Instances of Discovery

Since August 2007 I have been a monthly columnist for the St. Cloud Times. My theme, taken from the mission statement of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, is “the renewal of human community.” The columns are republished here with permission of the St. Cloud Times.

Column #105. First published in the St. Cloud Times online Apr. 2 2016; in print Apr. 3

“Anybody home?” How it sounds depends on who’s saying it to whom. UPS driver delivering a package. Grandparents greeting grandkids. Federal agents with a warrant.

I recently heard it in a whole different context, one that gave it a somber meaning. It was near the beginning of “Time Out of Mind,” a 2014 movie starring Richard Gere that had a special screening at Parkwood Cinema last month, sponsored by the St. Cloud Coalition for Homeless Men.

You hear “Richard Gere,” you think wealthy corporate raider Edward Lewis in 1990’s “Pretty Woman.” Forget it.

In “Time Out of Mind,” Gere is George: homeless, jobless, estranged from his daughter. The movie begins with a building manager’s ejecting him from a makeshift bathtub bed in an abandoned apartment.  And very soon after, we hear a voice asking, “Anybody home?”

The movie is an unblinking, relentless riff on that question turned inside out: “Home, anybody?”

“Homelessness” is one of those nouns that play tricks on us. We think that when we’ve named something we’ve “got it,” understand it, and can move on to something else.

But homelessness is not static, not fixed, not even knowable for those of us who have homes to go to every night and wake up in every morning.

I was riveted by “Time Out of Mind” because it stretches homelessness across days and nights and weeks and months, from winter to spring. It’s usually a reproach to a movie to say “it seems long,” but in this case that is part of its brilliance as story and lesson.

The movie manages to convey at a visceral level several realities of homelessness.

First, invisibility. In scene after scene, the life of New York City swirls around George — people coming and going in cars and taxis, talking on cellphones, bopping in to restaurants, flirting, arguing. It’s as if George isn’t there; he is truly hidden in plain sight.

In the discussion period after the movie, several of the men who experience homelessness right here every day — every day — acknowledged this invisibility is lived reality. The people you see on the street corners holding signs and asking for help are a tiny fraction of the homeless, almost all of whom are, well, invisible. And here’s a situation right out of Kafka or Vonnegut: you’re homeless and need a post office box, but you can’t get a post office box unless you have a fixed address.

Second, the pattern of denial. Time and again when someone asks George how he is, he says “Fine” or “OK.”  He has clearly internalized the opinion the public generally has about the homeless — that they should be ashamed, that not having a home is their fault, their own fault, their own great fault. To deflect judgment, George sometimes replies, “I’m in transition.”

In the discussion period we heard George’s behavior is common and familiar.  No one wants to say how bad it is.

Third, the noise. I used to think “sound mixing” an esoteric Academy Award category, but no longer. To be sure, New York is louder, more frenzied than St. Cloud, but it’s Big Apple to small apple, not apples and oranges. George is almost never in a silent place. Sirens, horns, jackhammers, pagers in the emergency room, the unstoppable talkers in the shelters — the din is incessant. I hadn’t realized before how precious is the quiet that I take for granted inside our house. There are moments when Gere’s expression shows the almost superhuman effort it takes just to tune the racket out.

Fourth, the reality of shelters. We have to be grateful for The Salvation Army, and for the congregations committed to the Church of the Week program managed by Place of Hope — God bless ‘em! — but mats on church basement floors are no more appealing than the places on the screen at which George and many others line up every night — shelters with trained and paid staff, beds and lockers, but no real privacy.

Homelessness has moved into public consciousness in recent years, and lots of people and institutions and organizations are working to address it. But a March 24 Times story makes clear that the problem is staying ahead of the solutions: “Homelessness on the rise.”

By telling you what I learned from “Time Out of Mind,” I want to get you thinking about homelessness and wondering what can be done.  Next month I plan to talk about something that is quite counter-intuitive — a win-win scheme that has been tried and proved in cities, counties and states. It turns “Anybody home?” into “Home, anybody?”  It saves public money and increases social capital. I’m hoping to persuade you that we should try it.