Tag Archives: homeless

The Eff Word.

Prepare to be offended if you dare.  If colorful language offends you, if choosing to not find fault in a person’s HIV status offends you, well, maybe you should just eff off.  Just to set the tone. And next time I need to use it, it won’t just be the eff word.

I am going to paint you several scenarios.

Firstly, a homeless family squatting in an abandoned building.  A mother and her two babies.  Mum rifles through garbage overnight to find resellables: cans, copper wire, water bottles.  She makes about $2 on a good night, less than twenty cents on a bad one.  She found out she was HIV positive five years ago when her husband fell ill.  She soon found out that her elder son was also positive.  So here is my first point that may cause offence: does it make you feel better that she was exposed to the virus by her husband?  Would you feel less empathy toward an individual that was an intravenous drug user? A prostitute? Do you need to feel that a “victim”is innocent?  Does there need to be a “victim?” Does there need to be an “innocent?”  Is it her husband’s “fault?” Does someone have to be at “fault?” Can’t it just suck that this disease exists? And that this woman lost her husband, her job, her home, her friends, her life, her dignity to it?

Secondly, an international charity organization.  An organization that has charged itself with the noble deed of assisting homeless HIV+ individuals and families gain access to medical care, housing, personal income production – without taking the children away and leaving the parents to die.  The kind of organization I would give my own personal dollars to, based on the above.

Thirdly, donors.  Donors that want to help children, babies, with HIV.  Donors that want results: statistics of improved health, education.  Donors that forget to ask about the baby mommas and pappas.  And the unconditional love that those baby momma’s and pappa’s can give.  And if those momma’s and pappa’s have sadly passed, donors should ask about grandma and grandpa, aunty and uncle, sister and brother.  Because empowering a family to take care of their own is in the best interests of the babies and children.  And it is far more cost effective than the Dickensian model of institutionalization that is sometimes irrationally favoured.  Why go to the trouble and expense of building an orphanage when you could improve the foundation of a family?  Why?

So back to scenario one.  Why on earth is this family living/dying in filth? Particularly when HIV is one of the better funded issues in this country.  Millions have poured in over the years so there should be options – surely?  At the risk of oversimplifying, there are two basic reasons and I hope they both shock you – because they are both laugh out loud ridiculous.  And they both relate to the second and third scenarios.  Let’s start with the third. There is an acronym that is the politically correct way of referring to beneficiaries who are HIV+.  It is PLHA and it stands for people living with HIV / AIDS.  But in my recent experience it should stand for PDHA, switching the living to the dying.  And I believe that donors should use this is an indicator, a bench mark, they should request the organizations they fund to convert people from PDHA to PLHA.  And their “PEOPLE” should not just be children, their “PEOPLE” should be people.  And don’t limit yourselves to children and mum’s and dad’s.  What about those without kids?  They are somebody’s kid, brother, sister.  They are somebody.  And they don’t deserve to be ignored either.  I believe that when people switch from PDHA to PLHA, they are the most powerful advocates a community can have in relation to HIV awareness and prevention, thus reducing the cost of community education in awareness and prevention, effectually nullifying it in fact.  But I have digressed as usual.  The point I was trying to make is that there are simply not organizations out there to refer this case to.  They don’t exist (or at least barely exist).  Not because no one has thought to indiscriminately assist PDHA /PLHA.  But because there is no money in it.  It isn’t sexy enough.  Emaciated, sick kids = $$. Empowering families to take care of their own is not so sexy.   I can call numerous organizations right now and they will swoop in and take both kids off this momma, give them access to medical care, food and education.  If the kids are extra lucky they will get to see their mum from time to time.  While she slowly dies alone.  I told this momma as much but she already knew.  And it torments her.  And no momma should ever have to consider such a decision, especially when her kids are the reason she fights everyday for their collective existence.

But we did find one.  We found an organization to help.  Residential, medical, followed up with income production after they gained their health.  Refer scenario 2.  BUT.  I have found more and more that there is almost always a BUT.

