I’ve Been Watching Too Many Geico Commercials

It has been inexorably slow, but my life is returning to normal. After four nights on the street just over a month ago, I was admitted to the City of Fort Lauderdale’s sixty-day program for homeless individuals and families. A safe place to sleep and store my belongings has allowed me to look for a job, actually find one, and begin saving money towards an apartment. Apparently, if you are working, they’ll even consider extending your stay for another fourteen days to help you bank a little more cash.

The HAC, as it’s called, isn’t perfect. It does provide the proverbial three meals and a cot. Unfortunately, certain aspects of life there are reminiscent of the other type of housing to which that proverb commonly refers. Despite case workers willing to connect you with every available resource to help you get back on your feet, despite the library, computer lab, gymnasium, and two television rooms in the men’s wing–one for movies, the other for sports–despite the free medical, dental, and psychiatric services at your disposal, and despite the green courtyard replete with wi-fi hotspots, a smoker’s gazebo, a kid’s playground, and a fully functional bird bath for the chronically homeless pigeons, there is a disturbing undercurrent. The ubiquitous presence of cameras and security, as well as the strictly regimented curfew and schedule–the latter of which only allows you to pick up mail during one half hour pre-dawn and one in the evening, for instance–can sometimes make the facility feel like a minimum security prison.

Like Club Fed, there is only one way in and out, with your comings and goings tracked by a swipe of the barcoded picture ID which must be visible on your person at all times. Wearing a badge might not seem a big deal, especially considering many corporations expect the same from their employees. You don’t wear them at home, however, and the HAC is purported to be transitional housing. Institutionalizing it plays with the psyche–one would hope inadvertently–of those it serves, subversively distancing them from their goal of returning to a normal life.

If someone breaks curfew, fails to perform their daily chore, or acts out in some other form, a few keystrokes are all it takes to have their badge confiscated, with the offender placed under house arrest for a twenty-four to seventy-two hour period, Of course, unlike prison, there is also the option to leave. Regardless of the voluntary nature of the incarceration, however, it remains just that, coming uncomfortably close to criminalizing homelessness. Worse, when the picture ID is confiscated, it is replaced by a generic one, sans name, sans photo, When you consider such an action on a psychological level, its depersonalizing nature is inescapable. It’s also completely unnecessary. If the network can notify security to confiscate your badge, it can instead simply inform them the badge holder is not permitted to leave the premises.

Moreover, though it currently does not, the system could similarly pass on helpful information, such as whether a so-called “program participant” has mail. Which brings up another subtly divisive undercurrent. Given the minders who would be tasked with a bit more work at a keyboard and a bit less sitting in their stations chatting to realize the system’s full potential are known as residential coordinators, why am I not considered a resident?

Don’t misunderstand. On the whole, I am overwhelmingly grateful for the width and breadth of the assistance being given. I can’t imagine where I’d be without it. I also understand some of my fellow “program participants” are addicts, and a few others habitual criminals. The need for a measure of security isn’t lost on me. Still, I can’t help thinking the process could do with a little humanizing.

Thankfully, most of the residents at the HAC have a sense of humor regarding their difficulties, rather than resentment. In fact, while I haven’t met all of the two-hundred-plus residents here with me, even more when you consider the turnover rate of a half-dozen or so daily, it’s surprising how many are able to laugh easily. Of the residents I have encountered, perhaps only four or five (less than one in fifty) were too uptight for their own good, whereas the ratio among staff is nearer two to one.

Yesterday, for instance, I overheard in passing a conversation between my friend Troy and another resident, who I soon came to realize was one of those with an impaired funny bone. Troy is a wonderful person, and why wouldn’t I think so after he dropped the tailgate on his pickup so I could sit while waiting nearly an hour for the Homeless Task Force to escort us to the HAC on the day we were admitted. Rather than struggle to get in and out of the back seat of the Task Force van, Troy invited me to ride with him, and we quickly struck up a good rapport. He’s very engaging and easygoing, simultaneously courteous and quick-witted, a trick I wish I could manage more often. He will patiently listen to anyone, including me, without ever seeming bored or inconvenienced. The worst thing to be said about him is he’s taken a job at Wal-Mart.

In that moment, however, he was nodding politely while being advised on nutrition by a pudgy young man in a denim jacket.

“Honestly, it’s true. Beef hearts are very good for you.”

I couldn’t resist interjecting.

“That may be,” I said, “but who wants to stand behind a cow waiting for her to rip one off?”

“Huh?”

“And how do you catch the fumes?

“What?”

“You know, all that methane. And what do you feed the cows so they produce more?”

By this point, Troy, as courteous as he is, was laughing uncontrollably. The pudgemeister was completely clueless, however.

“What are you talking about?”

“Beef farts.”

“No, beef hearts.”

“Exactly. Beef farts. We’re totally on the same page.”

Troy is barely able to keep his seat, now, he’s laughing so hard. Fart jokes can do that to you. The other fellow wasn’t finding it funny, though. The way he was glowering at me had me thinking  if this had been the Far Side cartoon which his appearance brought to mind, rather than real life, smoke would be pouring from his ears. My work there done, I politely excused myself to make a few more people’s day before I headed off to a doctor’s appointment. Troy, I knew, would soon be off to his shift at Wal-Mart.

When I saw him in the evening, I wrinkled my nose and asked, “Ooh, what is that?”

Looking at me quizzically, he shrugged his shoulders while asking back, “What’s what?”

I don’t know,” I said with a straight face before dropping the punchline that sent him back into fits of laughter nearly twelve hours after the original episode. “Smells like beef farts.”

Yes. Humor is definitely therapeutic.

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