don’t realize that homelessness is a symptom of a much larger problem, a problem that also systematically impacts other people (though in different ways), such as women, the gay community, or African-Americans. It is, in some ways, the same kind of prejudice, which we must avoid.


Writing and serving has definitely been an adventure. I call it a beautiful journey because there is good in trying to see the good in a stranger. It is the pain that makes us stronger. There is a reason why I identify with the idea of the street kid, the idea of being a literal street kid. I feel like in some metaphorical ways, I personify this struggle and this symbol. I still see the metaphor of the street kid as an important guide to looking at our cruel system, providing a general outlook on life that is less hasty, and less black and white. I feel like in many ways, because of my work with the homeless and because of my own internal mythology, I have embodied The Street Kid in all of his beautiful and subtle ways. I am Phoenix for a reason, of course, and indeed, I have crafted a mythology that I think helps me see the truth, and helps me understand the world and the world of the poor. This feeling gives me a lot of hope because it means that I identify with that entire group of people and that I care about them, and don’t wish to see them marginalized or hurt anymore. And I suppose, in my fight for justice, my writing and serving have helped make my world a more tolerant place. Certainly, there are worse things.

phoenixPhoenix has written over forty books and has published everything from works of fiction, to poetry, to philosophy. Phoenix has enjoyed writing since he was a little kid, and he finds much importance and truth in creative expression. He hopes to inspire people with his writing, as well as ask difficult questions about the world and about the universe. Phoenix currently resides in Salt Lake City, Utah, and he spends much of his time reading books of philosophy, science, and literature, as well as writing, and working on other books. He recently completed a philosophical dialogue called Kid Logic, and he is currently working on his book Mind Warp, a foray into the fantastical and the philosophical. He hopes to imbue his writing with a sensitivity and gentleness, along with a boldness of expression and a confrontation of darkness. Phoenix hopes that you enjoy his writing, and that you find it meaningful. The world is a place full of possibility, and Phoenix hopes we always remember this.

Click here to find Phoenix’s books at his Amazon author page .

Click here to visit his blog.

Visit his Facebook author page here.


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