I didn’t mention earlier that there is more than one family group in this situation.  They have met over the years and have come to live together for support and protection.  They help each other out when they are sick, didn’t find enough cans, need a laugh or a cry.  Their emotions change on a daily basis.  Bitter, angry, happy, grateful.  Hot, hungry, thirsty, sick, dirty, clean.  It makes me uncomfortable when they cry over receiving a meal.  Because nobody should ever be that desperate.  But they are also feisty.  I admire their feistiness.  It is a strong indicator that they haven’t given up yet.  They curse – a lot.  Cursing is my personal strength in the local language.  I know how to differentiate between cursing for emphasis, for anger, for insult, for a laugh.  And even if I didn’t, I wouldn’t begrudge these individuals, these people, the self expression that swearing can provide.  Which brings me onto the second reason.

So finally, two weeks after contacting aforementioned organization and confirming there were vacancies in their program, their field worker visited, and left soon after.  They had met in the past.  And the field worker said they had been exited from the program for cursing staff.  Fuck your mother.  Those three words.  Granted, it was repeated, again and again and again. Fuck your mother! Fuck your mother! Fuck your mother! Joi mei mai! Joi mei mai! Joi mei mai!  But really?  Come on.  Add a layer of skin or ten before engaging in your line of work.  If they had shoes to wear you should try standing in them, maybe have a walk around, as Atticus Finch would advise.  Because maybe then you would join the Joi mei mai chorus, rather than deciding that somebody deserves to die in filth for their potty mouth.

So back to donors.  Do you ask charities their beneficiary “exit policy” before you give them all those dollars?  Are you asking for unrealistic expectations of “successes” for your dollars that are pushing them to force out those that don’t conform, the harder cases?

Charities: do you feel so pressed to present the families that you saved to the donors and the world that you feel ok about showing the door to the ones you think might take too long?  Or are harder to deal with? That have anger to express that comes in the exultation of the Eff word?  Did you forget what the money was entrusted to you for?  To help those that need it most? Or do you expect people to bow and scrape and show how desperately grateful they are in order for you to spend somebody elses’s money on them?

I really wanted to add in religion.  Because there is religion involved in this.  But then this post may never end.  And I don’t want too much hate mail this week.   I am tired and angry enough.  But don’t worry, I’m wearing my extra layers of skin so if I’ve made you mad enough to curse my mother – bring it on!  She won’t mind a bit, she taught me well enough to understand that most insults you receive in life are misdirected, sometimes you just get in the way of the anger.  And sometimes that can be the best thing you do for a person: let them get the anger out.  So let it out.

But really, what to do?  Ridiculous is that we even came across these families because they should have already been assisted and should be doing well on their own as PLHA.

The joy is one of the other mothers gave birth to a beautiful baby boy the other day.  Amongst the filth.

And the funny is that he is the cleanest thing there.  At least for now.  And she hasn’t named him yet, but she is leaning towards the Khmer word for “hurry”.  Because he was quick, too quick for her to get to the hospital.  But he better grow up quick if he wants to get to know his mum.  So maybe it is the best name in the world for this beautiful little boy.


The Anarchy Block.

“Where are they sleeping since they were evicted? On the street?”

“No.  They are in the anarchy block.  That is why they do not want the teenage girl to stay with them.  It is too dangerous.  Something bad will happen to her.  The mother says she can keep the baby and three year old safe, but not the girl.”

Anarchy block is a term that one of my colleagues uses to describe only the worst places he can imagine.  Concentrated pockets of drug use, homelessness, malnutrition, abuse, desperation.  The sort of things people imagine when they hear the word slum.

