Friday, February 06, 2009

Procedures and Networks

This week I watched homelessness begin, much of it from the window near where I am writing this blog entry.

I was at work for the actual moment of its inception, when -- on a cloudy Wednesday morning -- the sheriff came, and the locks were changed on an apartment unit near our alley. It had been occupied for over thirty years by a person who was now our former tenant, one whose mental illness had frightened and exhausted his neighbors in recent years.

Those who lived near him had endured months of blood-curdling shouting of threats and obscenities the in the middle of the night, smashed mailboxes and gates, torn-up paychecks and notices, stolen packages, disabled hot water heaters, and urine and human feces in the walkways. They were the audience for ugly confrontations in which their deranged fifty-eight-year-old neighbor would announce that he would kill them on their door stoops if they protested that they were in the right about issues of civility involving everyday conflicts about shared public space and the details of lights, garbage cans, and parking places.

I became practiced in making small talk with the police, who would knock on our door on a weekly and sometimes nightly basis. One time it was a mustachioed detective, who came with a dossier of photographs under his arm. I could see that there were shots of a woman's body covered with bruises.

Of course, we had delayed the inevitable as long as possible, because it was obvious that there were some organic factors involved. At first these changes made him docile and childlike. He wrote apologetic notes on legal pads expressing his fears that he may have neglected to pay his rent. Sometimes we would open our mailbox and there would be a half-dozen such notes crammed together with checks, as though he had forgotten each one as soon as it had been deposited in our box.

In the beginning, his expressions of helplessness were a welcome relief: he had always been a curmudgeonly presence in the neighborhood, the lone Republican in a block of liberal Democrats, who was likely to be drunkenly abusive to those who came to his door, especially women or people of color.

But, even during what now seems a honeymoon period, there were signs that we might not be able to handle his demands. He called to express outrage about the poor security conditions in the building. He reported that someone had broken into his apartment and had stolen his television, and he wanted repairs and perhaps even compensation. There was a broken window to support his claim, but we were puzzled when we found the television set in the garbage can. Later it came out that he had broken into his own apartment and had loudly announced his intentions before doing so, even when the other tenant-spectators pointed out that he could just wait a few minutes and enter through the door without causing any damage if he just made an emergency call to management for a key.

As his condition worsened, medical people and nurses came and went. Sometimes he seemed drugged. He shuffled around the bungalow courtyard as if puttering at imaginary chores. His car acquired more dents and then disappeared from the street entirely. We accepted the idea of having a premature senior citizen as our doddering and forgetful tenant.

Then he he began to send the home health aides away, and it was as though he had returned to being his former obstreperous self. He began to talk long striding walks in which he would glare contemptuously at street people and those he called "crackheads." When we would pass him during our own promenades, he clearly knew us and addressed us by name dismissively. He seemed alert and impatient during our attempts at neighborly interchanges.

Then he began to harass the other tenants, as if hoping they would move out and leave him in peace to perform what were becoming increasingly strange rituals. He threatened to shoot his neighbor across the way and bragged of owning "three guns." He threw himself and heavy furniture against the wall that he shared with another neighbor and would scowl at him menacingly when he stole his newspaper in the morning. They were afraid of him, but they were also afraid of what he might do if they called the police to file charges.

It took the better part of a year to evict him, despite a file of pleading letters from the other tenants. Before that, we spent a year trying to get him the full-time in-home care that he seemed to need. It was no use. He had turned away everyone we sent: a social worker, a health inspector, an entire psychiatric emergency team. Although we often felt like his victims, we even filed the paperwork to treat his case as possible elder abuse, in hopes that an investigation would get him the medical care and housekeeping assistance that he so obviously needed. Adult protective services told us that they couldn't help him if he refused care. Anyway, they said, he was fifty-eight and the cut-off for eligibility was sixty.

On the day of the lockout, no one came. His brother and caregiver were notified; they responded with outrage and obscenities but were no shows when it really mattered. He came back to try his key in the door. It rained. He came back again. It rained again. Like a caged animal, he tore up newspapers and made a bed for himself in them. He hiked down his pants and urinated in the greenery. It rained again. Every day the police were called. They had procedures too. We collected their business cards and slips with the incident numbers. One time, I watched him be cuffed on an outstanding warrant with his back turned obediently toward them. Another time, I watched the officers run into the alley to apprehend him after he had torn off a window screen and was bashing it up into a tool for more mayhem.

It made me think about computer games that purport to be games for change. The same kind of playable computer simulations for generating multiple outcomes from multiple factors that are currently used to raise consciousness about hunger, illness, and injustice could dramatize how homelessness begins as well. After all, homelessness can be seen as the product of the aggregation of rules and, as Ian Bogost might say, epitomizes the principles of procedurality. Too young to be judged senile, too old to be ruled dependent, too seemingly nonviolent for longterm lock-up, too violent for family living.

His lack of social networks also obviously played a role, since there was no one to come for him on the day that the locks were changed on his apartment. He had lived a solitary life: worked at home, never married, and avoided the church congregations and civic organizations and neighborhood associations that might have helped him when his behavior began to deteriorate.

My point is this: learning about distributed communication and computational media isn't just about gadgets and new technologies; it's about being able to model social dynamics as well and maybe even understand possible solutions to complicated and seemingly intractable problems like homelessness.

From my perspective, it's too late for this particular person. We're installing new gates. We're turning our address into a fortress. But this experience of seeing how homelessness happens in slow motion over the course of years makes me see people on the street differently and makes me wonder if the process is as inevitable as it can seem.

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