I used to live in an area that was known as a slum.  The reality of the area was quite different to common perceptions of the place.  There was poverty, there were houses that didn’t have running water, there was drug use and domestic violence.  But there was also community.  There was a thriving economy.  It was home.  Until the evictions.  These days I am hesitant to call any area a slum because of the negative implications is conjures up, although I have been guilty of throwing the term around in the past. But I digress…

In this case the anarchy block was an abandoned four-story guesthouse that formerly housed numerous rooms rented out by the hour.  From the outside it appeared empty. Every item of value had been removed from the premises.  The toilets and plumbing fittings, the copper stripped from the electrical wiring, the windows, the doors, the bannisters that once kept the stairwell relatively safe – all gone and sold as scrap.  The building was littered with rubbish.  Plastic bags, used condoms, fish bones, smashed concrete, broken glass, burnt foil.  The bitter smell of human waste was overwhelming and grew worse as we ascended the stairs.


I was shown to a room on the third floor with a filthy blanket hanging where a door used to be.  Surprisingly, behind the blanket, the floor was dirt free.  A mattress lay on the floor and a woman was sound asleep, oblivious to our presence.  In sheer contrast, the room that was previously a bathroom was littered with rubbish.  I asked where people go to the toilet and was told that they all go outside to the vacant block next door during the day.  I was shown to several rooms down the hall where the stench indicated that this was the general area where people relieved themselves overnight (yes, it is the next photo.)  Unless armed with a torch, the stairwell is a deathtrap.  A wide sheer drop to the ground floor, unfettered by a barrier, combined with a thick layer of dust over slippery, smooth stone tiles made it risky to climb even in daylight, as I had experienced on the way up.


The thing that I found most confronting about visiting this Anarchy Block was not the men openly smoking methamphetamine in the hallways, or the presence of human feces, nor the higher than expected numbers of occupants inside.  It was the complete lack of reaction to danger or repulsion of the three year old girl whose mother we were there to visit.   She witnessed the men smoking meth from tin foil and didn’t bat an eyelid.  She stepped over the piles of shit with precision, as though it was completely expected that it should be on the floor where it lay.  She didn’t complain about the putrid smell.  In fact, she was happy.  And I hope that I always find that acceptance of an awful situation confronting.

I see people buying ice creams for the street kids in the touristy parts of this city because they feel sad that these kids go without.  Without clean clothes, without toys…  I see this as a case of want versus needs.  Children want toys and ice cream.  As they should.  But what they need is a home that isn’t littered with human waste, which has access to water; they should have numerous meals every day, access to education and medical care.  I worry that the perception is wrong.  That even well-intentioned people really don’t understand how bad the bad really is.  And the deliciousness of passion fruit sorbet just might make the filth that they climb through every day that little bit harder to bear.

I am relieved that the three year old wasn’t horrified about spending those few nights in Anarchy Block, that she was oblivious to her situation.   And I am happy that her family will never spend another minute there.  I am happy that she will learn that poo should be flushed away never to be seen again – not left to linger with its unseen bacterial occupants on board. I am happy that she will learn that not all grown-ups smoke meth.  That her tummy won’t hurt all the time if she eats several times a day.  And that she will get to know her “slum” rather than the “Anarchy Block” as her community.  A place where bad things happen, but so do good things, just like all neighborhoods.  I am looking forward to working with her mother, who loves her children very much, as she takes the steps toward financial stability for her family.  Because family should be together.  And no-one will ever love that little girl as much as her mum does.  But most of all, I am glad that her big sister will never learn exactly what it was that her mother was trying to protect her from in the Anarchy Block.


So in the spirit of this new blog:

The joy – tomorrow is another day and for this family it will not be spent living in the Anarchy Block.

The funny – it took a larger than expected amount of soapy rinsing to get the smell of poo detached from my nasal follicles.  And soap up your nose is pretty funny.  Or at least it is after it is no longer up your nose.


The ridiculous – A few months ago I gave up a bunch of my old t-shirts that I had held onto for too long because I loved them too much, despite the fact that the outline of my belly button could clearly be seen by those who cared to look.  One of them was an Eazy E t-shirt that said “Eazy duz it” on the front and “Compton” on the back.  The teenage daughter in this family is the proud new owner of my beloved shirt and she just happened to be wearing it during our visit to the block.  I kinda loved that more than I can say.